By: Dan Grant
Last Thursday I attended the latest Pitch Talks event, held in Toronto at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. It was a star-studded affair (for baseball nerds) headlined by none other than the Toronto Blue Jays team president, Mark Shapiro.
As Jays fans well know, Shapiro has stepped into a near-impossible situation, taking the front office reigns from a man who made a video game-esque series of swaps of mid-season swamps, delighting a tortured and demanding fanbase. To top that off, he did these things en route to actually getting the Jays back to the playoffs. From the moment Toronto dropped Game 6 in Kansas City and rumours leaked that Alex Anthopoulos might leave, Shapiro has had to bear the weight; attached to every decision, every roster move is the question ‘Would Alex have done that?’
It’s patently unfair, but such is life in professional sports. Shapiro has acquitted himself well, in my opinion, and did even better at Pitch Talks. He kicked off the evening with an interview with Stephen Brunt, who was friendly, but certainly asked some reasonably tough questions. He also accepted non-vetted questions from the audience, which is roulette at best and the Russian kind at worst. Perhaps most awesomely, he chose to enter to Darth Vader’s ‘Imperial March’, poking fun at the silly reputation thrust upon him by a rabid and clueless portion of the fan base.
I’m not going to give you a blow by blow breakdown of what happened, but suffice it to say, Shapiro was mostly excellent. He was affable and funny, telling interesting and humanizing stories about growing up in Baltimore with his father (a formerly powerful player agent), about his personal philosophy and discussing subjects as far-ranging as the Blue Jays new high performance department, to pending free agents, to the renovations needed at the Rogers Centre.
Shapiro wasn’t the only one on hand — two panels followed, one featuring Blue Jays writers Shi Davidi, Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling, as well as the excellent Dave Cameron of Fangraphs. This was followed by the most nostalgic panel of the evening: hosted by former Grantlander Jonah Keri, Dan Shulman, Buck Martinez and Gord Ash took the stage to reminisce about Jays stories gone by and give their thoughts on the current ballclub.
Here are my top 5 moments from the evening, in no particular order.
1. Mark Shapiro on Rogers Centre Renovations
Shapiro was asked two very complex and hyper-specific fan questions about the renovations to the Rogers Centre and what he has planned. He oversaw a massive renovation of Progressive Field in Cleveland, and I’ve heard from all that have been to the new version of the park that it’s a great place to see a game. I went myself in 2008 and am going back later this summer, so look forward to seeing the changes first hand.
Shapiro basically punted on these questions, but for good reason. He said that he hasn’t been around long enough to make meaningful changes, though he did cite the dirt infield as a big step in the right direction. He briefly touched on the ideas of improving the seating in the 100 level now that the Argo’s are gone, improvements to concessions and the area surrounding the stadium, but basically said that he’ll be using this year to generate ideas and do market research, and the fruits of those labours should be implemented (ideally) within the next five years. He also did mention real grass, but said they’re still in the data-collection stage: determining whether grass can even live in the structure since the roof needs to be closed for so long in the off-season, and if it can’t, how often they’d need to replace sod, whether that’s feasible and safe, etc.
Nobody asked him why the hell they don’t just call it the Rogers SkyDome, like a cruel Blog TO April Fools joke said that they were doing. (I won’t even link to it. It’s too mean.) But one step at a time.
2. Mark Shapiro on the Current Roster
Shapiro let out a couple of interesting tidbits about the current roster, one in his interview with Brunt and the other during the last fan question he answered.
On Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion:
Brunt pulled no punches here, asking Shapiro directly about extensions for these two players and quoting beat writer Arden Zwelling, who said at the last Pitch Talks event that Toronto should ‘just pay the fucking guy’. He framed it as a bigger decision than just on the field, about legacy, about Bautista’s chance to be the greatest Blue Jay ever (if he isn’t already) to have his name on the Level of Excellence and maybe have a bat flipping statue outside the Rogers Centre one day.
Shapiro was tactful in his answer, stating as he has before that it makes no sense for the team to talk about negotiations publicly and that he thinks they have the best chance of getting something done if they don’t talk about it. At the end of his stock answer however, he said something slightly new. I’m paraphrasing the first bit, but it was something along the lines of this:
Shapiro: ‘I’m confident that if this team does what it’s capable of doing on the field — well, that makes it a lot easier to get these kinds of things done’.
Brunt: ‘You know that was almost an answer, right?’
