TORONTO – Let it end already, this season of misery and transition, along with the destructive dissonance that’s become so embedded for the Toronto Blue Jays, very much to their detriment. For three years now they’ve been a franchise part old, part new, uneasily co-existing together but slowly pulling apart.
In 2016 it worked because they had great players doing great things. In 2017 it didn’t because some players declined, injuries hit and the easy-to-undo off-season additions didn’t sufficiently paper over the gaps. This year it didn’t work because of the same reasons, the front office took a wrecking ball to the place and the rebuild is on and it’s due.
How was your season?
The flowers of the past may have died long ago, but official word that manager John Gibbons, his place secure in the pantheon of pivotal franchise figures, “will not be returning” in 2019 in the words of GM Ross Atkins, turned Wednesday’s home finale – a 3-1 victory over the just-clinched-the-AL-West Houston Astros – into yet another eulogy.
Gibbons was appropriately feted by the crowd of 22,828 – pushing the season attendance total to 2,325,281, nearly 900,000 tickets down from last year’s total of 3,203,886 – getting a standing ovation as he walked the lineup card out to the umpires before the game, and during every pitching change.
Signs around Rogers Centre expressed people’s appreciation and gratitude to the 56-year-old, one even proclaiming him, “The sexiest man alive,” while homers from Billy McKinney and Randal Grichuk plus strong work from Sean Reid-Foley and six other pitchers ensured a celebratory vibe could last the entire nine innings.
“It was pretty neat,” Gibbons said of the fan reaction. “As I’ve told you before, I’ve never been into that, it’s kind of embarrassing. But it just felt different today, so I enjoyed it.”
There were hugs on the field from his players, an ice bath during a post-game interview and in a classy gesture, closer Ken Giles gave Gibbons the game ball from the final out.
“He deserved that ball,” said Giles. “In my little time here, I give him all my respect for what he’s been able to do with me and just letting me be me, going out there and compete my butt off. He deserves everything in the world from this clubhouse.”
Said centre-fielder Kevin Pillar: “It was nice to have him be front-and-centre for once and to see the way the fans we had here embraced him and supported him, it really showed him how much he meant to this city. There are a lot of things he’s done for a lot of us in this room, and it’s nice to put him in the front of it.”
The adulation is earned and deserved, but it only added to the disconnect of the day.
Atkins repeatedly praised Gibbons during an afternoon news conference, making the split sound like an innocuous conclusion derived from months of normal discussion. “Ultimately we decided it was time for a change and time for a new approach, a new voice,” he said, adding that it was only over the past weekend the club’s plan for a change to move forward became concrete.
Really, Gibbons has been a dead man walking since a 9-19 May upended a pleasantly surprising April. Sportsnet colleague Jeff Blair’s report suggesting Gibbons might not survive an early August homestand only reinforced that, and the nearly two weeks it took for Atkins to say Gibbons would finish out the season in charge made for a particularly uncomfortable period.
Feeling blindsided, Gibbons told MLB Network Radio as he dangled on the precipice that the Blue Jays might “benefit from getting a new fresh face that can grow with the young players” and added that he’s “not so sure I want to go through one of those things, a total rebuild.”
A détente followed word Gibbons’ tenure would be settled at season’s end, but any notion the outcome would be different than a dismissal disappeared at that point, which made Wednesday’s Kumbaya messaging difficult to reconcile with the club’s desire for change.
Asked what he’ll be looking for in the new voice and new approach the next manager of the Blue Jays will employ, Atkins replied: “As it relates to moving forward, I’d be glad to talk to you about that in the future.”
That’s fair, given the due Gibbons deserved. But when asked whether he wanted to remain on as manager, Gibbons sure sounded like someone who didn’t have much of choice.
“If things start sliding, that’s just the way it goes,” he said. “Me and Ross have been talking the last couple of months, the storm clouds were gathering, no doubt. That’s the reality of it. I’ve been here a long time, I agree it’s probably a time for a change. We’re rebuilding here. Actually, I think I’m the perfect guy for a rebuild, but I don’t know if I have the energy, necessarily. I function well with young kids. I’ve heard the argument against, I don’t buy that. But we both agreed the time is right. What’s going to happen is that you bring in a lot of young kids, some of them have a chance to be really good, so it’s probably best to bring in a guy who can last a while with those guys. I’m not old, but I’m not young either.”
More importantly, he’s also not as in tune with the front office’s collaborative approach as the Blue Jays probably need moving forward, either. Things have worked better than anyone might have expected when Mark Shapiro took over as president and CEO following the 2015 season and former GM Alex Anthopoulos, who brought Gibbons back for the 2013 season, left, but it’s always been a marriage of convenience, rather than love.
As Atkins put it, “in most cases, in most important areas, we’ve always aligned,” but added that “obviously, in any relationship, there are going to be disagreements in how things can be done and optimized into this organization.”
That was the realest talk all day.
Pillar joined the throng of team scouts and front office types at the back of Gibbons’ news conference because he wanted some answers about the change and decided to go straight to the source.
“As players, you feel a sense of responsibility when a manager or coaches lose their job because the old saying is you can replace a (manager) but you can’t replace an entire team,” he explained. “For me, it was to get a better understanding of why, a little bit better understanding of possibly the direction we’re going in, but most importantly, to pay my respects to the only manager I’ve ever had, and a manager I’ve grown to be very fond of.”
The old saying isn’t exactly true in this case as the Blue Jays had already replaced a sizable chunk of their roster before switching up the manager, too.
That’s how it goes.
Atkins deserves his own guy, operating in this front office’s way. Gibbons deserves a team that will let him manage as he sees fit. The end Anthopoulos’s Blue Jays found in 2018 offered the right time for that reset.
Whoever comes next will be vastly different. Blue Jays fans can only hope he will be as successful as the man that was left behind.