By Stephen Brunt in Dunedin, Fla.
By Stephen Brunt in Dunedin, Fla.
He's managed 1,420 games with the Toronto Blue Jays. His 720 wins are second in franchise history. His contract could take him through 2020. Few would have predicted any of those numbers. This is how John Gibbons beat the doubters.

He has been around through two incarnations, over the better part of 10 seasons and more than 1,400 games, and still there are little things to be learned about John Gibbons.

One afternoon this spring, the Toronto Blue Jays visited the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota. It was the kind of Grapefruit League road trip that veterans are traditionally allowed to forego. So, the Jays stacked their lineup with kids, including two of the brightest prospects in baseball, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette.

During the most recent golden age of Toronto baseball, fans have become accustomed to an unbending offensive approach, power-dependant teams operating from station to station while waiting for home runs. That style became identified as belonging to the manager, causing some to grind their teeth and pine for small ball — or at least pine for change. But this day, employing a lineup filled with athletic kids, Gibbons had his base-runners perpetually in motion. Steals were attempted, chances were taken, and a glimpse was provided of what the 2019 or 2020 or 2021 team might look like. The Go Go Jays. Who’d have thunk it?

“You’ve got to look at what you’ve got,” Gibbons explains a few days later. “If you don’t have a whole lot of team speed and you have a team that strikes out a whole lot, it’s a stupid move to try and steal a base. You have to gear your strategy to your personnel.”

Joe Maddon or AJ Hinch would tell you the same thing.

“Baseball is not all X’s and O’s, unlike other sports like football,” Gibbons continues. “I think managing is just about holding the group together. The game a lot of times dictates what you’re going to do. Someone might have a different philosophy, but the game kind of sets itself up. I’ve always believed that it’s a manager’s job to hold them all together over a long season and run a pitching staff. Very rarely does anybody outsmart anybody [else] in this business. Usually what it comes down to is one team plays better than the other.”

Donaldson and Gibbons have had some great success together, and some public run-ins with each other.

Another day, at the Jays’ spring home, Dunedin Stadium, the players were on the field for the daily ritual of stretching and catch-playing and light jogging that precedes batting practice. Usually, there’s music pumping through the stadium speakers, but this morning the folks running the school next door had made a polite request for quiet because testing was in progress.

Josh Donaldson was having none of that. The undisputed big dog of the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, an intense, complex and sometimes prickly personality, hauled his own boom box out to the field and shattered the early morning silence with hip-hop — for about two minutes. That’s how long it took the manager to intervene and turn it off. There was then a brief but pointed exchange between Gibbons and Donaldson on the field, which was followed in turn by a more extensive, and undoubtedly heated conversation behind closed doors.

We have seen the manager lay down the law in the past, including with Donaldson. (Remember the “cologne” incident?) We have seen dugout arguments play out on television. We have heard the stories from Gibbons’s first go round with the Jays, among them his attempt to choke one of his pitchers, Ted Lilly, following a disagreement on the mound that continued into the tunnel. But this little Dunedin vignette was particularly instructive, and more indicative of the fine balance that he has sought to achieve in his second incarnation: a players’ manager but also the boss, always aware that internal leadership means more than clubhouse sermons while understanding that sometimes a line must be drawn. Afterwards, Donaldson treated it as a difference of opinion between friends and colleagues, and their relationship — arguably the most important in the Blue Jays’ organization — remains one of mutual admiration.

“The bottom line is, it goes back to who you are,” Gibbons explains a few days later. “If I’m not John Gibbons then I’m a phony and they see right through that. I came in with these guys as a certain guy. It’s my personality. I can’t change. And if I did change, I’m not sure that would be any good anyway…

“I have great respect for the guys on our team and the guys who have been doing this for a long time. I have great relationship with the guys and have fun with them and enjoy it, because it’s a tough racket. But there still must be that line. When you’re managing, you have to make the tough decisions and it affects these guys — it affects that day and it affects their careers. There are a lot of repercussions.

“I am very loose. I trust them to do their job. When Josh came over here a couple of years ago — he and Russ [Martin] — they really turned the culture of our team with their mentality and the way they went about their business … We added some toughness. I could see what they were doing in the clubhouse in the way they motivated players, and that was what we had been looking for a lot of years. So, I said, ‘This is perfect. They’re in charge of that.’ If there is ever a time I need to step in and change something, I’ll do that. But the thing about being a coach or a manager is, if you have to take charge and do something all the time, you’re in trouble. It’s really got to be in their hands…

“It was no big deal. It was really his selection of music. If it had been country music if would have been no problem at all.”

