CLEVELAND (AP) – As his throat clogged with emotion, Mark Shapiro avoided making eye contact with his wife and two kids so he wouldn’t break down crying.
Saying goodbye to the Indians – his baseball family for half his 48 years – was tough.
Shapiro barely finished his opening remarks before tearing up.
“I almost made it all the way through,” he said, turning to owner Paul Dolan.
After rising through Cleveland’s front office, building the Indians into consistent winners and directing the renovation of Progressive Field, Shapiro is leaving after this season to join the Toronto Blue Jays as their new president and CEO.
It was a difficult decision for Shapiro, who became one of baseball’s most respected executives in 24 years with the Indians. But the chance to grow personally and professionally in Toronto, a vibrant city that’s caught baseball fever with the Blue Jays swinging their way to the top of the AL East, was irresistible.
“I’m a lot about wanting to become better, wanting to grow, wanting to develop,” Shapiro said. “To do that, you have to be challenged. This opportunity for me would be the right challenge at the right time of our lives and of my life.”
Shapiro will replace Toronto CEO Paul Beeston, who is retiring. The Blue Jays, who haven’t been to the postseason since winning their second straight World Series in 1993, have been looking for a top executive for months and feel they’ve landed one of the best in the 48-year-old Shapiro.
“Mark is a seasoned baseball veteran, whose leadership, drive for excellence, and commitment to all aspects of the game is impressive. We have confidence that he is the right person to lead the Toronto Blue Jays into the future and build upon the franchise’s legacy,” Blue Jays Chairman Edward Rogers said.
Shapiro has been with the Indians since 1992, when he began as an assistant in baseball operations. On Monday, he recalled his first day on the job, climbing the steps of decrepit Cleveland Stadium and walking to the tiny cubicle that served as his first professional office.
“I really spent exactly half my life here,” Shapiro said. “That’s incredible. It’s hard to imagine the path this has been, the journey it has been.”
Shapiro made it clear from the start that he was not going to discuss much about his future with the Blue Jays. There will be time for that. Instead, he reflected on his time with the Indians, who made the World Series twice and just missed getting there a third time with Shapiro in their front office. He was twice named baseball’s executive of the year.
After he was approached last month by the Blue Jays, Shapiro met with Dolan, who was not surprised to learn that Toronto was interested in him. Dolan never tried to discourage Shapiro from leaving.
“He knew that we wanted him here and we wanted him to stay, but I didn’t try to talk him out of it because I’ve been with Mark for 16 years,” Dolan said. “I know how he thinks and I know how he wants to progress and develop and I know that he was at the right place, the organization was at the right place.
“This is the natural progression for where Mark has been and where he’s going.”
Dolan said the president’s responsibilities will be spread among other front-office members . Also, Shapiro’s departure will not affect GM Chris Antonetti or manager Terry Francona, who said he will not use an opt-out clause in his contract to get out of his deal.
The addition of Shapiro is another bold stroke by the Blue Jays, who have been transformed by the signings of free agents Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin and trades for Troy Tulowitzki and Davd Price. Toronto has bigger plans, including major renovations to Rogers Centre, a project that made Shapiro an enticing candidate.
Shapiro has at least another month with the Indians, who have managed to climb back into the wild-card discussion. On Monday, they opened a three-game series in Toronto, but Shapiro said his allegiance won’t be tested just yet.
“I will certainly be a little more interested in the opponent than I have in the past, but I will be a Cleveland Indian,” he said. “There will be a part of me that, if they are not playing the team I am working for, I will always be a Cleveland Indian.”