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Baseball Kelly: No rebuild here – Jays’ Shapiro charts the middle way forward, to mediocrity, or worse

There is no hard-and-fast rule about how long it takes transplanted American baseball people to be infected by Canada's outsider angst.

Some never catch it. J.P. Ricciardi ran the Blue Jays for eight years and when he left was still describing Toronto "fans" in air quotes.

But Mark Shapiro's got it now.

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"It's embarrassing how few people in the United States know how incredible this city is," the Blue Jays president says. "I'm resentful of the lack of recognition from [Major League Baseball] at times … Don't send out e-mails about July 4th Blue Jays gear or the Stars and Stripes. I mean, come on. Recognize and be aware that this is a special situation. This isn't just a team in a different country, but a team representing that country."

Shapiro is sitting in his Rogers Centre office, which is as spare and orderly as an operatory, slapping a table for emphasis.

Given his Ivy League twinset (sweater vest, button-down shirt), linebacker build and MBA patter, everything about Shapiro screams "America." But the Canadas are contagious, especially during late summer when the Jays are tumbling toward the end of a lost season.

Back in May, when everyone was still talking as though the year could be saved (though they knew it was doomed), Shapiro sat in this same office and testily batted questions away. Asked if the team was balanced (because it isn't), he said, "I don't have to answer that."

Well, if not him, then who?

It was a down time for everyone. After all those wild nights of back-to-back playoff runs, the Blue Jays were waking up face down on the bathroom floor.

That strain showed on Shapiro. The smile was tighter, the jargon thicker.

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That's changed.

As what was likely to happen has become what's happened, Shapiro is more at ease. Perhaps that's because the organization has made its decision – this aging roster will be ridden until the end. All the back-and-forth about blowing up the Blue Jays is – internally, at least – over.

"We have what we think is an objective chance to contend [next season]," Shapiro says, enunciating carefully. "Admittedly, that's contingent on us staying healthy, which is something we did two years ago and didn't this year."

So there you go – it's ride-or-die baseball for one more season, and then the whole thing begins to come apart on its own.

That will enrage some people. This sort of course – the middle way, the maybe-things-will-turn-out way – led the Jays into two uninterrupted decades of mediocrity.

Given his druthers, Shapiro might choose the other way, the risky way. He's seen how Houston and the Chicago Cubs did it – by tearing out the foundation and rebuilding entirely. If performance were the only consideration, that would be the route to take.

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But the Jays are stuck between those models for financial reasons.

The Cubs had a long history of losing while also maintaining massive fan support. They could afford to string out patience on the north side of town for a few years longer.

The Astros arrived at the same solution for the opposite reason – nobody in Houston cared. There was no disadvantage to going several more seasons with a ballpark that would be just as empty.

Though a loser, Toronto is still drawing substantial crowds (fifth-most in baseball) and still has healthy TV numbers (averaging in the neighbourhood of 800,000 viewers a game in the midst of a lost September). The club knows from experience that will evaporate if the team is publicly seen to be giving up. It's a non-starter from ownership's perspective.

While going on about "the incredible passion" of Jays' fans, Shapiro also charts its limits.

"It's not something that's deeply rooted. It's not something that's long term," Shapiro says. "It's historic, but with a long interval in between (meaning 1994 to 2014). Our job is to give fans something to cheer about. Right now, the easiest thing to cheer about is winning baseball."

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So there will be no sell-off or tear-down. Josh Donaldson will not be traded over the winter for prospects nor will any of the other key, young pieces. A few spots will be open – left field and/or right field, the usual toss-up at the end of the starting order. Jose Bautista will be gently released back into the marketplace. Despite his sudden decline this year, Troy Tulowitzki will remain the shortstop.

The news here is that there's no news.

Meanwhile, they'll put their faith in a minor-league system that Shapiro says is now among the top-10 in baseball. The most promising players in it are still teenagers.

At some point, the Jays will have to jump from "win right now" to whatever's coming next. It's going to be a considerable distance – a couple of depressingly mediocre years at the very least. But no one in the Jays corner suites is ever going to say the word "rebuild" in front of a microphone. There are many millions of reasons not to.

Give Shapiro this much credit – he is an unapologetic capitalist in a business full of guys who like to talk about doing it all for love while making seven or eight figures.

You've seen what he did with Rogers Centre ticket prices – raised them substantially for next year. That was another thing people didn't like.

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"This market was conditioned that prices wouldn't go up if the baseball team didn't win," Shapiro says. "It created a huge gap in the value of our ticket, which impacts payroll and limits our ability to compete with our competitors."

So are you saying that if prices go up, payroll goes up as well?

Shapiro pauses pregnantly before answering: "No. We raise prices just to maintain payroll."

So, to sum up: Same team. Same investment. No new toys.

The 2018 Toronto Blue Jays aren't a baseball team. They're the Wild Bunch. Twenty-odd guys trying to fight their way out of one last jam.

Because if you think Donaldson, with his 32 years on Earth and his increasingly creaky lower half, is getting a six-year deal in Toronto come the end of next season, I would urge you to think again.

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Once Donaldson goes, this golden generation ends and it's on to the next.

Of that younger generation, the leading lights would be two pitchers – Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez – who were once best pals, but have famously fallen out. Is that a problem?

"Guys have to get along," Shapiro says, speaking generally about the idea of clubhouse character. "Sometimes that means they're going to be close friends on and off the field. Sometimes they're going to be productive business associates. The range of relationships that can exist here doesn't have to be everybody being Kumbaya."

What other dreams can Shapiro crush? What about a grass field?

Asked about the oft-raised prospect of converting the turf to a natural surface, Shapiro lists off the problems – no drainage in the dome, the need for a new, translucent roof, Toronto not being Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Then he goes into the usual Henry Fonda-esque "It's POSS-ible", the two words so dear to all chief executives.

Okay, but under what circumstances would you actually do it?

"If we thought [grass] was essential and we couldn't win without it," Shapiro said. "I think we've already shown we can win without it."

Translation: Enjoy the dirt infield because that's as close as this park is ever getting to Fenway.

Shapiro's focus right now is a refurbishment of the Rogers Centre – the budget on that has yet to be determined – which will not extend into the human furniture in the clubhouse.

This is the sin-eating phase of a baseball executive's lifespan, the time he has to stand up and take his licks for fielding a loser. Stretching back to his days in Cleveland, Shapiro has deep experience with that sort of thing.

Does he ever feel the frustration in the fan base?

"My experience in general is that people are always great to your face. Even in Cleveland, at my lowest levels of popularity, when you see people in person, they're great."

Is Toronto any better or worse on that score?

"I'm recognized a lot less than I was in Cleveland – partly because I'm still relatively new; and partly because the city's so big that people aren't that focused on sports and baseball as they were in Cleveland. Which is great."

Shapiro drums the desk as he says it and sweeps his arm out the window at the city and country outside.

"It's more in line with the way life should be."

The Blue Jays are worth $1.3-billion (U.S.) even though they’re playing bad baseball. Business columnist Andrew Willis thinks the new CEO should sell the team and make Rogers a pure telecom play. The Globe and Mail
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