Toronto Blue Jays new president and chief executive officer Mark Shapiro. (photo from Toronto Blue Jays)
The Toronto Blue Jays almost made it to the World Series in 2015. With spring training having just started, we’re crossing our proverbial fingers (in the most Jewish way possible) that we’ll see that same Blue Jay magic – and more – in the months to come. Eyes will particularly be on the new leader at the helm, Mark Shapiro, who officially joined the Jays as president and chief executive officer last fall.
Shapiro has arrived at a pivotal time for the franchise, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this season. Many are eager to find out in what direction he’ll take the team, but one thing is certain: he wants to win.
“Clearly, winning has to be the primary area of focus,” Shapiro told the Independent. “A relentless, obsessive commitment to building a winning team.
“Building a team isn’t just collecting talent,” he continued. “It’s about players that are committed, that are willing to take risks and commit to something bigger than themselves.”
He also said he wants to integrate more sports psychology into the team’s routine, and “build a business organization that obsesses about fan experience at every interaction and every touch point.”
Next on his list is Rogers Centre, which is in dire need of a renovation, one that may cost upwards of $400 million.
Shapiro, like anyone else who has experienced the dome, has been a fan of the awe-inspiring structure since his first Jays game, which was in 1989, soon after he completed his history degree at Princeton. “My memory is seeing this building and just being blown away at what an incredible engineering marvel it is,” he said.
Rogers Centre isn’t the only spot that needs an upgrade. The team’s spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla., is widely considered to be the worst in Major League Baseball. Shapiro has to choose between renovating or moving the Jays to a new facility when the team’s lease expires in 2017.
To make matters more difficult, team cornerstones José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación become free agents at the end of this year and the Jays’ stock of minor league prospects was depleted by last year’s trade deadline frenzy. Still, there’s every reason to believe Shapiro will hit it out of the park, given that he’s spent an entire lifetime surrounded by the game, its players, its strategy and its details.
Shapiro invested nearly a quarter-century with the Cleveland Indians, having worked his way up from player development to team president. It was there that the Sporting News named Shapiro Executive of the Year in 2005 and 2007.
His managerial style hasn’t changed all that much, he maintains. “If you have a moral compass and a set of well-defined values, those are going to be the determinacy of how you lead,” he said.
But baseball and Shapiro go farther back than Cleveland. Son of Baltimore attorney and sports agent Ronald M. Shapiro, the game was ingrained at a very early age.
“Baseball was a part of the fabric of my childhood growing up. It was a connection and a bond for me with my dad,” said Shapiro. “It’s hard to separate out baseball from my childhood, whether it was stickball, wiffleball, Little League or playing catch in the street. Maybe it was the fact that my dad, at some point in my adolescence, started representing Major League players and they started being part of my life. Baseball, informally or formally, was always a part of my life.”
Among his baseball heroes growing up was Baltimore Orioles’ Brooks Robinson, for “consistency, the way he treated people and his artistic style of play,” said Shapiro. Jewish ball player Al Rosen, aka “the Hebrew Hammer,” who played for the Cleveland Indians from 1947 to 1956, was also a role model.
The Hebrew Hammer wasn’t his only source of Yiddishkeit growing up. Shapiro said he was reared with a “strong Jewish identity,” associating most with the “education, culture, understanding of history, and the values intertwined in that history.” They include, he said, “work ethics, commitment to community, compassion and tolerance,” which, he said, were “defining attributes and values that were a part of my childhood.”
Shapiro and his wife Lissa Bockrath-Shapiro try to instil those same values in their children, son Caden, 13, and daughter Sierra, 11.
Even though today’s Jewish players are few and far between, every now and again Shapiro will run into a fellow Jew and shmooze.
“It’s obviously a rarity and, obviously, there’s a lot more front office guys, like Mike Chernoff [Cleveland Indians general manager]. When we saw a Jewish player, we’d always chuckle with pride at that player succeeding. It was a topic of conversation,” said Shapiro.
Cleveland player Jesse Levis and Shapiro used to kibbitz about being MOTs, members of the tribe. Since he began work in Toronto after the ball season was over, Shapiro has not yet met lone Jewish Jay Kevin Pillar.
Meanwhile, one item needs clarification. There’s been no shortage of times that Shapiro has been asked why he pronounces his name Sha-pie-roh instead of the usual Sha-peer-oh. For the record – and he wants to set the record straight – his name has always been that way.
“People say, ‘Are you trying to hide the fact that you’re Jewish?’ If I did, wouldn’t I call myself Smith?” he said with a laugh. “Come on, really, there’s got to be a better way to do that.”
The story is familiar to many: as immigrants coming through Ellis Island, there was a name change and a mispronunciation that stuck. Philadelphia and Cherry Hill, N.J., lay claim as the “only places in the world you’ll hear ShapIro spelled Shapiro, and you’ll hear Shapiro spelled Schapiro,” he explained.
To be sure, fans are less concerned about the name than they are about the game. And, if he could impart one message, it would be that he’s here to win.
“My favorite Blue Jays stories are waiting to be written,” he said.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work can be found in more than a hundred publications globally. He is managing editor of landmarkreport.com.