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Shapiro urges Blue Jays fans to trust the process

Hate him? Blame him? Mark Shapiro doesn’t really give a toss.

Which could explain the dissonance between city and team right there.

The hugely unloved president and CEO of your Toronto Blue Jays isn’t listening to the caterwauling of an unhappy fan base which expressed its displeasure at the turnstiles in 2018 — attendance dropping from an American League high of 3.2 million the year previous to around 2,385,281, averaging out at 28,707 per home game.

Empty seats speak volumes. With every passing day, as the Jays face-planted toward the bottom of the standings and star players disappeared — or never returned to the lineup — there seemed ever lessening reason to frequent the Rogers Centre. Whilst the public pined for putative messiah Vladimir Guerrero Jr., fermenting down in the minors, stuck there with the club controlling his service time, to max out career suzerainty.

And it will get worse, as baseball is eclipsed for who knows how long by genuine championship aspirations for the Leafs and Raptors.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s down a little bit (next season),” Shapiro told a conclave of baseball journalists on Wednesday. “But I expect it to not be down dramatically.”

Guerrero’s presence in Toronto, come April or May, will likely spur a bump in ticket sales but probably not in any sustainable way. Fans tend to follow teams, winning teams, not individuals, no matter how gaudy the player. And forget Bo Bichette too. The youngster is unlikely to pass this way until September, if even then. “We wouldn’t make any decision to add to appeal,’’ says Shapiro, bluntly.

There’s no appealing to his marketing instincts.

Don’t like it? Tough. Shapiro, confident with his place in the Rogers dark empire, has thick skin. “Maybe it’s because I’ve been through many waves of popularity before.”

Unpopularity, too.

Shapiro tells a story from Cleveland days, where he made his bones from GM to club president.

“When we traded Bartolo Colon, I had death threats, literally. The security guy said, ‘I don’t want you walking to lunch.’ Because the Indians had won for seven straight years, not two.’’ That, a reference to the Jays making the post-season in 2015 and 2016 after decades in the post-World Series wilderness. At the tail end of the Alex Anthopoulos era and just beyond.

“And been in two World Series,’’ Shapiro continues about his Indians apogee. “And had a level of success that was unbelievable. I was there for all of that. But then when I became GM and I had to make the first move … to trade Bartolo Colon, I drove to the stadium that night and there was a guy with a sign: Shapiro Bobblehead Night, June 26, 2002. No springs needed.”

They wanted to hang him high.

“People were literally saying, if they see me in a restaurant they’re going to tip over my table.’’

Toronto isn’t as wrathful as Cleveland. Canadians are too polite for insurrection or crimes of the sporting heart. Besides which, Shapiro doesn’t need anyone’s approval to stroke his ego.

“I kind of look at it as, you’re never as dumb as people think you are and you’re never as smart as when you’re winning executive of the year awards.’’ Twice. “The job is to come in with a sense of urgency and a sense of drive to build a sustainable championship team. Not to worry about being right along the way, but being right in the end.

“If you’re doing it for popularity, you’re going to have a short-term existence. You’re placing your own self-worth in the hands of other people.

“I’m more concerned with: Do we have a good long-term plan? Do I have the respect and trust of the people I work with every day? Are we moving towards the goal of putting a championship team on the field? As long as we’re making progress towards that goal, I feel like in the end people are going to be happy here. Which is ultimately the goal, of celebrating with our fans.”

Thus, Shapiro will not be bullied or shamed into a quick-step adjustment of the Jays’ fortunes, certainly not via bright-object free-agent signings for reputational game-changers. Indeed, the baseball budget is expected to shrink by up to $50 million U.S. from the $160 million shelled out last year. Of course, there’s a brighter horizon on the other side, financially, even with Toronto on the hook for multimillions punted out the door with Troy Tulowitzki and Josh Donaldson. In 2019, the Jays will have “more flexibility than any other team in Major League Baseball,” Shapiro assures. Meaning, scant guaranteed commitments.

Wednesday’s session with journalists was a rarity for the Shapiro regime. He had not been publicly present in watershed moments for the club this past year, including the sentimental John Gibbons farewell or the introduction of his managing successor Charlie Montoyo. That apparently was by design as Shapiro stiffens the bona fides of GM Ross Atkins as baseball-man-in-charge.

“I did that job for seven, eight years,” he notes, referring to his baseball operations tenure in Cleveland. “I have immense respect for how consuming that job is, how hard it is to make good decisions … how disruptive it can be for someone to come in with one anecdotal opinion and reverse a decision because of his role and his position.”

While repeatedly stressing Toronto’s collaborative effort at the executive level, Shapiro insists those personnel decisions are down to Atkins.

“I’m not walking into a room and saying: This is who we should sign. Because I did that job. I’m more focused on what our process is, how we arrived at that decision, and then hoping I can provide for Ross some background of my mistakes as well as the good decisions, giving him the benefit of that experience.

“Ultimately, one person has to be accountable. That person is Ross.”

Which would also means tying the can to Atkins if the team rebuild plans go sideways over the next couple of years, just sayin’.

In fact, while Wednesday’s confab eventually got around to baseball talk, Shapiro spent the first hour on a presentation extoling the virtues of a new bells-and-whistles combined training facility in Dunedin and renovation of the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. Tiki bar!

Shapiro got Pinellas County, the City of Dunedin and the state of Florida to pick up most of the tab for all that, with the Jays kicking in $20 million of the $80-million investment. So kudos for cutting a sharpie deal.

Because that might be, at the end of his baseball days in Toronto, Shapiro’s only memorable legacy — 2,000 kilometres away.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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