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Shapiro will bring forward thinking to Jays

TORONTO – In a whirlwind month where just about everything has gone right for the Blue Jays with an eye on October, they hit another home run last week with an eye on the future. The hiring of Cleveland president Mark Shapiro to a similar role in Toronto to replace the retiring Paul Beeston is a big win in this view. 

Shapiro is a sort of curiosity with Toronto media and fans who have never dealt with him. But I’ve known him going on 20 years, all the way back to when he was a 28-year-old farm director running operations for the Indians as their Triple-A affiliate was coming to Buffalo in 1995. He’s a visionary, someone with out-of-the-box ideas who is so respected around the game he’s on the prestigious Competition Committee and was talked about in some circles as a candidate to replace Bud Selig.

Shapiro is 48 and has been with the Indians for exactly half his life. Leaving Cleveland after the season had to be a gut-wrenching decision but this is a unique time in Blue Jays history. They’re on the rise with revenues exploding, and there’s plenty of work at hand to renovate the now 26-year-old Rogers Centre. Speaking to reporters last week in Cleveland, Shapiro called the Toronto job “compelling and unique.”

“I feel like through all professional sports, this is one that fits my skill set and fits what provides fulfillment to me on a daily basis,” he said. “When I think about who I am as a person - and for those of you that know me - I’m a lot about wanting to become better, wanting to grow, wanting to develop. To do that, you have to be challenged. To do that, you have to take on new challenges and sometimes be a little uncomfortable.”

Shapiro brought a unique, holistic approach to the Indians’ minor-league system, where the personal side was attended to as much as the on-field talents. The Tribe was the first team to run winter development programs for their prospects focusing on life skills as well as baseball.

Shapiro built the Bisons’ 1997 championship team, and was responsible for the iconic trade that brought Buffalo legend Jeff Manto from Syracuse. He was in the clubhouse on that memorable night in Des Moines, Iowa, when the Bisons wrapped up their first league championship in 36 years by winning the final American Association title.

Ten years later, with the champagne again flying all around us, Shapiro was all smiles talking to me in the clubhouse at old Yankee Stadium after the Indians won the AL Division Series in Game Four against the Yankees. Now the general manager, Shapiro put together an Eric Wedge-managed team filled with former Bisons.

Yes, Shapiro is the guy who traded Cy Young winners in consecutive years (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) but he also acquired Grady Sizemore, Lee and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon. He was AL Executive of the Year in both 2005 and 2007.

How will he do working for a conglomerate like Rogers Communications rather than working for a family-run team like the Indians? It might be an adjustment but it’s likely Rogers will give Shapiro a pretty blank canvas with the ballpark.

The extensive renovation work the Indians have done with Progressive Field certainly made Shapiro attractive to the Blue Jays, who are looking at $200-$400 million in renovation to the Rogers Centre in coming years. The plan has the stadium, which dates to 1989, going to natural grass by 2018.

“I will have a laundry list of things to get acquainted with,” Shapiro said. “Their stadium is a mature stadium that is in need of redevelopment. I think process, more than particulars, will be helpful in leading that process.”

Indians manager Terry Francona has an opt-out in his contract if Shapiro leaves but said he’s not planning to use it.

“The happiness for Mark outweighs the fact we’re all going to miss him a ton,” Francona said. “This guy is a combination of intelligent probably bordering on … he’s just that smart. He takes that intelligence, is very driven and organized. And then you take it with his people skills because he cares about people more than anything else and it’s a nice combination. Anybody he comes in contact with will get better.”

Shapiro had an emotional meeting with Francona and the Cleveland coaches last Sunday. After Francona was fired in Philadelphia, he spent the 2003 season as a special assistant for Shapiro and that started a long-term friendship.

“I had just been fired and the self-esteem probably took a little bit of a hit,” Francona said. “Mark is the guy that reached out to me and convinced me to take that role as the special assistant. And it ended up being a wonderful year. … Just because Mark is leaving the Indians doesn’t take away who he is as a person. He’s awesome, man.”

