I sat down with Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro for a 45-minute interview last Monday morning at his office at Progressive Field. I took that to write a column that appeared on Ohio.com and in the Akron Beacon Journal today. Here is the full interview.
Q: What kind of president do you think you will be? A Hank Peters kind of guy who makes all the big decisions? Or a president who stays out of GM Chris Antonetti’s way?
A: If it were someone other than Chris, that I had not worked with for nine or 10 years, that I didn’t have that much confidence and faith in and understand how he thinks and arrives at decisions, I may be a little more concrete in how I intercede. My expectation is that I’ll be a resource for him and that ultimately when he comes to his recommendation, I’ll know the process he used to arrive at it and I’ll rubber stamp it. But I also think that I’ll serve the role of asking questions or playing devil’s advocate, ensuring it’s aligned with our business, where we are at that time, and when we take it to Paul Dolan that we’ve gone through a rigorous process.
I still view myself as being involved in baseball operations at a strategic level, at key decision-making intervals and being a resource to a lot of leaders around the organization that I have relationships with. I’m largely staying here because how vested I am in the organization and it’s that side of the organization I’m vested in.
Q: Was it always your ambition to be president of the Indians?
A: Starting a couple years into my GM tenure it was something I thought someday at some point I had a lot of interest in doing. I told Paul Dolan that. I never set a time frame on it, have never done that at any point in my career. But the nature of the job as it exists today and the nature of the dynamics in Cleveland, it probably was the best way for me to stay with the Indians and stay positive and energetic. At a certain point the cycles kind of take their toll on you physically and mentally. To be the leader I want to be, this gives me the best opportunity to stay here, which I care about doing.
Q: Couldn’t you go to a bigger market and it would be easier to get a team back on track?
A: Yeah. I’ve had junctures to look at those alternatives. You walk down those roads and the things that sound seductive when you’re distanced from them, then you walk through the actual mechanics` It’s very easy to take for granted the positives in a situation. Ultimately I placed a huge value on the positives here h the dynamic ownership gives me in my current role as GM and hopefully my future role as president, the culture that exists here on the baseball operations side and the people I work with. It’s very rare in professional sports to have 19 years. Over 19 years, I’ve got strong bonds and ties to a lot of people here. The third thing is the community. I met my wife here, I’m raising my kids here. I don’t take for granted what a great place this is to raise a family.
Q: How old are the kids now?
A: They’re 6 and 8.
Q: Are you going to be more of a dad as president?
A: The one clear change for me as a dad is spring training. There were times in the last two years where I saw them nine days in seven weeks. I’m not like that; I’m not like the football guys. For the first five years of Caden’s life, Lissa had them down here every night for dinner for all the home games. That changed three years ago, they’re going to school five days a week. During homestands, there would be four days where I’d see them half an hour in the mornings and that was it.
The homestands are still going to be a challenge; I still have to be here a lot. But spring training, that seven straight weeks away with them only coming out for nine days ` They started coming the whole time, then they came five weeks, then they came three, now it’s down to nine days. The Skype conversations, especially on the West Coast when it’s 4 in the morning when I’d have to wake up to talk to them.
As much as I love spring training, that was really tough being away. That’s the biggest difference. I’m still going to care just as much if we win, but from a time clock as GM, your schedule gets directly impacted by what happens in the game. Whether you have to stay up late working on a player move or on some event, I’ll be working on that at a higher altitude so it’s not going to affect the next day’s schedule as much.
Q: There’s a perception you and Chris are cut from the same cloth, maybe because you talk alike.
A: You spend so much time with someone, you end up talking like them. We don’t think the same way.
Q: Is it going to be different because you guys are like brothers?
A: If you could have a glimpse at the process before we arrive at a decision, you’d recognize how different we are in the way we think. Different skill sets, different experience, totally different paths to get there. I have incredible respect for Chris, most importantly on a character and integrity level. He’s the kind of guy who makes you a better human being when you’re around him because he walks the walk. I have respect for his work ethic and his process and his discipline.
