This story originally appeared in the Nov. 2, 2015, edition of Sportsnet magazine.
There are coaches and managers who by virtue of their resumé will forever be given the benefit of the doubt, and the Toronto Blue Jays have never hired any of them.
They have never employed a baseball version of Mike Babcock, who thanks to those Olympic gold medals and that Stanley Cup ring will be able to stand behind the Maple Leafs bench with impunity for two, three, four years, even if his teams are godawful. When bad things happen, they won’t be his fault, while any glimmer of hope will be a direct result of his genius.
The baseball equivalent would be someone like Tony La Russa, or in the current game maybe Joe Maddon. Sign one of them and your fans will sleep easy at night knowing the home team is in good hands.
Now consider the very different path the Blue Jays have taken in their history.
Roy Hartsfield, the first manager, was a minor-league lifer brought in by the team’s GM, Peter Bavasi, more because of the way he sounded than anything else. Hartsfield had a full-blown southern drawl, and Bavasi figured that accent would be enough to placate know-nothing Canadian fans for a couple of years of expansion-team futility.
Bobby Mattick, Hartsfield’s replacement, was a wise old scout who reluctantly took the job out of loyalty to the organization. He wanted to wear a business suit in the dugout à la Burt Shotton because he thought he looked ridiculous wearing a uniform. Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston eventually talked him out of it.
Bobby Cox was supposed to be the guy to take the team over the top—and he, at least, had previous big-league experience working for wacky Ted Turner managing the Atlanta Braves. But after losing the American League Championship Series in 1985, he walked out on Toronto to return to Atlanta, and the Jays brass felt betrayed. They weren’t ever going to ask the best-looking date to the dance again for fear of being rejected.
Jimy Williams was Cox’s second banana, and a good one, but he failed in his first crack as the boss. Cito Gaston (I) was an unlikely in-house replacement who had to be talked into managing—and yes, that worked out pretty well in the end.
Tim Johnson got his first—and last—shot at being a big-league manager with Toronto, and had one good season before his lies about serving in Vietnam did him in. Jim Fregosi, the grizzled veteran of this group, was near the end of the line when he arrived as Johnson’s emergency replacement.
Carlos Tosca—another minor-league guy. Buck Martinez—straight from the broadcast booth. John Gibbons (I) was first hired as the team’s bullpen catcher by his old buddy J.P. Ricciardi when he needed a post-playing gig, and he ascended as the dominoes fell.
John Gibbons (II) was brought back because Alex Anthopoulos decided he’d rather risk failing with someone he trusted than get burned again by the likes of John Farrell (who, of course, was in his first major-league managerial gig). And now it’s Gibbons who has finally led the Jays back to the promised land.
Which brings us to the flip side.
The big-reputation guys can survive a whole lot of failure. The no-reputation guys have a hard time surviving even success. And so it is for Gibby.
Had the Blue Jays gotten off to a slower start this year, he would have been fired, and he knows it. Had they not won the Division Series, there’s a real chance the incoming Mark Shapiro administration would have kicked him to the curb. Presumably they can’t do that now, but he’ll still begin next season on a ridiculously short leash for someone whose team has played so well.
And there will be a large element of the currently giddy fan base who will be all right with that, because even as the Jays embarked on their magical second-half run, an undercurrent never disappeared, one that suggested this surely couldn’t be Gibbons’s doing, and that on some level he might even be holding the team back.
Gaston dealt with the same thing, even as his teams won two World Series. It ate him up. At one point, he lashed out and labelled some of his harshest critics racist.
Gibbons sits back and smiles and lets other people take the credit, knowing he’s doomed to be continually underestimated and second-guessed. He gets it, because he’s a smart guy and an excellent manager who understands full well how he’s perceived, and who knows what he can fight, and what he can’t.