Shapiro: (laughing) ‘I am aware.’
So that’s an interesting insight into where things are. Does it mean that if the Jays win 100 games and the World Series that both guys are automatically coming back? Of course not. But it does seem to suggest that if the Shapiro-led Jays can show Rogers that this type of success is sustainable, as opposed to a one-off blip, they’ll be more willing to invest money in the on-field product. Which makes a lot of sense.
On Michael Saunders:
He followed that up by answering a fan question about the Jay Bruce non-trade, by saying:
‘We actually think Saunders has a higher ceiling, but liked that Bruce has another year of control and provides a little more certainty. I don’t think we’ve said that publicly before, so there you go’.
He also revealed that immediately after the deal fell through, Saunders approached GM Ross Atkins in Florida and guaranteed him ‘this will be the best non-deal you ever made’. Saunders has hit well so far but it already dealing with a tender hamstring, so the jury remains out.
3. Dave Cameron: Pitch Talks MVP
Fangraphs Dave Cameron might be the most interesting man covering sports and I’m glad I got the chance to see him speak, though I’m probably doing him a dork injury by linking to something as fallible as Wikipedia. He described himself as both a geek and a nerd on Thursday, and he certainly fits the bill. I mean that in the nicest way possible, because I think he’s one of the finest writers covering baseball today, and I refer to Fangraphs constantly when I’m doing research. ‘Nerds’ have helped us gain a better understanding of how baseball works, about how and why certain kinds of success are sustainable and others aren’t. Many try to make it a new school vs. old school argument, or ‘stats vs. eyes’ but that’s a short-sighted approach. Both schools of thought are completely valid and actually work best when used symbiotically.
Cameron was fantastic, answering questions using statistics, but also making his answers accessible to the masses. He also gave the single best answer to any question of the night. Again, I’m paraphrasing here, but the exchange went something like this:
Some Clown: How much of a corporate ‘yes-man’ do you think Shapiro is?
Arden Zwelling (with look of disgusted disbelief): Well, he was just here, why didn’t you ask him? It’s not like he was some robot who walked out and quoted Rogers slogans at us.
Davidi and Nicholson-Smith look equally unenthused by the prospect of answering such a dumb question. So they don’t.
Dave Cameron: ‘Well, I guess I’m the only who’s job doesn’t depend on my answer, so I’ll field this one’
This elicited a chuckle from his fellow panel members, all Sportsnet employees. Cameron continued:
‘Look any team president or front office person is going to be a ‘yes man’ to some degree. That’s why they’re where they are. They’re not there to disparage the organization. Asking that is like asking if a waiter is good at bringing you food. The answer is yes; that’s why he was hired’.
Cameron had a couple other great moments, including constantly apologizing for the fact that Fangraphs projection system has the Red Sox finishing in first place over Toronto. He did state that the biggest reason for that is the bullpen, as both Toronto and Boston will field elite offenses and that their rotations are fairly similar — both have an ace but some question marks in the two to five slots. He did allow that with Aaron Sanchez, Toronto fields a potential unknown that could swing the rotation part of the equation the Blue Jays way.
His funniest moment came at the end of the evening, where Cameron, miked, was interacting with a non-miked fan in the first few rows, who was (I think good-naturedly?) hurling insults his way.
‘What’s that? Go back to Philly!?’ Cameron asked incredulously. ‘I’ve never even been to Philly!’
It should also be noted that the closest comp I can find to Cameron’s voice in that moment is this guy, which made things 200% funnier.
4. Buck, Dan and Gord, hosted by Jonah
This panel was a great way to end the evening, with Buck Martinez and the newly returned Dan Shulman sharing stories from their time together from 1995-2001, Jonah Keri tearing off his sweater to reveal a Blue Jays t-shirt (despite bleeding bleu, blanc et rouge of course) and Gord Ash imparting fascinating tidbits from his long tenure in the Jays front office.
My favourite anecdote came from Buck and Dan, who were the TV announcers of my childhood.
Jonah Keri: All right, before Q&A, I want to open things up to any stories you guys might have. Go nuts!
Keri: Uhhh, does anybody have one?
Buck: Oh, I’ve got one Jonah. I just have to ask Dan if it’s OK to tell it.
Shulman: (Looks at him amusedly).
Buck: It’s the golf story.
Shulman: (Dramatically slumps into the couch, muttering expletives. The crowd and panel are laughing. He then sits up and takes over.)
