When the Toronto Blue Jays open the American League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians on Friday night, there will be no issue of mixed loyalty for Baltimore native and Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, but it certainly is an emotionally complicated situation.
Shapiro was the president of the Indians a little more than a year ago, so his fingerprints are all over the team that just swept past the Boston Red Sox in their American League Division Series. He officially became president of the Blue Jays last Oct. 31, so the team he now oversees and will be rooting for was largely in place before he headed north of the border.
He made to secret, however, of his preference when the Indians were seeded into their ALDS series against the Red Sox, even though he also has had close personal and professional ties to several members of the Boston front office and coaching staff.
"I've got relationships over there with [the Red Sox's] John Farrell, Torey Lovullo, Carl Willis and Mike Hazen — all those guys are guys I hired and all those guys are guys I have deep friendships with,'' Shapiro said by telephone from Toronto on Tuesday. "So, it wasn't personal against the Red Sox, but it was more personal for the Indians.
"You can't deny the history…You can't deny the relationship. Up until the moment we play them, all the way through the playoffs, I'd pull for those guys. The relationships are deeper than a normal baseball friendship."
Heading into the playoffs, the Blue Jays were a long shot American League wild card team and the Indians weren't exactly a hot pick to roll over a Red Sox team that featured 20-game winner Rick Porcello and $217 million pitcher David Price at the front of its postseason starting rotation.
That's the beauty of the baseball's four-tiered playoff format. It's almost impossible to predict what's going to happen in the single-game wild-card showdowns or in the best-of-five division series. The Blue Jays also made quick work of the top-seeded Texas Rangers after having to battle the O's into extra innings just to stay alive. The best-of-seven ALCS should be a truer test.
Shapiro has been around baseball so long that even the wild-card round was involved sentiment.
He has deep roots in Baltimore, where his father — attorney and author Ron Shapiro — represented many of the Orioles' greatest players before taking his negotiating techniques beyond the realm of sports and founding the Shapiro Negotiations Institute.
The ALCS will open at Progressive Field, which had not yet opened its gates when Shapiro first joined the Indians organization in 1991. He worked there for two decades, has already has been back during the regular season and he hasn't really been gone long enough to get too nostalgic.
"I certainly have a deep history there — a deep and a long one and a lot of really strong relationships add a different dynamic going back in there,'' he said. "But when pitches get thrown, and we played them seven times this year, you get back to, it's about the players and it's about what happens on the field and you just want to win."
Who will win is very much an open question. The Blue Jays feature an explosive lineup built around reigning MVP Josh Donaldson, two-time home run champ Jose Bautista and superstar slugger Edwin Encarnacion. The Indians are not in the same class when it comes to name recognition or home run frequency, but they scored more runs during the regular season than every American League team except the Red Sox.
What they have in abundance is team chemistry, which has allowed them to overcome the loss of two important members of their starting rotation.
"We certainly have a veteran-laden team of guys that have done some incredible things, particularly from an offensive perspective,'' Shapiro said. "The Indians are a younger team, but there are some veteran guys over there that have made a big impact, who have come in since I left, like Mike Napoli. Jason Kipnis has really hit his prime and, obviously Tito [manager Terry Francona] makes a big impact and a big difference for that team as well."
If they appear to have gotten to the ALCS on different paths, they are very similar in a couple of important ways. The Jays and Indians rank first and second in the league in team ERA and rank third and fourth respectively with almost identical on-base percentages.
It's tempting to look at the construction of the Indians roster and try to divine some idea of which direction the Blue Jays will go during the Mark Shapiro era. Shapiro said that it's difficult to draw any conclusions from the big league rosters of teams in different divisions and in different economic circumstances.
"I think the bigger thing to look at would be the Indians player development and scouting and not the major league team,'' he said. "I think the operating perameters that exist for every team are going to dictate how you make decisions and how you build a team. They are different here than they are in Cleveland and obviously in the division.
"However, the one thing that is absolutely certain is the process for making a good decision is the same…and the fact that if you have a healthy, productive, sustained farm system, you have the best chance possible to have a sustainable championship team. The two things you see that would be similar would be how we make decisions and that we will be relentless in building a productive farm system."
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and follow him @Schmuckstop on Twitter.