The Jays said it

• Pitcher R.A. Dickey, on third baseman/MVP candidate Josh Donaldson: “Nothing this guy does surprises you anymore. He’s a superhero.”

• Manager John Gibbons on GM Alex Anthopoulos: “Look what he’s done. “After this year’s trade deadline, he oughta run for Prime Minister really.” 

• Gibbons on if his team’s offense is sustainable: “You could have asked me that back in May the way we were scoring but we just keep doing it. … We’ve been able to do it for five months. Right now, I’m not surprised anymore. I was surprised earlier.”

• Second baseman Ryan Goins on his walkoff homer that beat the Indians Tuesday night: “I’d be lying if I didn’t say I blacked out. I don’t even know what happened honestly. It was an unbelievable feeling.”

• Pitcher Marcus Stroman, out all year after knee surgery but planning to rejoin the Jays after pitching for the Bisons Monday in Pawtucket, can’t believe the moves the Jays made. “It’s crazy, man. I’m playing with an all-star team now. I’m playing with my idols when I was growing up. All the guys I was playing with on Xbox and Playstation growing up, they’re on my team. It feels like a dream.”

Minor matters

• It seemed like the pitch clocks were having an impact on the speed of Bisons games and the team has produced the numbers to match the feeling. Buffalo’s nine-inning home games this year were 13 minutes faster, dropping from an average of 2:48 to 2:35. The team played four regulation home games this season over three hours – after having 11 such games last year. 

• The Dodgers new Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City clinched its PCL division title Thursday, thanks in part to an incredible doubleheader sweep of the Iowa Cubs on Tuesday. Oklahoma City won the opener,  6-4, in 19 innings in a game that lasted 5 hours and 44 minutes and then took the nightcap, 3-1, in a much more manageable 1:47. The opener started at 4:35 p.m. Central time, the nightcap started at 11.

The opener went so long that a call was put for pitching help to Double-A Tulsa. Former Blue Jays No. 1 choice Deck McGuire, who made 10 starts for the Bisons last season, left one ballpark and immediately made the 106-mile drive to the other. He arrived in Oklahoma City between games – and then pitched three innings in the nightcap to get the win.

“It’s definitely a new way to get called up,” McGuire told the Oklahoman. “It was pretty crazy. They obviously needed some help, being in a pennant race, so I was just happy I could come out here and help out.”

• Former Bisons catcher Dusty Wathan, one of the key members of the Herd’s 2004 championship club, was named Eastern League manager of the year for his work with Reading in the Phillies chain. The Fightin Phils won their first division title since 2000 and are battling for the best record in the league. This is the fourth straight year Wathan has been in Reading. Wonder if the Phillies will return Wathan to the International League next year and give him a shot at Lehigh Valley.

Around the bases

• The Royals were 50-50 after 100 games last year. The Blue Jays were 50-51 after 101 games this year. KC landed in Game Seven of the World Series. What will the Jays do?

• The Tigers got bludgeoned during their three-game sweep last weekend in Rogers Centre but the trip wasn’t entirely for naught for ace Justin Verlander, as he tweeted Instagram photos of his Edgewalk atop the CN Tower. For a mere $195 (Cdn.), you too can walk on the outside of the tower’s main pad in an orange suit and harness. No thanks.

• The Pirates don’t have the odds on their side in a postseason where they might play only NL Central teams. Entering the weekend, the Bucs are 21-32 against the four teams in their own division – but an incredible 58-21 against everybody else. They’re the opposite of the Tigers, who hit the weekend doing well in the AL Central (31-22) but are a disaster outside it (30-50).

• Red Sox fans bemoaning the presence of Joe Kelly in their rotation were quieted in August as Kelly went 6-0 in the month. Elias Sports says he’s the first Boston pitcher to post that mark in a month since Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez did it in May, 1999.