That last part, of course, was a joke — a very Gibby joke — and if you’re one of the people who hears that and hears his accent and casts him as a not-so-bright King of the Hill character, you have underestimated him.

Clockwise from top left: Roy Hartsfield; Bobby Mattick; Bobby Cox; Jimy Williams; Cito Gaston (first stint); John Gibbons (first stint); Carlos Tosca; Buck Martinez; Jim Fregosi; Tim Johnson

Over their 40-plus seasons of existence, the Toronto Blue Jays have been many things — a hopeless expansion team, an evolving young squad, a club that required a culture change or the addition of two or three key veteran free agents to get over the top. They have been the richest organization in Major League Baseball and they have gone through years of economic retrenchment, when they wouldn’t even pay to keep their own stars. Through it all, there has been one constant: The Jays have never gone out and hired a big-name, big-money manager to try to fix what was broken, to try to buy time and buy credibility and shift the focus away from the players on the field.

Look at the history. Roy Hartsfield, a minor-league lifer, was brought in as the Jays’ first skipper because president Peter Bavasi thought that his honey-dripping Georgia accent would sound like “baseball” to the northern rubes who’d be buying tickets to watch an awful team play in an awful stadium. Hartsfield’s successor after his inevitable firing, Bobby Mattick, was a career scout, a loyal company man who had to be talked out of wearing a business suit in the dugout.

Bobby Cox, who succeeded Mattick, was the guy general manager Pat Gillick wanted. Then one of the bright young minds in baseball, Cox was a manager who could lead the team to contention and be there for the long haul. But he left abruptly for the Atlanta Braves after Toronto’s first playoff appearance in 1985, and the Jays’ brass decided to replace him internally with third-base coach Jimy Williams, who had never managed before, rather than further disrupt a team that appeared to be on the verge of greatness. It took three and a bit seasons to convince them that had been a bad idea.

“I think I’m pretty easy to work with. I’m stubborn in some of my own things but I think I can get along with anybody. The bottom line is it all comes down to results. ”

Cito Gaston, the most successful manager in team history, was the hitting coach on that club. He didn’t really want the manager’s job, and Gillick certainly didn’t want to hire him. But with Gillick’s choice, Lou Piniella, unavailable and the 1989 season apparently lost in any case, Gaston was handed the post by default, a caretaker. What happened next was the beginning of the greatest period in Blue Jays’ history — an unlikely run to the post-season in 1989, twin World Series titles in 1992 and 1993 — which allowed Gaston to accrue enough capital to last him until the dying days of the 1997 season.

Consider the others who held the job during the two decade wander through the desert that followed: Tim Johnson, who was in fact a best-and-brightest candidate and enjoyed great success during his one year on the job before being felled by a fatal character flaw; Jim Fregosi, a grizzled vet who arrived with more big-league managerial experience than any other Jays’ skipper and at least was able to hold things together; Buck Martinez, lured down from the broadcast booth to learn on the job, a situation that was unfair to everyone involved; Carlos Tosca — Martinez’s bench coach — who had also never managed a big-league team before. And then John Gibbons (1), who was one of Tosca’s coaches and a minor-league roommate of then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi.

Worth noting: Of all the men who managed the Jays to that point, only Cox and Williams were ever hired to run another major-league team.

Gibbons was fired in June 2008, with the Jays falling to five games under .500 after losing an interleague affair in Pittsburgh. His family happened to be visiting. After he got the bad news, they all climbed into a van and made the long drive home to San Antonio. Talking about that day now, he says he felt more relieved than defeated. The team brought Gaston back to succeed him, in what sure felt like a cynical nostalgia play. You can’t go home again, right? Except, it turns out, sometimes you can.

Yes, he sounds like Texas, and many of his beliefs and attitudes are drawn from the Lone Star State, but Gibbons grew up all over the place, including Goose Bay, Labrador, where he played his first game of baseball on the grounds of a U.S. military base. His late father was a colonel in the Unites States Army. His mother, who is a character, speaks with an accent as strong as Gibbons’s, but originating somewhere in New England. (When they talk to each other, it’s quite the symphony…) The family settled in San Antonio during Gibbons’s formative years, and that’s where he excelled as a high-school athlete, where he was drafted by the New York Mets as their catcher-of-the-future, where he embarked on his long baseball journey, the playing part of which was ended by injury and hitting a ceiling, and the arrival at Shea Stadium of a guy named Gary Carter.