He’s got far greater intelligence than me. I’m more of a feel guy, talk to everyone, get a feel and operate on the depth of my experience. That’s a little more old school as far as a sports executive. He’s analytical, more process-driven. Numbers play a big part in it. I think when we arrive there, I’ve got so much confidence in the amount of work he’s put into his recommendation that it weights his recommendations a lot. There’s been times when we’ve disagreed. Same thing with Wedgie, he and I were not the same guy, either. But when we arrive at a decision, the respect and trust is there so we’re unified in going forward with that decision. But along the way there’s disagreements, sometimes strong disagreements. Battles. There’s voices being raised. But that happens behind closed doors. Once we move forward, we move forward together.
Q: Do you feel energized by what’s ahead? The state of the team seems daunting.
A: That can weigh you down. There’s still been nights this summer that it’s still daunting and I still feel that weight driving home. I try to get back to ’02 and ’03 and what it felt like and look at us now and think we’re in a better position now than we were in ’03 and probably even ’04. If you go around the diamond, we’ve got more talent and our system is in a better position than it was then. The game’s changed also.
But yeah, this has given me something else to focus on and to grow and learn. I’ve been 19 years looking at the game from the same seat, from the same perspective. I’ve watched every game behind home plate for 19 years. Now I’m walking ballparks, looking at the way fans are watching games. I’m looking at entertainment, I’m looking at the way kids are watching the game. I’m up in the Green Monster in Boston. I’m over in the Budweiser Party Deck in Boston. I’m checking out Target Field from every section. I’m watching the game from a different perspective and I’m thinking about the game in a different way. I’m not getting away from the game, my instincts are still to read the baseball news first. But it’s given me a more complete perspective and a better appreciation of fans.
Q: You do have die-hard fans that maybe can’t afford to come to the games.
A: I don’t think it’s that they can’t afford to come to the games, I think there’s just less of them. I think that’s the biggest issue. You’re talking about a city that’s lost 7 percent of its population in a short period of time, an affluent 7 percent. You’re talking about a city that’s lost three Fortune 500 companies and National City Bank on top of those three. All those people had people who came to these games. Those are tough losses for the city and they’re tough for anyone who depends upon the city to be its market.
More alarming than people not coming when were losing is the numbers weren’t as big as we expected when we won 96 games, 93 games. When you start to dissect it, demographics play a much larger role.
Q: Isn’t that happening all over?
A: The Reds, Tampa and San Diego are not getting their return. That speaks to the challenges within the major league system right now. You’re going to have cycles. The only parity that exists is small market teams will cycle through, then they have to go back down again. For the fan that’s hard and they’re not as apt to come back in big numbers as they might have been years ago because they don’t always have the hope when they leave opening day. They don’t always have tangible hope. That’s a challenge for the game to address. While you’re never going to even the playing field, if you could create that hope, that would be a good thing.
Q: Where are the Indians in this cycle?
A: We’re at the hump or over the hump. I know it doesn’t feel that way for fans right now, but watching Carmona and Carrasco demonstrate what they’re capable of doing in the second half and knowing they have the stuff and weapons to be front of the rotation guys, the progress of Masterson over the last six weeks, knowing Talbot, Gomez and Tomlin have emerged as pieces of a rotation, they weren’t that prior to the season. Alex White and Pomeranz, pitching is the key. Our lineup prior to Santana getting hurt was producing at a pretty good clip. He’s one guy who completely changes our lineup. You add him and Grady and we’ve got a much better lineup.
The one thing that perplexes me is infield defense; we need to get better there. It’s going to be a challenge for us to win with as many sinkerballers as we have with our infield defense as poor as it is right now. I’m watching for Chris to tell me how we’re going to improve the infield defense.
Q: Your goals seem clear, third base and starting pitching.
