Shapiro, Atkins admit failures in Cleveland, vow better for Blue Jays

Ross Atkins addressed the allegations against Mickey Callaway for inappropriate sexual conduct during his time with the Cleveland Indians, and spoke about the changes required to improve the culture around the game.

TORONTO – Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins insist they were not aware of any allegations of sexually inappropriate conduct against Mickey Callaway during their time together in Cleveland.

“Absolutely not,” said Shapiro, the Toronto Blue Jays president and CEO who addressed more than 300 staff members about the matter during a meeting Wednesday.

“No, I wasn’t,” added Atkins, the Blue Jays general manager. “I regret that.”

Shapiro accepted “accountability and responsibility for running a flawed culture and not creating a safe enough environment for people to come forward.”

Atkins, meanwhile, offered “my deepest apology to anyone that ever faced harassment, to anyone that didn’t feel comfortable coming forward,” during that time, describing any potential reluctance from staff “as a failure on my part.”

In making those public comments Thursday, the two executives who joined the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2015 season took more ownership of what happened with Callaway in Cleveland, thoroughly reported by Britt Ghiroli and Katie Strang of The Athletic, than the organization’s current front office.

They could have hidden behind Major League Baseball’s ongoing investigation. Instead, they were contrite, remorseful and committed to efforts around diversity and inclusion with the Blue Jays.

Still, in wading through the dense stew of corporate phraseology offered up by Shapiro during an interview with Sportsnet and the Toronto Star, and Atkins on a media call, it’s hard to reconcile how Callaway’s alleged actions could go so long without being reported and escalated up the ladder to them.

Shapiro called that, “a breakdown of both protocol and culture, definitively.”

Inherent to that breakdown is the murkier interplay between a traditional tolerance for misdeeds by top employees, the power dynamics between senior and subordinate staff, and the delicate delineation between what’s fair game for employers in the vetting process, and the improprieties employees are entitled to in their personal life.

Essentially, the fundamental determination each workplace must make is what kind of behaviour it is willing to accept. Then, those standards must be applied equally company-wide, something that traditionally hasn’t happened in baseball, or sports in general, where entitlement is often rife.

“Any time you work in an industry that's so outcome-based, if you don't truly create a safe, open environment, people tend to feel like someone is going to be rewarded on their direct contribution to wins and other things will be overlooked,” Shapiro said. “Whether it’s behaviour of a player that in the past may have been overlooked, or whether it's the behaviour of a coach, as an industry, sports, baseball has too often looked the other way based on contributions and not ensured that the values that they’re aspiring to reflect as an organization are a reflection of everyone. That's the best way I can frame that.”

Did that happen in Cleveland with Callaway?

Ghiroli and Strang interviewed 22 people to have interacted with him during his eight years there, including 12 current or former employees. “It was the worst-kept secret in the organization,” one employee told them.

A former pitcher told The Athletic that Callaway’s conduct was known as early in 2010 when he was hired to coach in the minor-leagues, The Athletic reporting that the coach “made inappropriate, sexualized comments about women and pursued them relentlessly.”

Still, Callaway’s star rose quickly, taking over as the big-league pitching coach under incoming manager Terry Francona for the 2013 season. According to The Athletic, he soon began pursuing women in the office and “five current or former employees say they were warned about Callaway by others, the message unambiguous: Stay away from him,” Ghiroli and Strang wrote.

They also detailed how, in 2015, a group of players' wives shared concerns about what they believed was his extramarital relationship with a woman around the team, a message relayed to at least one department head and another staffer. And that year he also brought another woman on road trips, according to the report.

All of the above would have occurred while Shapiro and Atkins were still in Cleveland. Other alleged misdeeds came after they left.

Speaking in general terms and not about specific incidents, Atkins said, “I am confident in saying there is no chance we would have overlooked anything like that had we known it, or had any signals or signs.”

Shapiro, to his credit, said he didn’t “draw a distinction between when I was there and was not there, because a lot of what's there now is a direct result of my 24 years” with Cleveland.

When asked if he had identified fault lines that might have allowed Callaway's behaviour to be overlooked in Cleveland, he first detailed a list of Blue Jays initiatives before replying that, “the past means that we weren't diverse enough. We weren't inclusive enough. And it was not a safe enough environment. I'm not as concerned about that right now. I'm concerned about are we doing a good enough job here and can we improve and enhance those efforts here.”