All right, so once I get the job as play by play guy in 95, Buck asks me ‘Do you play golf?’ and I say ‘No, not at all’. And he says ‘Are you sure? We should play’ and I say ‘Buck, I HATE golf’ and he says ‘Well I’ll get you a couple lessons and we’ll go play.’
So I have my lessons and in 1995, we had a seventeen day West Coast road-trip, on both sides of the All-Star Break. So we had a few days off and Buck says ‘Let’s go play some golf.’
And he takes me, on probably my second time ever playing golf… to Pebble Beach.
I have to tell you, they were 168 of the most beautiful shots I ever hit in my life.
Buck: We played Spyglass at Pebble Beach and then I took him up to Seattle and we played Olympic (another course that has hosted the US Open) and on the fourth hole, Shulman throws his clubs into a tree and says ‘Martinez, eff this game and eff you’.
Not a baseball story, but a hilarious story. Other highlights included Buck only being able to call the name of the legendary Pasqual Coco backwards (Coco Pasqual) and defending himself by saying ‘It just makes more sense!’ and saying of his legendary broken leg play that ‘the biggest miracle on that one was that George Bell got the ball close enough to me for it to happen’. Bell was notoriously wild with his throws from left field and often sent on-deck batters scrambling for cover, to say nothing of players in the third base dugout and/or the first few rows of the stands.
5. I Got to Ask a Question!
Exciting stuff. I actually put my name into the bucket to ask Shapiro a question but I wasn’t selected. And then when I wanted to ask a new question to Arden Zwelling, host Carly Agro spied my nerdily raised hand and said she’d come back to me shortly. But then she didn’t, leading to this tweet.
It’s cool, I got over it. I was never even actually under it. That Twitter, man. People take that thing for serious.
And then, right at the tail end of the third panel, I was spied again, this time by a producer-type guy. And I asked away.
‘Roberto Osuna has been named the closer over Drew Storen, who was acquired in the off-season, ostensibly to be the closer. Now, he’s done nothing to lose that job and he’s great at it, but as we know, starting pitchers are inherently more valuable than relief pitchers. But Osuna has said publicly that he prefers to be a reliever. I’d like all your opinions, but particularly Gord’s — How much do you weigh a players wishes, in regards to on field decisions?’
Or something like that. I wish I’d framed it better; Kevin Pillar ‘wanting’ to hit lead-off had been discussed earlier, and I could have tossed in the eternal debate about guys not wanting to DH. It wasn’t supposed to be just about Osuna or a referendum on closers, more about how a front office makes a decision when it might go against what a player wants, but nevertheless, Ash answered thusly.
After discussing how you need to try to balance player wishes versus what’s best for the team, he said:
‘With Osuna, it basically boils down to the fact that the closer role is a difficult one to fill. It takes a particular mentality, and if you have a guy who’s good at it and who wants to do it, I say you leave him there’.
Gord had two other killer moments, first when he revealed that during the 1980’s, former Jays GM Pat Gillick had ruminations about signing Cuban legend Omar Linares, but only for home games, as the Cuban Linares wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the United States. This noticeably caught the attention of Keri, who’s book Up, Up and Away contains many tidbits about the Expos attempts to create a pipeline to Cuba in the early days of the organization. Linares finished his playing career with a .368 batting average and over 400 home runs. What might have been!
The second was where some dude felt it necessary to ask him about the Mike Sirotka trade and Gord responded by saying that it taught him a lot about properly evaluating injuries and that he and Doug Melvin’s staff in Milwaukee have won training staff of the year the past two seasons. But he also tossed out ‘It’s been 16 years, thanks for bringing that up! Let it go!’ Which sounds kind of pissy as I write it, but was actually well delivered and funny in the moment.
All in all, it was a great night. It was my second Pitch Talks event, and I have to say, leading off with the heavy-hitter in Shapiro made a ton of sense. At the last event I attended, things took a while to get going, and the crowd got restless waiting for keynote speaker Buster Olney. This evening flowed a lot better, though that might have had something to do with the fact that the season has started and the silly preponderance of talent on the stage. A little birdie told me that they’re going to start vetting the questions next time around, so there’ll hopefully be less clowns and more substance, but I mean, they do encourage you to drink alcohol at these things (amirite, Zwelling?), so you’ll win some and lose some.
If you haven’t been to a Pitch Talks yet and you’re a
nerd fan of the Jays, I’d highly recommend checking it out.