A: Third base and starting pitching, if we can upgrade above the guys we’ve got. We’ve got seven or eight alternatives. We’re never going to get a No. 1 starter; we can’t compete in free agency. You look at the Twins this year, they’re among the league leaders in wins and they don’t have a No. 1, they actually don’t have a No. 2. I guess Pavano’s pitched like a 2, but he doesn’t have that kind of stuff. Liriano’s pitched like a 2, but Baker, Duensing, Blackburn, these guys have pitched like 4s and 5s. There are plenty of models of teams that win a lot of games without a No. 1 starter.
What we’ve had is two guys emerge with the stuff to pitch towards the front of the rotation in Carmona and Carrasco and we’ve got Chris Perez, who’s been the best reliever in baseball since June. That’s a closer, you’ve got a good chance to build a bullpen. Look how much better the bullpen has gotten once he established himself. And we’ve had some unbelievable performances in our farm system. Bryce Stowell or Vinnie Pestano or Zach Putnam, we had guys at Triple-A who were dominant in the bullpen with stuff.
I feel like our biggest questions are how the rotation takes shape and infield defense. I feel like the pieces are there position-player wise.
Q: Even at third?
A: There’s not a team in baseball that’s going to go in with set answers at every position with championship-caliber players. While we may not have a definitive answer, we’ve got guys coming who are pretty exciting. We may have an interim guy, someone may step forward, we may make an acquisition. I don’t know. But if we only have one real gaping hole in our position players, that’s not bad at all.
Q: Didn’t you get in this rut because of poor drafts?
A: It’s part of it, but if you look at our overall acquisitions, it’s still above average. Teams that are good in the draft are terrible with their trades. We’ve been in the top in all of baseball in our trades and been in the lower echelon in our drafts. The last two years appear to have been very good, if you look at (Alex) White, (Jason) Kipnis and (Joe) Gardner, our first three picks two years ago finished among the best in the league they were in. This year we took another step, we drafted a lot of guys we feel good about. It has created a gap for us, but we artificially filled the gap with trades h (Carlos) Santana, (Lou) Marson, (Matt) LaPorta, (Jason) Donald. If you don’t have ‘em, you’ve got to trade for those guys.
Q: Does part of you still feel bad about trading CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee?
A: Less than you think. There was no active choice. It wasn’t like, ‘Do you want to keep CC?’ I’m not sure what to feel bad about. I feel good about him. I look at CC when he comes through town. Me watching the game through my son’s eyes now, he’s like, ‘Why did you trade Vic?’ (Victor Martinez) Vic’s a great guy, a great hitter, my favorite player, why did you trade him?’ He doesn’t want to hear the intellectual reason. It may be clear for me, but to a fan it’s not that clear.
But when Vic comes through he texts me and says, ‘Bring Caden by, I want to see him.’ And he hugs him and gives him a jersey and they spend time talking. The relationships with the guys that matter to me, Vic and CC, that hasn’t changed. That will never change. I’ve known CC since he was 18. Twenty years from now I’ll have respect for the person he is.
I didn’t make an active decision, ‘Do I want Cliff? Do I want Vic? Do I want CC?’ My job is ‘Find a way to win.’ It’s not always easy and I don’t enjoy those moments. But I’m driven by trying to return what the fans want, which is winning.
Q: Trading away Cy Young winners seems like it will be part of your legacy.
A: The most important legacy is what kind of father I am, what kind of husband, brother, friend, then professionally it’s what kind of leader am I. I want to be judged on the wins and losses and I also know the realities and I can only impact so much here.
I look at my legacy as Chris Antonetti, Josh Byrnes, Mike Chernoff, Paul DePodesta. The people I’ve been able to work with and be around. I’m not concerned about any legacy beyond that. I’m driven to do the best I can competitively and put the best team on the field, then I still have to sleep.
Q: How involved are you going to be in stadium issues, like what kind of beer you sell?
