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Mark Shapiro gets a warm, if unexpected, homecoming in Cleveland

Mark Shapiro, president and CEO of the Toronto Blue Jays, poses for a picture inside the Blue Jays clubhouse at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, Thursday January 14, 2016.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

After a year under his belt as the leader of the Toronto Blue Jays, Mark Shapiro has returned to the city where he cut his teeth on how to be a baseball executive.

After 24 years in the Cleveland front office, Shapiro has a legion of friends and business associates that he is trying to touch base with as his Blue Jays prepare to meet his old employer in the American League Championship Series. Game 1 is at Progressive Field on Friday night.

Shapiro spent some of Thursday catching up with Cleveland co-owner Paul Dolan and having lunch with several of his former cohorts in the Indians front office.

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Asked who paid, Shapiro said it was his former team that picked up the tab.

Shapiro, who left Cleveland after last season to supplant the retiring Paul Beeston as the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, said he never contemplated the possibility that the two teams would square off in the league championship.

"I wasn't thinking about that even 10 days ago," Shapiro said during an interview at Progressive Park. "I didn't allow myself. I parked those thoughts and only focused on the Toronto Blue Jays and that was it.

"Once we advanced I certainly was pulling for the Indians to advance mostly because I want them to do well. I care about the people."

Shapiro said that, when he started in Toronto, he was certain the Blue Jays had the wherewithal to enjoy the same kind of success as last season, when they made the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1993.

He said he also had the same thoughts for the Cleveland team, which he played a major role in building. But there, he said, the comparisons between the franchises, and cities, end.

The baseball team's place in the hardscrabble Cleveland market is a difficult one.

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Despite a successful season in which it won the Central Division with a 94-67 record, Cleveland only drew roughly 1.5 million fans to Progressive Field, the third worst total in baseball.

"The fan base here is passionate, it's just smaller," Shapiro said.

The Blue Jays are at the other end of the spectrum, especially when the team is winning. This season the Blue Jays packed more than 3.3 million into Rogers Centre, the third highest total in the majors.

"I just look at Toronto as such a vibrant city with such an incredible number of people that live so close to the ballpark," Shapiro said. "And I always know winning is the biggest lever, and you've got to win to get people to ultimately come out in the biggest numbers. But I guess I just feel like, it's just a robust market. There's so much more depth to it."

The support that the Blue Jays garner, not only in Toronto, Canada's largest city, but also across the country, is still something that Shapiro is marvelling at and coming to terms with.

He has taken note of the incredible engagement the Canadian public has with its baseball team, as 4.7 million TV viewers watched the Blue Jays' wild-card victory over the Baltimore Orioles on Oct. 4. More than 10 million people tuned in at some point to see what was going on, roughly 30 per cent of the country's population watching the Blue jays.

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"Think about that," Shapiro said. "That's not lost on me, especially in light of where I'm coming from.

"If you don't take that personal, if you don't feel like that's an extra motivation, then there's something missing in your DNA."

The topic of conversation also swung around to John Gibbons, the Blue Jays manager Shapiro inherited when he took over as team president.

There has always been speculation that Gibbons would be fired as soon as the team started to falter, which has yet to happen.

But Shapiro speaks only in glowing terms about the Texan after working with him closely over the past year.

"Just a high character individual, a good person that I enjoy spending time with and being around," Shapiro said.

But Gibbons's biggest asset, Shapiro said, "is how incredibly consistent he is. This guy, regardless of what's going on around us, whether it's turmoil, whether there's celebration, whether there's consolation, he's the same person, he's the same leader."

Shapiro was asked if he felt Gibbons is underrated as a manager.

"I don't know what the rating is so it's hard for me to say whether he's underrated or not," Shapiro said. "I just think he's good."

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