LIKE FAMILY

, Photography By Tagwa Moyo
A secret weapon in free-agent talks, Shannon Curley “does everything for everyone” in the Blue Jays organization

S
hannon Curley had a few days to prepare heading into the Toronto Blue Jays’ video call with free-agent outfielder George Springer in January 2021. That may not seem like much time, but for Curley, the organization’s senior manager of player relations and community marketing, it was relatively luxurious — sometimes these calls come together quickly, forcing her to think on her feet. She immediately dove deep on Springer, learning everything she could about the veteran. When she discovered he really enjoyed a specific brand of American beer, Curley asked Blue Jays’ graphic designers to create a motion slide of Springer sitting on a dock in Muskoka, a region of Ontario cottage country, holding that beverage and then, in the next frame, a Canadian brand in its place. After learning of Springer’s passion for music, she got her team to photoshop him sitting on the outside of the CN Tower — an ode to the cover of Drake’s 2016 album, Views.

Springer and his wife, Charlise, were expecting their first child at the time. Curley found out they were having a boy and shipped a baby Blue Jays jersey to the couple, who hadn’t told anyone the name they were going to choose. Curley put “George” on the back of the shirt — it was an educated guess, given that Springer, his grandfather and father all share the same name. She ended up being correct.

“He was like, ‘How did you know?’” Curley recalls. “And I’m like, ‘I didn’t. My gut just told me to send you a “George” jersey.’”

These personal elements were helpful in building trust with Springer and letting him know the club valued him as a person and not just an asset. Springer certainly got that impression and felt Curley and Co. were sincere. They also provided the answers to several pressing questions he had about moving to a different country, a daunting proposition for anyone. Springer wanted to know about doctors and about childcare. Was there a designated area in Rogers Centre where he could hang out with his son? If he was on the road and Charlise and little George were staying in Toronto, would they be taken care of?

“Shannon was huge,” Springer says. “She just said, ‘I got you. I’ll help you with whatever it is that you need.’ Obviously, I have to make sure that my wife and son are taken care of. She basically went down the list of all the stuff that, if we needed it, they got it covered. And she has been spot-on since that exact call.”

“I thought, Why don’t more clubs focus this much on family? If I were working for teams out there, I would prioritize that.”

Curley, 32, has been with the Blue Jays for a decade and wears many hats for the franchise, operating seamlessly between different departments. She’s earned the respect of the players, is a point-person for their families and has become integral to the day-to-day operation of the club. Given that she works for the only team outside the United States, her role is unparalleled in Major League Baseball. No one else in the sport must sell players on moving to a new country and assuage concerns about working in Canada. Curley is also the driving force behind the Blue Jays’ internal focus on family and it’s not hyperbole to say she’s among the most influential people in the organization.

“The whole family aspect was a big deciding factor and played a lot into where I was going to decide to sign,” says pitcher Kevin Gausman, who the team pursued in free agency late last year. “Really, where the Blue Jays won me over was in our Zoom call … And the more I talked and reached out to people and got to know what I should expect, it was kind of mind-blowing. I thought, Why don’t more clubs [focus this much on family]? If I were working for teams out there, I would prioritize that.”

I
t’s almost as if Curley was destined to work for the Blue Jays. She was born and raised in downtown Toronto and with her parents being season-ticket holders during the 1990s, Curley was a regular at Rogers Centre. She was an avid softball player growing up but didn’t think she could have a future in the game. Instead, Curley set her sights on a career in finance and, after high school, moved to Nova Scotia to pursue a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Dalhousie University.

It was on the East Coast that she began to view her hometown ballclub through a different lens. By her fourth year at Dal, she had worked co-op placements at several companies including the Bank of Montreal and Molson. The experiences helped Curley realize that she craved more from her work. She was an active person who enjoyed being on her feet and moving around; sitting at a desk all day just didn’t suit her. Curley attended the Blue Jays’ Winter Tour, which happened to run through Halifax in January 2012, during her final semester. She knew someone who worked for the club and was invited to an event at an elementary school. Witnessing the reaction of children when they met their heroes stirred something inside her. “The national level of our brand really stuck out,” says Curley. “The way that a place that was so far from Toronto had the same excitement of fans [as back home]. The connection that these kids felt to these players and the team, despite being physically removed from Toronto, was eye-opening.”

The Blue Jays continued on to Newfoundland but left a deep imprint on Curley. Three months later, she noticed there was an internship opportunity within the organization and applied. Four days after her final exam she was working for the ballclub.

Curley spent the early years of her tenure as a contract employee but was promoted to a full-time position in 2017. Coming full-circle, she was in charge of planning hospital and school visits. Curley took over the player relations portfolio in 2019 and has handled that ever since. She’s essentially evolved her role into what it is today — Curley is technically on the business side of the organization but has touchpoints across the Blue Jays’ internal ecosystem, working with the media relations team, clubhouse attendants and baseball operations. Her No. 1 priority during the season is to make sure players’ families are comfortable in Toronto. That can include managing the childcare team and being the point of contact for players’ wives. She also makes herself available to pitch in when the unexpected occurs. For example, when travel secretary Mike Shaw fell ill last season, Curley stepped in to handle his responsibilities for a few weeks until he returned. “No day is ever the same in this role, which is also what I like about it,” says Curley. “Every day there’s something new that you’re learning or a new problem you have to solve.”

