Wilner on Blue Jays: Reason to be excited

November 20, 2012, 6:40 PM

In one introductory news conference, new Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons smiled, laughed and kibbitzed more than John Farrell did in two years on the job.

Looking comfortable, relaxed and familiar, albeit in a Jays uniform different from the ones he wore in years previous, Gibbons cracked wise about media speculation on the Blue Jays’ managerial search (“You guys were way off”), his altercations with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly (“I had a couple of dust-ups”) and even his folksy, down-home Texas twang (asked a question in french, Anthopoulos suggested Gibbons take a shot at answering and the response was, “I have a hard enough time in English”).

It wasn’t the stand-up comedy routine that Scott Rolen provided when he first met the Toronto media, but it was a breath of fresh air. Not that John Farrell wasn’t good to deal with, he was fine, but he almost always had his guard up and rarely, if ever, allowed any personality to come through.

More importantly, Anthopoulos was beaming the entire time. He rained down platitudes on the man who managed the Blue Jays to a 305-305 record from late 2004 to early 2008, saying that there’s nobody better at managing a bullpen, that Gibbons did an “unbelievable” job while he was here the first time, that he’s great at evaluating players and not afraid to put his foot down when the situation calls for it.

In fact, Anthopoulos called the Hillenbrand and Lilly dust-ups, to which Gibbons referred as a black eye for him personally, as positives. In both cases, something needed to be done and Gibbons did it. Anthopoulos spoke of Lou Piniella getting into physical altercations with players (he famously threw Rob Dibble into a locker in Cincinnati) and even brought up the Cito Gaston/David Wells confrontation in the early ’90s, when Gaston came out to make a pitching change and Wells fired the ball down the left-field line instead of handing it over to the skipper. Gaston took care of things by pinning Wells to a clubhouse wall.

Unfortunately, those controversies are what most fans will remember about the first Gibbons era. What they should remember was that Gibbons impressed Anthopoulos enough during that time with his ability as a tactician, a manager of people and a talent evaluator that once Anthopoulos finished making a huge trade and signing an important free agent, he turned out to be the obvious choice to come back and take over.

Club president Paul Beeston made a point to mention that one important thing he’s learned over the years is that it is “absolutely 100 per cent essential” that the manager and general manager work well together — “Like hand in glove,” he said. Gibbons and Anthopoulos have that kind of relationship.

When you look back at the things Anthopoulos said he wanted in a manager — major-league experience, familiarity with the organization and the city, an edge — they all point squarely at Gibbons. It even took Anthopoulos himself some time to realize that, but once he did, the two-year deal (with a club option for a third) was done over a weekend. Anthopoulos wouldn’t admit it publicly, but odds are he doesn’t think Gibbons should ever have been fired in the first place. The fact that he said he’s more sure about the move to hire Gibbons than any other transaction he’s ever made as a GM, though, speaks volumes.

As far as the team on the field goes, expect Melky Cabrera to be hitting second, between Joses Reyes and Bautista. Cabrera played in Kansas City in 2011, with Gibbons as his bench coach, and the new Jays skipper fell in love with his energy and ability as a hitter. He thinks it won’t take long for Blue Jays fans to fall in love with Cabrera, either. Gibbons did say that he sees Cabrera as more of a top-of-the-order hitter than a middle-of-the-order run producer.

Gibbons also said he’s enamoured with the speed on the team, and while he likes to run, he won’t be stupid about it.

As far as his overall strategy, Gibbons said that when you have a team this talented, often the best thing a manager can do is stay out of the players’ way.

The announcement of Gibbons’ hiring, the Marlins trade (it all started with an inquiry into the availability of Josh Johnson and grew from there once Anthopoulos heard who the Marlins wanted) and the Cabrera signing caps off an incredibly busy week of Blue Jays news and growing Jays buzz all across Canada. Beeston said there’s been a “huge” increase in ticket sales and corporate sponsorship since the news began to break, but added that the financial bottom line isn’t the purpose, “the purpose is to win.”

Beeston also confirmed the $120-million payroll, and added that “if we put the product on the field, I feel very confident in this city, this country, that we’re going to have the support we had before. But we have to give them a reason.”

Blue Jays fans now have that reason to be very, very excited about their team for the first time in a long time. It’s going to be a long off-season waiting for that first pitch to be thrown.

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