A: Initially I’ve got a lot to learn, so I’m listening and asking questions. People who have been here for 20 years know that business inside and out. I’ve never viewed myself as a person who would know better than someone else. Hopefully I can help shape and align the business and baseball departments together so as we plan we can spur some different ways in looking at things. There’s a negative in not having done it for a long time and there’s a positive.
My role will evolve. The day the title changes, that’s never been who I am. I would expect to lead the same in that job as I did in this job.
Q: The idea for the winter sounds interesting.
A: That’s a collective thing to get more people in our ballpark and use it for more than 81 days.
Q: Was there a point in your GM tenure where you stopped beating yourself up every night when you drove home from the park?
A: No. There’s no way. I’m not sure I’m going to care any less in my next capacity.
Q: Do the little things grate on you less?
A: You need to ask me a year from now. There have been a couple times during long rain delays where I went to bed. I’ve never done that. I’m like, ‘Hey, Chris has got it.’ There’s been a couple nights this season during those long homestands where I went home for dinner, watched the game from home. I’ve never done that before. There’s not any reason I can’t do that, but I’ve never done it because I felt I needed to be here to talk to the manager after the games. The second half of the year, those were small changes.
But how I feel, no different. That feeling emanates from feeling accountable. There are two subsets of people hanging on what you’re doing. Internally, there are people who are feeding their families by our success or failure. And second, there’s a subset of our community, our fans and beyond who care about the Indians, who are looking for you to boost their morale. If you’re letting anyone down, you feel that. What happens in the game that night influences how I feel about those two covenants.
Q: Do you still feel the fans’ pain?
A: Oh, yeah. It’s not their pain; it’s my pain. I share their pain. I think the right word is accountability, that’s what the job is.
Q: The day you hand over the reins, will you feel like it’s a changing of the guard?
A: I don’t because it’s been so gradual. We were even saying the other day, ‘What’s the date again?’ I think it’s like when the season ends. As we started the business plan for next year, that begins in earnest in August. Chris and I talked and I said, ‘After the trade deadline, I’m going to treat it largely like we’re going to treat it next year. I’m going to be involved. When we sit down with the staff at the end of the season I’m going to sit in those meetings, but you’re going to run ‘em. I’m not going to do the individual meetings that I’ve done at the end of every season, you’re going to do ‘em.’
I’ve sat in all the budget meetings, the business planning meetings, the sales and marketing planning meetings, I’ve started to go to the weekly business updates. That transition is well under way.
Q: So you won’t have a day where your life flashes in front of your eyes?
A: I don’t think so. I imagine when I do the end of the season media, I’m planning on doing it with Chris, it will be somewhat reflective. I don’t know what’s going to happen in my future. I don’t know if I’m going to be a GM again. I’m not closing the doors to anything. Not here, but who knows what my future entails. I’ve never once in my life looked at a destination or a targeted goal. You look at doing a good job at what you’re doing and opportunities present themselves.
Q: You’re not ruling out being a GM again.
A: I never close the door. I don’t know how I’m going to feel about this or react to doing this. I’m committed to doing it and I’ve got 19 years of demonstrating that I believe in stability and continuity. I wouldn’t bet on me leaving. But who knows? I’ve got to demonstrate that I can add value and make a difference in that role and also be happy doing it. And I’ve got to be held accountable for making a difference in that role for Paul and Larry. (Dolan).
Q: Do you feel they’re gambling on you that you can do it?
A: I never thought about it that way. I’m a pretty confident guy. I guess I view it as if you’re a good leader and can bring people together and get them focused behind something and help them build a plan, that that’s transferable. The danger is professing knowing something I don’t know.
Q: Are you worried you don’t have any baseball people in upper management?