Every non-baseball request for a player — like an autograph session or an event appearance for season-ticket holders, for example — goes through Curley and because of that, she’s become almost like The Player Whisperer. Her Outlook calendar is filled with every detail imaginable, from birthdays of Blue Jays and their family members to life and career milestones. Those notifications will flood her phone each morning at 8:30 a.m., giving her a sense of what might be going on in an individual player’s life and where their immediate priorities may lie. She’ll consult with the coaching staff to learn players’ schedules and find the best times to schedule requests. It’s a fine balance to make sure nobody is overloaded, and Curley says knowledge of what’s happening off the field is vital. “I find conversations that you have in passing — making the most of five minutes if someone’s at the coffee bar — help,” she says. “I think there’s a bit of a misconception sometimes that every player is this big superstar personality and they’re very loud and they love the attention. But a lot of the players are quieter or they don’t want their families in the public view. So those smaller conversations where I can just say, ‘Hey, how are you doing today?’ [go a long way].

“That’s one of the hardest things to learn is when to push them for stuff and when to pull back and just let them have their time because it is 25 different personalities, it’s not this one cookie-cutter superstar.”

“Not only does she know everything about everyone, but she knows how to address everything with everybody based on who they are and what they prefer.”

Kristin Smoak, wife of former Blue Jays first-baseman Justin Smoak, forged a strong bond with Curley during her five years in Toronto. Both she and her husband were amazed at Curley’s ability to navigate the spectrum of personalities in the clubhouse. “There’s so many that she has to deal with,” Smoak says. “Not only does she know everything about everyone, but she knows how to address everything with everybody based on who they are and what they prefer. Like, she knows how to speak to Justin and get things done the way that he likes it, or talk to him and have conversations with him about the things that he likes versus another person on the team who has a different personality.”

A memory that stands out to Smoak occurred when her youngest daughter, Berkleigh, had a surgery to treat chronic ear infections. Justin was playing that day and Smoak needed to be at the hospital, yet didn’t want her older daughter, Sutton, to come along and have to watch doctors poke and prod at her little sister. Curley insisted Smoak leave Sutton at Rogers Centre and then had the four-year-old shadow her all afternoon. Sutton attended marketing meetings with Curley, notepad in tow. She watched her dad take batting practice and went on a behind-the-scenes tour with Curley and the stadium’s gameday production crew. Sutton was so involved by the end of the day that she asked her mom if she was now a Blue Jays employee.

“I’m in awe of how many hats she wears,” Smoak says of Curley. “And it goes beyond just knowing everything about everyone. She literally does everything for every person and without expectation of anything in return. She does it with such professionalism and just really gets things done. I just can’t believe all of the things that are on her plate and how well she does them.”

Another classic Curley story is the time she packed up Springer’s apartment in Buffalo. The team began the 2021 season playing home games in Dunedin, Fla., then moved to Upstate New York for a short period, before finally heading across the border. When players got word of the move to Canada, Springer was in a jam — his wife was out of town and he needed help with packing because he had to be at the ballpark and was short on time. He texted Curley, who immediately responded — players say she’s shockingly fast to get back when messaged. “I got it,” she wrote.

Curley and community marketing coordinator Erinn White grabbed a bunch of boxes, team equipment bags and tape and, within a few hours, everything from an infant car seat to yoga mats was neatly packed away. They loaded the items on a dolly and wheeled it down the street to a truck in the Sahlen Field parking lot.

“I came back from the stadium that day and was like ‘Whoa,’” says Springer. “There was basically just a bed and a couch in there. I was like, ‘You didn’t have to do that.’ And she did. Her days are long, she’s around us all the time and she’s got a billion other things that she could probably rather be doing.

“And [when we got to Toronto], she even came and helped us unpack our car.”

R
oss Atkins can recall the exact conversation that, for him, crystallized the importance of an organization taking care of a baseball player’s family. He’d first started to grasp the concept when he was a minor-league player in the Cleveland Guardians system, but it came into full focus a few years later, during a conversation with former all-star Sean Casey.

“I remember him sharing with me about how stressful it can be for a player to have all of the tugs and pulls and demands that come with being a professional athlete beyond the expectation to perform, and how demanding that became for him when he got to the Major Leagues,” says Atkins, who worked in the Guardians front office before landing his current role as Blue Jays general manager. “That just really heightened for me the importance for us to ensure we were taking every step possible to be better and better in that area.”

Atkins says the Blue Jays’ place much importance on family and adds that “we’re exceptionally attracted to players who find that as valuable [as we do]. The whole person is important to us and their families are part of that. We want to ensure that we’re making them as comfortable as possible. And when players are thinking about more than just the game and always including their families in their decision-making process, that’s attractive to us.”