To that end, Shapiro said he knew immediately after The Athletic article came out that he needed to address Blue Jays staff.

Over the past year, after the killing of George Floyd and the wider re-examination of ongoing social injustices, he said he’s reflected on whether he was as open-minded and progressive as he believed himself to be, and whether he properly conveyed that to others.

He told staff that eliminating harassment and other workplace misconduct was something that they must “collectively take ownership of. We have to aspire to create an organization that truly does live those values.”

Accomplishing that may help women, often understandably reluctant to report incidents out of fear of emotional distress or inaction, level the power imbalances they often face in the workplace, an issue Shapiro called “the core question.”

“It can't be about just one person,” Shapiro continued. “It's got to be about leadership at every level all the way down. And there's got to be a comfort level. Fail-safes that are in place for that would be that there are multiple opportunities for people to come forward if that occurs. It doesn't have to be just coming to me. It could be an anonymous phone call to either an MLB hotline or our HR hotline. It could be a conversation going to any leader in the organization they feel comfortable with. There's got to be multiple opportunities for that person to come forward in any way that she or he feels safe doing it. That removes the power dynamic from it.

“And then there has to be an underlying expectation that we want that to happen,” he continued. “And that was my message yesterday. We need that. And we want that. That's not just a, hey, if it occurs, this is here for you. No. It's we need that to be the organization we want to be. We need you to come forward if this happens.”

Ideally, though, the employee vetting process prevents that from ever being necessary.

In a 2017 column by Joel Sherman of the New York Post after Callaway was hired as Mets manager, Atkins repeatedly praised Callaway and raved about the way he interviewed for a minor-league pitching co-ordinator post. “Some guys just stand out, and it was obvious from the beginning with Mickey — the intellect and authenticity,” Atkins told Sherman. “I thought we will continue the process, but I am offering this guy a job. I was thinking I am not letting this guy interview for the Boston Red Sox or whatever. I’m not going to compete for him. I’m going to hire him.”

Now?

“The information I had was flawed,” said Atkins, adding later: “Our process clearly was not good enough.”

Mickey Callaway in the dugout during his tenure with the New York Mets. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

That process has since evolved, and the Blue Jays run job candidates through a multi-step process that involves people from across the organization. By the end of it, they should have a pretty good idea of what to expect from a candidate professionally.

Understanding the personal side is more complicated and potentially opens up a Pandora’s Box. What does an employer have the right to know about in someone’s life outside the office, and is it fair to use that as a barometer of whether that person could be a threat to others in the workplace?

“I've always felt like an important part of the hiring process is to recreate a full dimensional view of that person, which means we need to talk to people that they worked for, that have worked for them and that have worked with them,” said Shapiro. “In today's workplace and especially in environments like this that are so immersive, 90 per cent of the time you're going to get a pretty good window into how that person conducts themselves interpersonally in a professional environment. We're not here to be detectives and to try to delve into someone's personal life.

“I would probably say every single person has things in their personal lives they're not proud of and are imperfections,” he continued. “There is clearly a line. And those lines are a reflection of the values that we need to aspire to represent. We're concerned more about how someone conducts themselves in their professional environment, and do they uphold the values that we think are essential to the Toronto Blue Jays.”

An old adage in baseball is that the degree of drama a player can cause is tied commensurately to his talent level, meaning as long as a player is performing, he can get away with things. Perhaps that’s how men like Callaway or Jared Porter, the former New York Mets GM fired after an ESPN report detailed his prolonged harassment of a female reporter, can skirt by with supposedly impeccable reputations for so long.

Ending the incongruence between societal norms and sports organizations is overdue.

“I still think a lot of that comes down to what leaders are willing to accept,” said Shapiro. “Too often in sport, people turn the other way based upon performance. Even fans do that to some extent. If that becomes the personal philosophy of an organization, are you willing to walk the walk or are you just going to talk the talk?”

Major League Baseball’s investigation into Callaway is ongoing. There may very well be more details to come on what transpired in Cleveland. Most relevant now for the Blue Jays is that Shapiro and Atkins have both talked the talk on keeping their organization safe for women, and are now to be judged on whether they walk the walk.

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