It is the same, and different.
There is a routine to spring training that varies hardly at all from year to year. Early-morning arrivals at the ballpark. Stretching and catch-playing and the same old baseball conversations. A whole lot of standing around. By late afternoon, no one’s working anymore. Then the next day, it happens all over again.
The real stuff? The roster decisions? The careers hanging in the balance? The intimations that perhaps the giddy optimism around a squad is misplaced? Yes, reality creeps in occasionally during a month and a half, but usually in its gentlest form.
And oh, by the way, it’s warm.
So it has been for the Toronto Blue Jays since they began assembling in this sleepy little town 40 years ago. But there’s also something in the air this spring that hasn’t been part of the mix for quite some time.
This was a playoff team last fall. A whole lot of people expect it to be a playoff team again this season.
No, the Jays didn’t win it all—and Lord knows, over a tumultuous, sky-is-falling winter for the franchise, there were precious few opportunities to sit back, relax and savour the good times just passed—but they won enough to shake several monkeys off several backs.
That simian exorcism began with the manager, John Gibbons, who now has a line on his resumé that says he won the American League East and took a team to the post-season.
The truth is, you can go through the list of those who have accomplished the same feat and find plenty of one-hit wonders. But for a guy who has struggled at times for props as a big-league manager, at least they can’t take that away from him.
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Gibbons’s reputation, or lack thereof, stems largely from the circumstances of his two hirings in Toronto. The first time, he was unexpectedly drafted from the coaching ranks by J.P. Ricciardi to replace the fired Carlos Tosca. The second time, he was unexpectedly summoned from the minor leagues (unexpected even by Gibbons, whose greatest hope was that he might be brought back to the majors as an assistant coach) after Alex Anthopoulos decided to value trust above all else when he considered candidates to replace John Farrell, who had defected to the Red Sox.
Gibbons is a plain-talking straight shooter, always happy to underplay his hand. In other words, dumb as a fox. That said, there were times at the beginning of his second Jays incarnation—especially that first spring, when he arrived to find a team remade by the Marlins trade, that a 60 Minutes crew was trailing R.A. Dickey, that a bunch of his players were immediately leaving for the World Baseball Classic—when he seemed a bit overwhelmed by it all.
But he’s a very good game manager. He handles the bullpen well. And though not all his players love him, he’s struck a nice balance between tight ship and laissez-faire in the clubhouse. By and large, this is a happy, focused, confident group, and of course, winning only reinforces that.
“We always knew we had the talent,” Gibbons says, sitting in his Dunedin office. “But there were a lot of guys in the room, including me, who hadn’t [won] yet. That’s a big hurdle to get over. In this line of work, when you can say you’ve done that, it goes a long way. What it means in the future, I’ve got no idea. Who knows what the future holds in terms of me personally. But that’s something I’ll always be proud of and I’ll be able to take with me.”
Which brings us to the other part of the Gibby equation: the fact that almost since the day he arrived, a segment of the fan base has been pining for him to be fired, a phenomenon familiar to anyone who followed the career of Cito Gaston. The arrival of a new president and GM, and the hiring of a potential manager-in-waiting, Eric Wedge, has only fuelled the notion that Gibbons is forever on the clock. “They’ve been great to me,” he says of Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins. “They’re baseball guys and they’re good guys. I was very tight with Alex. We were more than just fellow workers. But these guys let us do our thing, and that’s all we can ask for. I think it can work great. We’ll see.”
We’ll see, because spring training also signals a clean slate. “Everything revolves around winning,” Gibbons says, outlining the one great truth of professional sport—and of a whole bunch of other things. “If you win, everything is good. If you don’t, nothing is good.”