TORONTO – Mark Shapiro is well-versed enough in the art of navigating difficult questions that if he wants to give a non-answer, he certainly knows how. On Wednesday, when I asked if his expiring contract as president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays had been extended, it seemed like he was going to Connor McDavid his way through the matter.
Then, after the usual stuff about how much he enjoys living in Toronto, wants to remain in the city and intends to “finish the job” of rebuilding the club into a championship contender after this year’s playoff appearance, Shapiro cleverly planted an answer inside his non-answer.
“The desire to be here long term has been reciprocated by the people I work for,” said Shapiro. “That’s as simple as I can be for you. I’ll be here until I’m not here. Based upon my desire to be here and the reciprocation of that, I would expect that that’s going to continue to happen.”
Now, as simple as he can be would have been a “Yes, my contract has been extended,” or a “No, my contract hasn’t been extended yet, but it’ll get done.” Better to not make everyone parse words. Since we’re here, though, there’s no way Shapiro would say such a thing publicly if the five-year deal he signed upon arrival in November 2015 wasn’t either already extended, or in the final stages of renewal.
To do so otherwise would be a reckless attempt at strong-arming team owner Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns this website, into signing a new deal. Shapiro isn’t doing that, which is why you have to think an extension is all but done, if not signed and sealed.
Why the chicanery, then?
A fanbase deserves transparency about the terms of a team’s leadership when the organization is, in part, a public trust. And since players, managers and coaches all have to perform with their contractual status up for debate in the public domain, why shouldn’t executives like Shapiro have to do the same?
“To me, when things are going well, there's not a lot of discussion about front-office executives,” replied Shapiro. “At least there shouldn't be. We're not celebrities. We're not stars. We're here to do a job and that job is ultimately for our fans, which is about the players in the field. It's more of an extension of the desire to have that focus be on the players. I think when things are going well, that naturally happens anyway.”
Decide for yourselves on that one.
Either way, the “reciprocity” about Shapiro’s future apparently removes one of the lingering questions about the Blue Jays’ future from the long list of uncertainties they and countless other businesses face amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Most pressing among them for the Blue Jays are whether they will be able to play in Toronto next season, if fans will be allowed in the Rogers Centre, what their payroll will be and how they’ll be able to sell a situation more uneven than any of the other 29 clubs to free-agent targets. Not to mention how to improve a club that went 32-28 in the abbreviated season before getting bounced in two games by the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays.
In a sense, they’re all interconnected as the club's finances are impacted by whether it is allowed to both play and host fans at Rogers Centre, and remember that commissioner Rob Manfred has said some 40 per cent of Major League Baseball revenue derives from attendance.
Still, Shapiro raised expectations for an active winter by saying that “we will conduct this off-season much like last off-season,” which, for reference, included the signing of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu to an $80-million, four-year deal, Tanner Roark for $24 million over two years and the acquisition of Chase Anderson and his $10 million guarantee, among other moves.
The club right now is conducting its usual baseball operations and scouting meetings in preparation for a presentation to ownership next month, which will include a payroll recommendation and revenue projections that are far from certain.
Bolstering Shapiro’s bullish outlook is that he’s received “consistent encouragement that we continue to progress in our plan, that we continue to move forward,” from ownership.
“And every indication has been very strongly that they expect us to continue to pursue where we need to add to our core, continue to pursue players this off-season,” he added. “That takes two parties, not just us, but also the players we're pursuing. But I think the resources are going to be there. If we think the right deals are there and we make those recommendations, the resources are going to be there for us to add in a meaningful way.”
A statement like that can cause the imagination to run wild, but in a market clouded by the economic fallout of pandemic restrictions, that’s a signal the Blue Jays are prepared to do business.
Where exactly they’re going to play is sure to be among the first queries they get from free agents, with the season the team just spent at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field after getting booted from Toronto, Pittsburgh and Baltimore not exactly a selling point.
Money talks in free agency, but the Blue Jays will need to convince their targets that any hiccups in 2021 will be short-lived and all inconveniences, minimal.
“I am certain that will not be an issue, especially over the length of a long-term contract for a free-agent player,” said Shapiro. “I'm hopeful and optimistic it won't be an issue this year, at all, and pretty confident it won't be at some point this year. But we'll deal with the uncertainty the way we have all along, and we'll be honest and forthright and open. Part of what makes playing here so exceptional is this place and the team and the players and the environment and the atmosphere around them. So with those things won't change regardless of where we are.”
The club’s revenues will, of course, which is part of what makes the current planning process so tricky.
While the Canada-United States border remains closed, the pandemic’s trajectory leads Shapiro to believe that “the public health picture is likely to improve to the point that I would think the border would be open at some point during next baseball season, and that would alleviate a lot of the issues.”
The Blue Jays, who were hit by an outbreak at their Dunedin facility before summer camp started, had no positive cases during the regular season. According to data released by Major League Baseball and the players union, 21 clubs had a COVID-19 positive during the monitoring period, so that would leave them among the outlier clubs.
More important to their fate, however, is whether any of the vaccine candidates currently in the final testing stage receive governmental approval for distribution and are widely taken by the public. If the process is slower or less effective than expected, the Blue Jays may find themselves homeless again, and Buffalo isn’t an automatic answer since what happens to minor-league baseball next year “is also in question at this point,” said Shapiro.
The club’s focus will obviously be on a season in Toronto, but “we will clearly also have to look at other places as well, which we will do.”
Trying to project ticket sales through all that uncertainty has led the Blue Jays to undergo what Shapiro described as “more of a scenario planning than a formal budgeting process that we would normally go through.”
“We normally have a ticketing model that would take into consideration competitiveness, the teams we play, the history. In this case, we have nothing to build that model upon because we have no history to work from,” said Shapiro. “So what we did do was talk to obviously the other teams that exist in this market, we talked to teams in similar peer markets throughout Major League Baseball. We talked to other entertainment businesses in Toronto and in Canada to ask them, whether it's theatres or concert venues, how are they thinking about 2021. We talked to MLB. We factored in all those opinions and then we made our best guess, the best guess that we could possibly make, which is tough to do.”
Chasing a moving target is a reality of the times, which for baseball means a 60-game season without peer is due to be followed by an off-season like no other. It all makes for a murky path forward, one the Blue Jays seem poised to keep taking with Shapiro at the helm.