Old front-office pals will square off in ALCS

Blue Jays' Shapiro, Atkins left Cleveland for Toronto in 2015

October 11th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- Four words sufficed in the text Indians owner Paul Dolan sent Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro on Monday night, after the Tribe had punched its ticket to face Toronto in the American League Championship Series, starting Friday night at Progressive Field (8 p.m. ET on TBS and, in Canada, Sportsnet and RDS).

"I'm not saying anything," Dolan wrote, presumably with a smile spread across his face.

Yes, they'll abstain from any prediction or talking of trash in private. And the truth is it's hard for those intimately involved with Shapiro's October homecoming to know what to say in public. For Dolan, for Shapiro, for Tribe president Chris Antonetti, for Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins and for all the other front-office folk caught up in this postseason plot twist, this is all very fun -- and all very strange, too.

:: ALCS: Blue Jays vs. Indians coverage ::

It is the nature of Shapiro and any executive worth his reserved parking space to let the focus be on the players -- the guys who, you know, actually prompt people to plunk down their hard-earned dollars. That's how it should be.

But even if it has zero impact on the outcome of the ALCS, the subplot featuring the stewards of these respective AL franchises makes for good pre-series banter, if nothing else.

"When it comes down to playing them for an opportunity to play in the World Series, there's only one emotion and desire, and that's to beat them and to win," Shapiro said. "When all is said and done, we'll hug and have deep friendships and lasting friendships."

Shapiro spent nearly a quarter-century with the Indians, rising from unpaid intern to team president, and remaking and reshaping a club whose budget parameters changed drastically when the string of Jacobs Field sellouts ended. Along the way, Shapiro molded an organizational culture that continues to impact the industry in dramatic ways, as evidenced most recently by 33-year-old assistant GM Derek Falvey being entrusted with the Twins' chief baseball operations position.

John Hart's amazing family front-office tree continues to extend outward, even touching another sport entirely.

But in the summer of 2015 -- before the Blue Jays even went on their late-season win binge -- Shapiro was approached by a Toronto team not only successful in the present tense, but with the long-term ability to become one of the sport's economic giants. It was an offer Shapiro couldn't refuse, and so he departed his native organization and his native land to spread his wings north of the border.

When popular GM Alex Anthopoulos rightly felt his power compromised by the move and opted to exit, Shapiro brought Atkins, who was the Tribe's vice president of player personnel, along for the ride.

While it was clear, going into the year, that the Blue Jays had the potential to be really good and the Indians had the potential to be really good, there was no way of knowing they'd find themselves here, staging this October storyline. And again, while it's the players who play the games, the fact that both clubs got here is, in some measure, a testament to the dudes in the polo shirts.

A cynic would suggest that, in taking over a Toronto team that reached the ALCS a year ago, the job Shapiro and Atkins inherited was easy.

Far from it, in fact.

A top-heavy payroll and a farm system thinned by Anthopoulos' necessary aggression last summer meant rounding out the roster in the sort of low-profile ways that were Shapiro's operational standard with the Indians.

They're still not especially popular with the fan base because of who they replaced and when, but Shapiro and Atkins had a very good year, plain and simple. They took the bait that was 's second half in Pittsburgh last year and watched him put together a borderline AL Cy Young Award season in the first season of a three-year contract. They rebuilt the bullpen on the fly in-season, with two low-key (but ultimately key) pickups in and (right up until Benoit tore his calf muscle in quite possibly the dumbest benches-clearing dustup of all time). They successfully managed 's innings so that he could still be here, standing upright and starting in October.

Obviously, this was already a good ballclub, but it's not like it was one that could be thrown on autopilot -- especially not with enduring an injury plagued campaign.

"Mark and Ross entered a situation with really high expectations," Antonetti said. "Knowing the two of them really well, neither was going to back down from that challenge. They built off a strong foundation in place in Toronto and put together some pieces to complement that to give them a chance to get to the World Series."

The respect, of course, flows the other way, as well.

This was the first season in which Antonetti and GM Mike Chernoff operated independent of Shapiro's input, but it certainly didn't slow them. . . . The in-season pickups of , and , who hit the huge homer in Game 3 of the ALDS. These guys did great work, too.

"Up until the moment we play them, they're a team that I watch closely and pull for, because of the strength of the relationships," Shapiro said. "I certainly admire the moves they've made this year. But this is not a moment for admiration, but for figuring out how to beat 'em."

Shapiro has been in this uncomfortable position before. When the Indians advanced to the 2007 ALCS, they faced the Red Sox, where Terry Francona, a former special advisor and one of his closest friends in the industry, was the manager and John Farrell, Shapiro's former farm director, was the pitching coach. Now, the Indians have Francona at the helm, having just disposed of Farrell's Sox.

In the end, it all goes and comes around.

But who would have thought the Shapiro vs. Indians storyline would come around in their first October apart?