CLEVELAND (AP) — Mark Shapiro’s love for Cleveland and its people runs deep, personally and professionally.
It’s where the Toronto Blue Jays’ president and CEO began his career, raised his family and helped orchestrate a baseball renaissance in the 1990s that’s enjoying a 21st-century revival. In many ways, it will always be home for Shapiro.
Over the past few months, Shapiro has enjoyed from afar seeing Cleveland celebrate this summer as the Cavaliers won an NBA title, ending a half-century drought for the city, and he’s watched with pride as Indians fans rallied around a team that has been overlooked — even in October.
It’s been some ride.
“I just feel bad that we’re going to have to put an end to it,” he said with a chuckle over the phone on Wednesday.
Shapiro finds himself the man in the middle of the AL Championship Series as his new team, the Blue Jays, will face with the Indians, the franchise that gave him his start, for a spot in the World Series.
And it won’t just be an emotional reunion for Shapiro. Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins also came up in Cleveland’s organization, working alongside Indians president Chris Antonetti, manager Terry Francona and many others.
Shapiro was flying to Cleveland on Wednesday and planned to have dinner with his sister, Julie, who lives in the area. On Thursday, he’ll arrive at Progressive Field as he did for more than two decades, and although he knows the direction to the visitors’ clubhouse, Shapiro’s first stop will be the Indians’ executive offices, where he plans to visit colleagues who are as close as family.
“I’ve got not just friendships, but deep friendships both in the community there and throughout the Indians organization, up and down it,” he said. “It’s not just walking in to play the team, it’s walking in to play a group of people where you have a deep history and a profound respect. But I can tell you, because we’ve played them seven times already, when the first pitch gets thrown, the only emotion I feel is a competitive desire to win.”
Shapiro spent 24 seasons with the Indians, breaking in as an unpaid intern in the early ’90s. But it didn’t take long for the Princeton-educated son of respected sports agent Ron Shapiro to advance through the ranks and become one of baseball’s top executives. Shapiro has always done it the right way, displaying class and humility while molding the Indians into a model organization and helping them navigate through difficult years when the turnstiles slowed and the club had to re-invent itself to stay competitive.
However, Shapiro’s impact with the Indians goes way beyond statistical data. His personal skills might be what set him apart.
“I didn’t like Mark when he was here. How’s that?” Francona joked before turning serious about both Shapiro and Atkins.
“I’m so close to both of them that it’ll be fun to say hello,” said Francona, who used to take diligent notes whenever Shapiro spoke. “I’m sure they feel the same way we do — they want to beat our brains out. But then when it’s over, that’s never going to affect a friendship. Next time I probably see them will be at the winter meetings and we’ll be laughing and I’m sure something will happen during this (series) we’ll be laughing about.
“It could be a year, it could be a month, it could be two years. When you’re friends like that, it kind of goes beyond time or uniform or anything like that.”
During his time with the Indians, Shapiro was approached by numerous organizations, turning down an offer from the Cleveland Browns. He was content, but maybe needing a new challenge, Shapiro accepted a position with the Blue Jays and decided to leave the only team he had ever known.
Shapiro spent much of the past year commuting between Cleveland and Toronto, where he was rudely welcomed after popular GM Alex Anthopoulos was pushed aside to make room for him. Shapiro’s transition was beyond tumultuous, as he was lambasted on sports talk radio and in columns across Canada. Some of the attacks were personal and vicious.
Shapiro accepted the criticism, put his head down and went to work.
Antonetti never worried that Shapiro would change people’s opinions of him.
“I talked to Mark frequently, especially at the outset,” Antonetti said as the Indians took batting practice in anticipation of Friday’s Game 1. “I never had any doubt that once the city, the organization and the country got to know Mark Shapiro the person and the executive that they would embrace him. He’s a transformational leader and a phenomenal human being, and those are two pretty good attributes that will end up endearing you to people.”
When the Indians wrapped up their Division Series victory against Boston, completing a three-game sweep at Fenway Park, Shapiro watched on TV along with his son, Caden, who used to shag flies during batting practice in an Indians uniform.
While the Shapiros have changed colors, their affection for Cleveland remains.
“We were both happy, not just for the chance to come back, but happy for the staff and the organization and the players,” Shapiro said. “But as he grows up he learns about the game and he’s 100 percent a Toronto Blue Jay now, just like me, but with the Cleveland Indians running through our veins. They will always be an important part of our lives and history.”
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