Mark Shapiro of the Toronto Blue Jays and Neal Huntington of the Pittsburgh Pirates reflected on their shared experiences in Cleveland
There is a short story and a long story as to how this article ended up here. The short one goes like this: I wrote this for the site, Jays From the Couch, as part of my coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates’ pre-season series in Montreal. It originally ran April 19, 2017. The long story follows (should you be curious) at the end of this article.
There are a number of similarities between the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates that cannot be ignored. We caught up with Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro and Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington to find out if those commonalities were coincidence, or something more.
When the Pirates ended their decades-long playoff drought – who was next in line to end theirs? The Blue Jays. Both teams had the same catcher on their respective rosters when they busted that record – Russell Martin. Speaking of shared players, six players on the Jays current active roster – Jason Grilli, J.A. Happ, Francisco Liriano, Steve Pearce, Jose Bautista and the aforementioned Martin – all spent some time in the black and gold before heading north. Blue Jays fans are loyal – sticking by their underdogs through the lean years, and celebrating them in their recent successes – just like the folks of Pittsburgh. And as of yesterday afternoon, both teams have now lost a player early in the season to suspension under the MLB’s Drug Policy for use of performance enhancing drugs (see Chris Colabello and Starling Marte).
So, what is it about these two teams?
All Signs Point to Cleveland
According to Shapiro, the answer lies in Cleveland.
“I think there was a generation in Cleveland where we had an incredible number of really talented people and now they’re running the Diamondbacks, they’re running the Twins, they’re running the Indians, they’re running the Blue Jays, they’re running the Pirates, they’re heavily involved in the Red Sox – it’s not just a few teams,” Shapiro said. “So that network of people that all worked together in the late 90’s to 2000’s and into 2007 – 2008 that was a special time to be involved in the Indians and we all share that history.”
The Pirates’ Huntington and Director of Player Development Kyle Stark were both a part of that Indians organization, for 10 years and four years respectively.
Huntington, who jested that the Blue Jays were getting the better of the Pirates where trades were concerned these days, agreed that the relationships formed during the Cleveland days, and the familiarity of the group working together in that front office still persists.
“It is a game of relationships and what is interesting is that there’s some great relationships that I have where we value payers almost identically,” Huntington said. He chalked up his and Shapiro’s similar view of players to the influence of their former boss in Cleveland.
“We tend to like players that do things to help clubs win in certain ways, that may be from John Hart when we both worked with John. And it might be some of Mark’s influence on me, or it may be even some of my influence on him,” he admitted
A Team of Champions
Both men reeled off the names of the people who worked with them during their time in Cleveland in what can only be described as a dizzying run through a Rolodex of who’s who in modern baseball operations. Josh Byrnes, Paul DePodesta, Dan O’Dowd, Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, John Farrell, Mike Hazen, Ben Cherington, Derek Falvey, Brendon Huttmann.
“It was intimidating for me to come into that group,” Huntington said of joining Byrnes, DePodesta, O’Dowd and Shapiro with the Indians in 1998. “You had to bring it every day to participate – not compete – but to participate in that group.”
What made the team especially effective was their approach to hiring, Shapiro said. And not just the future front office superstars mentioned above. Everyone.
“We obsessed about hiring,” he said. “We knew we probably took the intern hiring process more seriously than a lot of people, but we weren’t just filling jobs. We were obsessed about entry-level hiring and felt like that was something that the future of our organization – the lifeblood of the organization – was not just dependent on the decision we made but it was also dependent on the people we hired to be interns.”
While many organizations viewed interns as “cheap labor,” Shapiro and his team took a different approach. “We hired those interns with the expectation that they were people who were going to come in and make us better right away – not five years down the road,” he said. “We weren’t expecting them to come in and just do data entry. We wanted them to come in and help us figure out how to get better and find competitive advantages.”
Catching Up With Old Friends
Shapiro and Huntington planned on getting together in Montreal, and did for a few minutes on the field before the first game, but it wasn’t the first time they’d had a chance to catch up in recent times. Shapiro said they watched half a game together in spring training and he doesn’t hesitate to pick up the phone, either.
“We talked a bunch last year – mostly me calling him and trying to pick his brain in admiration of the organization he’s built – as much for the values and culture more than the teams on the field,” he said. “He and Kyle have done some incredible things. And it’s never done alone, there’s a bunch of incredible people they’ve brought in. I admire what they’ve done.”
Huntington, for his part, feels that Shapiro had a small hand in that.
“Mark Shapiro was the one who brought a lot of us in there, was the one that directly impacted a lot of us,” he said. “I owe so much to Mark for my opportunity to move from Montreal to Cleveland and the opportunity to grow and develop through him and with him and because of him.”
That doesn’t mean that when the Toronto Blue Jays and Pittsburgh Pirates meet in interleague play August 11 – 13 at the Rogers Centre they won’t know where their loyalties lie. It just means that both teams are likely to have a lot more in common, having been built from a very innovative and thoughtful foundation.
The Long Story
I’ve been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan for a while now. Certainly not as long as a lot of people, but long enough to remember the days BEFORE they broke the curse. The days when, on the last home game of the regular season, during a cold rain delay prior to the start of the game, Pirates officials trotted the players out through PNC Park to meet the people who stood by them. Following one team, traveling to their games, watching them on TV and listening to them on the radio, was enough.
Then Russell Martin, the best catcher in the game (don’t @ me), went to the Toronto Blue Jays in November 2014. And so I found myself with two teams.
I admit that the Pirates get a little more of my love – mostly due to proximity (Pittsburgh is a two-hour drive, Toronto a seven-hour one) – but the Toronto Blue Jays still mean a lot to me. And so, much like my tenure here at Pirates Breakdown, I found a group of like-minded individuals who tolerate my love of long-form and hatred (fear) of all things sabermetrics in Jays From the Couch. And I write stuff about the Blue Jays.
It was on assignment for JFtC (as we like to call ourselves) during the Pittsburgh Pirates/Toronto Blue Jays pre-season series at The Big O in Montreal that I was fortunate enough to have a lengthy conversation with Blue Jays President and CEO Mark Shapiro. We talked about the pressure of representing an entire country on the diamond, baseball blogs (he approves!), Ohio (where I live and he did) and his tenure in baseball. That conversation naturally turned toward the similarities between the Jays and the Bucs and his relationship with Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington – whom I also spoke to for the article.