TORONTO — Mark Shapiro stepped into the media firing line on his first day on the job as president and chief executive officer of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Peppered with repeated questions about the departure of Alex Anthopoulos, the longtime baseball executive didn’t shine any light on why the former general manager decided to move on.
“Not the transition that I originally expected,” Shapiro said. “Not the opening press conference that I had envisioned.”
It was a somewhat awkward 45-minute introductory session Monday at Rogers Centre, but the polished and engaging Shapiro was up to the task. He took care of a few business items at the start, announcing that assistant GM Tony LaCava would replace Anthopoulos on an interim basis and confirming that manager John Gibbons will return next year.
Shapiro called it an “incredibly exciting time” to be joining the Blue Jays and he expressed a desire to honour the passion that the now-retired Paul Beeston provided as team president. But the main talking point was Anthopoulos’s surprise decision to turn down a new contract after building a team that came two wins away from reaching the World Series.
“A lot has been written the past week obviously, most of it speculation, second-hand, a lot of it untrue,” Shapiro said. “All that Alex communicated was honest and forthright.”
Anthopoulos turned down a five-year extension last week amid reports of a difference in vision with the new president. The 38-year-old Montreal native would only say he didn’t feel like it would be the right fit, adding it was his choice to leave.
Shapiro said he was disappointed and surprised that Anthopoulos turned down the team’s offer.
“It was my sincere hope that I would have the chance to learn from him, to partner with him and to work with him,” he said. “Yet he’s obviously earned the right to make the decision he made and I respect that decision.
“With that respect and the finality of that decision, it’s time to move forward.”
Anthopoulos was a popular figure in Toronto, particularly after he acquired stars Troy Tulowitzki and David Price at the trade deadline. The deals helped the Jays reach the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
His decision to leave the team at the height of its resurgence was deeply unpopular with Blue Jay fans.
“We made every effort afterwards to try to do everything we could to convince Alex to come back,” Shapiro said. “Once the decision was made, that’s the hand dealt. We get a plan, we move forward. I’m not going to dwell on it.
“Again, long-term respect and admiration were gained for him through this process but I’m moving forward with the eyes on building upon the foundation he put in place and moving towards winning a world championship.”
Shapiro, 48, said he talked with Anthopoulos over two or three days, but very little time was devoted to contract discussions at the former GM’s request. Instead they talked about the organization and team-building and engaged in general baseball banter.
It remains unclear why Anthopoulos felt the fit wouldn’t be right.
“I wouldn’t want to speculate as to what his reasons were,” Shapiro said. “What he said is what he said to me as well.”
Some recent reports suggested that Shapiro was unhappy that Anthopoulos gave up numerous blue-chip prospects at the trade deadline. While Shapiro dismissed stories that he “scolded” Anthopoulos, he indicated there will be long-term issues to deal with as a result of the deadline-day dealing.
“In every decision there’s a balance,” he said. “There’s risk/reward, there’s short-term and long-term. In this case clearly the short-term benefit of those trades is absolutely apparent and was tremendous. At the same point there are challenges that come with trading players and those challenges, I think, need to become part of a long-term strategy.”
Shapiro had worked for the Cleveland Indians since 1992 and spent the last five seasons as team president.
He still has to be brought up to speed on the many facets of the Blue Jays’ organization, but did say he expects there will be plenty of resources to field a championship-calibre team next season. Shapiro is also open to contract lengths of over five years depending on the situation.
The team looks primed for another strong offensive year in 2016. One of LaCava’s top off-season goals will be to provide depth to the team’s pitching staff, particularly the starting rotation.
Beeston, 70, was hired in 1976, served as president and CEO from 1989-97, and returned to the team in 2008. The Blue Jays announced in January that he would retire after this season.