A: That’s something Chris is aware of, you need to complement yourself by listening to those people, make sure you’re balanced in your feedback and and input. There are people the fans may not know about who play a large role, like a Steve Lubratich, an ex-player, an ex-assistant GM, farm director, GM, guys like that are in the room. Ross Atkins is an ex-minor league player. It’s not the same as it has been at times in our evolution, but that voice is still a strong voice.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment as your time as GM?
A: Yeah, the clinch against Oakland that Sunday afternoon.
Q: Was it something about the team that made it special?
A: It was along the way believing in something that so few people believed was possible. Knowing to accomplish it, the people who were with you through it had to believe it strongly so you were with each other. Looking at Chris, looking at Eric (Wedge) and looking at those players, they were good guys. There was that affirmation that you can put the quality of players as people and not only talent, you can factor that in, and you cannot compromise those values and still win. All around you, you can see people who talk the talk about character but they don’t really walk the walk. We didn’t do it. We walked away from very talented players and we rewarded and stayed focused on the guys we believed in. I knew how fragile it was, I was completely aware of it at that moment, and knew it had to be appreciated. It was an awesome night. I didn’t take it for granted. I let myself enjoy every second of that and beating the Yankees, and I didn’t sulk when we lost to the Red Sox.
In hindsight I replay (the loss to the Red Sox) in my head, but at that moment I was more focused on the positive moments of what was an incredible season and a journey from ’02 to that point.
Q: The loss to the Red Sox still hangs over people, it was crushing.
A: To be up 3-1 ` it wasn’t for me in that moment, but when I revisit it now it’s tougher. In that moment I was proud of what we accomplished. When you’re in it you don’t evaluate it by the exact same standards. You can’t be black and white, failure or success. It was largely a successful year for me and a fruition of a plan and a strategy that blood, sweat and tears were clearly vested in.
Q: Was it hard to follow John Hart, who had such a tangible plan?
A: The terrain changed. Every positive attribute possible was going right. There was no football team in town, not a very competitive basketball team in town, a brand new ballpark, which is a huge multiplier in revenue. The rest of the league was coming off the strike so our revenues were amplified beyond belief. They were all depressed and we were oblivious to that depression. Not winning for 40 years, everything converged, and the city was in a much better place.
I dealt with everything kind of going the other way. Football’s back, the basketball team not only is good but they have LeBron James. Our revenues were shocking. When you look back at our projections, we never thought they would (drop) to where they were.
That plan is what I bought into when I joined the Indians in ’92, I bought into John and Dan (O’Dowd) and their vision. It was based upon a new ballpark and we didn’t have the new ballpark to base it upon here.
We bought into a plan that we could turn around a club in less than five years, a whole roster, and get back into contention and we did it. If you look at the history of baseball, it’s unprecedented. Turning over a major league roster that was a contending team for eight years and getting back into contention and doing it in 3.5 years, that’s a huge accomplishment.
If you look at the history of baseball, it doesn’t happen. The Reds lost for 16 years. The Twins had 71-win seasons for eight straight years before this run. We didn’t go through that. We went through 3.5 years of losing and that was it. And we turned the entire roster over and won 93 games. I have to look at it and judge it by a different standard than a fan.
Q: Now the city’s ripe for the taking.
A: We’ve got to do it. All three teams feel that sense of responsibility, recognize the need is there with the struggles Cleveland has had economically and we’re all trying to do it.
Q: Who’s going to fill the void with LeBron gone? Maybe you will have an impact on that.
A: I hope I have an impact. I genuinely think what’s best for the city is that it get lifted no matter who lifts it, or that we all lift it together. You could say that LeBron James leaving was good for our business, but I viewed it as a net negative. I care about the people over there, the city doesn’t need any more reason to feel negative about itself, it’s got plenty. I think the negative energy that comes out of that is not a positive.
I want positive things for the city. I’ve had 19 years here, I believe in the city. I’ve lived here more years than any place in my life now. I want good things for the city, my kids are growing up here, and that’s what I’m committed to doing and I’m going to work hard to get it done.