Curley embodies the club’s emphasis on family and began taking on a larger role in 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the free-agent courting process into an exclusively virtual affair, it opened the door for her to take a more active role in Zoom sessions, a development that Atkins calls “powerful.” The Blue Jays found more and more players, not to mention family members, were interested in speaking to Curley, who was thrilled by the opportunity. She didn’t find it stressful; quite the opposite — selling people on her hometown and her childhood team allowed her to operate from an area of comfort. “I’ve gotten to meet some really interesting players in baseball, which is sort of that ‘wow’ career moment for me,” says Curley. “‘I can’t believe I’m actually talking to this player who I looked up to for so many years,’ and talking to them and their families and [telling them], ‘It would be so great to have you here in Toronto.’”

The responsibility has allowed her to get creative with the team’s entreaties. The club spoke to a free agent this past winter who didn’t have any children but owned a dog that was extremely important to him. Curley pulled a photo of the pet from the Internet and had it photoshopped so that the pup was wearing a Blue Jays hat.

Conversely, the virtual meeting with Gausman when he was a free agent was rather straight-forward. He was on vacation with his wife, Taylor, and took the call on his iPad after a long travel day. Atkins, Curley and pitching coach Pete Walker represented the Blue Jays and, in addition to baseball talk, Gausman had plenty of questions about what Taylor and their two young daughters could expect in Toronto. He wanted to hear about family events run by the team and learn of the Rogers Centre childcare space: What’s the room like? What are the babysitters like? What’s the minimum age for children? The pitcher raised concerns that some MLB teams shut down family rooms because of COVID and others didn’t take care of children younger than a year old. Curley told Gausman that the Blue Jays’ family room, which is located directly across from the clubhouse, is a priority and its collection of sitters had looked after babies younger than six months old in the past.

“I started doing some research,” says Gausman. “I knew some guys that had played in Toronto. I reached out to [former Orioles teammate] Steve Pearce. My wife talked to his wife a good bit. And the more I talked to people, the more they said, ‘That was my favourite team I’ve been on,’ or ‘The happiest my wife ever was, was while I was playing was with the Blue Jays.’

“Even if the guys are on the road, [the Blue Jays] would set up stuff for the families to come in and have a day on the field,” adds Gausman, who’s plied his trade for five major-league organizations. “Little things like that, I think, a lot of clubs don’t view as priorities. That’s unfortunate because you want to keep the players happy. When stuff is going on with my family and my wife’s not happy, you can tell, and if it’s like that over years and years in one place, life is tough.

“You need somebody like Shannon to take the reins and it’s unfortunate that not every place is like that because, in my mind, it should be.”

Adds Maria Phelps, wife of Blue Jays reliever David Phelps, who has pitched for seven different MLB clubs: “Our first summer there [in 2019], we kind of jumped in with three kids and I was pregnant. They had the same sitters who have been there for so many years and are so committed and dedicated and work together — they just had their system down and were so welcoming to a new family … the family situation there is so amazing. That comes from the organization. It’s something that the organization prioritizes and then supports. Shannon supports the sitters in doing everything that they do. I think all the teams make a lot of accommodations, but it’s just clearly a big priority in Toronto.”

L
ife for Springer was different when he played for the Houston Astros. He wasn’t married until 2018 and didn’t have a family of his own while playing in Texas. However, once his son was born, Springer’s priorities naturally shifted. He arrived in Toronto with a mindset different from any other point in his previous seven big-league seasons.

“It’s my job, I believe, to make sure that my wife and my son are okay at all times,” Springer says. “And to be on the road is hard. To not be around, just in case something goes wrong. If I miss something [at home] it’s hard on me. And I know it’s hard on a lot of guys in here. But to know that they are in good hands if I’m not around, allows me to sleep a little bit better. Knowing that if push comes to shove, I can call Shannon in and ask for help or whatever the case is, is huge.”

“You need somebody like Shannon to take the reins and it’s unfortunate that not every place is like that because, in my mind, it should be.”

Curley takes immense pride in being able to remove off-the-field stressors from players so they can devote more focus to their on-the-field jobs. However, the most satisfying part of her work is building meaningful relationships with people and impacting their lives in a positive way. Over the past decade, Curley has had a chance to watch parents and children hit important milestones in their lives. “These are families whose kids you watch grow up,” she says, wiping tears from her eyes. “Like Justin Smoak’s daughter, Sutton — she came to us as a baby. She’s now [seven years old] and you’re watching them grow up and they feel like a part of your family because you spend nine months a year with them. It’s incredibly satisfying to see them grow up and feel like you’ve been a part of their life.

“I got George’s baby a passport at one month old last year,” she adds with a smile. “Now I’m going to see him continue to grow up. He’s going to be here for a while and I’m going to see him leave as a completely different kid.”

Tagwa Moyo/Sportsnet (4)

This content was originally published here.