In the 2015 Sports World there is a growing mentality that if you don’t ‘win it all’ then second place may as well be last place. All or nothing. Championship or bust. As Tribe fans, we don’t have to look too far geographically to see that theory in full hype: With the stacked teams that Ohio State Football and the Cleveland Cavaliers bring to their respective upcoming seasons, would anything less than championships be acceptable in the eyes of critical fan bases and media? Very doubtful nowadays.
That’s our world now: Bigger, better, faster, stronger. Win or lose. Thrive or dive. However, contrary to some belief, that theory should not hold true when analyzing Mark Shapiro’s legacy in Cleveland.
On Monday, the Cleveland Indians announced that Shapiro would be leaving his role as President & CEO at season’s end in order to pursue that same position with the Toronto Blue Jays. After 24 years of executive growth within the Tribe organization, the veteran leader will be pursuing a new opportunity with an organization who is currently on the rise. So what should we make of all this, in addition to Shapiro’s legacy?
Mark Shapiro never won a World Series in Cleveland…despite some incredible seasons, each of them always ended in a loss. However, in my humble opinion, his tenure, legacy, and eclectic impact should be summarized as positively legendary in the annals of Indians history. During the early 1990s, Shapiro was integral in the Tribe’s opening of Jacobs Field (now Progressive Field), the impressive baseball resurgence in the city of Cleveland, and in formulating the competitive rosters that won consistently for many years. In recent memory, he played a large role in the dynamic ballpark renovations at Progressive Field.
Throughout Shapiro’s 24 years in Cleveland, whether the Indians won 90+ games or were one out (
Damn it, Mesa) from winning the World Series or had 100 losses, each season would seemingly come to an end with fans asking the same question: “Why couldn’t ownership spend more money to bring in better talent?” For good or for bad, neither GM nor President can force owners to spend more…they can push for it, but they can’t control it.
Shapiro was twice named Sporting News’ “Executive of the Year” in both 2005 and 2007. When Bud Selig neared retirement, Shapiro was one of the primary names circled about as the next replacement for the longtime commissioner. Why? Because he always did a pretty darn good job with the hand he was dealt. Perhaps inner baseball circles recognize that more than local media and fans.
Despite the limitations, hardships, and small margin for error in managing a small to mid-market payroll, Shapiro never seemed to use that as an excuse. While some moves worked and some did not, he took calculated risks in signing high-upside players who would have low salaries due to recent injuries (Scott Kazmir and John Smiley, among many others). He brought in reputable high-priced talent when payrolls were high (Roberto Alomar, Juan Gonzalez). While some top competitors had payrolls consistently exceeding $150-$200 million, the Indians’ payroll never crept above $93 million and was oftentimes well below that number; Shapiro counteracted a lack of free agent money with bold trades to bring in key contributors like Corey Kluber, Grady Sizemore, Shin-soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Kenny Lofton, Cliff Lee, Michael Brantley, Sandy Alomar, Carlos Baerga, and Trevor Bauer.
When low attendance figures became an increasingly difficult issue, Shapiro spearheaded the efforts to make significant ballpark renovations in order to create a more diverse, fan-friendly game day experience for kids (playland), families (specialty areas), party goers (3-story bar), foodies (eateries in right field, diehard fans (closer access to bullpens than any ballpark in MLB, more statistical in-game data), and much more. Shapiro would take every hand that he was dealt and play it out, whether it ended in success or difficulty.
When all was said and done, it wasn’t just about the team on the field though. Shapiro worked hard to create a positive culture. He was instrumental in hiring not only the talent on the team, but also personnel ranging from concession stand workers, to coaches, to managers, to media and communications personnel. He was hands on and literally impacted the entire organization–from top to bottom–in order to foster a more positive culture. In an era where winning is everything, Shapiro put value on attitude and character, first and foremost.
An Indians employee recently put it best to me: “Mark hires the right people and then empowers them to lead and impact the organization. He is an advocate for talent development for every person in the organization, top to bottom. That’s why Toronto wants him and why the Indians – despite what people in our market think – are a model for teams throughout the game”
That quote is exemplified in 2-time World Series Champion Terry Francona choosing the Cleveland Indians organization in his return to MLB, at a time when a number of other teams were interested. Francona is probably the most high-profile name to manage the Tribe since Frank Robinson…and Tito probably never would have contemplated taking the Cleveland job if Shapiro wasn’t at the helm.
Where the Indians go from here will be a long process. Though it’s early, sources say they don’t expect Antonetti to follow Shapiro to Toronto, nor do they expect him to leave. Some teams operate without a president, with the GM as the integral leader, so there is a chance that the forthcoming vacancy is left unfilled.
Regardless, Shapiro leaves the organization with a massive vacancy when it comes to his character, experience, and ingenuity. Though his ring finger may be vacant as he leaves Cleveland, Mark Shapiro leaves a footprint full of impactful leadership and a reputation as a respected, top-notch executive throughout MLB.