By 2011, Gibbons’s life had come full circle. Following his managerial term in Toronto, he’d been hired as a bench coach by the Kansas City Royals. That job ended when the manager, his old friend Trey Hillman, was let go. Now, he was back in San Antonio, having spent the previous season managing the local AA Texas League franchise. He lived a comfortable life with his wife and three children, and spent more nights in his own bed than he had since he was a teenager. His big-league prospects seemed finished, but there was no tragedy in that. Other things mattered more.

Then, out of the blue Alex Anthopoulos called, first to talk about a coaching gig, then to shock everyone — including Gibbons — by offering him the job of manager of the Toronto Blue Jays.

John Farrell, Anthopoulos’s signature hire, chosen following long rounds of interviews and personality tests, had left following the 2012 season for his “dream job” running the Boston Red Sox. The departure came at a bad time for an organization in the midst of a crisis of confidence that included the Yunel Escobar eye-black affair. Anthopoulos saw it as a betrayal, and took it particularly hard — so hard that trust, more than anything, prompted him to bring Gibbons back for a second term. Whatever else happened, Anthopoulos figured that at least he would have company in the fox hole, that he wouldn’t have to worry about being abandoned again.

“He was open to learning from others. That is probably the biggest and most significant piece of the puzzle.”

It was a high-risk move. The massive trade with the Miami Marlins and the R.A. Dickey deal had transformed the Jays into an off-season World Series favourite. The least famous guy in the clubhouse when spring training opened was the new/old manager, who at times seemed lost trying to cobble a cohesive team culture together from a bunch of strangers with different agendas. No surprise, in hindsight, that the 2013 season was a mess. All those well-known names on the backs of jerseys never added up to a team, which was in large part why Toronto finished 74-88, a distant fifth in the American League East.

Having been convinced to take on a whole bunch of salary with the promise of winning, the club’s owners — which also own Sportsnet — were no longer interested in mulligans. Following a wheel-spinning season in 2014, they began actively searching for a president to replace Paul Beeston; a new boss who would presumably want his own general manager, who would undoubtedly want his own field manager. Anthopoulos knew that the 2015 season was the end of the runway. He assured Gibbons that whatever transpired, he wouldn’t throw him under the bus to save his own skin. Then he went all-in with those wild deadline trades, pushing his chips to the middle of the table with nothing much in his hand.

You know what happened next…

Anthopoulos trusted Gibbons's loyalty, and brought him back for a second stint. Two years later, he rewarded that loyalty with a trade deadline that brought in players like David Price, and changed the franchise's fortunes.

When the new guys arrived from Cleveland, they inherited a team that had just made its first post-season appearance in 20 years, to the delight of a suddenly baseball-mad country. The stadium was packed, the television ratings were off the charts, the owners were thrilled. Pretty hard to fire a manager in those circumstances. But conventional sports wisdom dictated that eventually, the new management would want their own guy, and so conventional wisdom had it that John Gibbons was living on borrowed time.

The truth is, Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins didn’t embark on a house cleaning right away. They laid out their plan and methodology and watched to see who could learn to do things their way and who fell short. Still, with all the talk of analytics and high-performance departments and collaborative decision making, there weren’t a lot of people who gave Gibbons, perceived as old school and set in his ways, much of a chance of sticking around. The arrival in the organization of Eric Wedge, a former manager in Cleveland under Shapiro, seemed like an insurance policy, if not a full-blown succession plan.

None of that was lost on the guy running the clubhouse. “I knew how the business worked,” Gibbons says. “The front office has every right to have their own guy in place. To me that’s smart. So, it was kind of a feeling-out process. They were watching how I did my thing. I think I’m pretty easy to work with. I’m stubborn in some of my own things but I think I can get along with anybody. The bottom line is it all comes down to results. That’s how you survive or you disappear.”

According to Atkins, there wasn’t exactly a eureka moment when he realized that the new and the old could coexist. But two or three months into the 2016 season, a year in which the Jays would return to the post-season, he and Gibbons started to find a comfort level. “He was open to learning from others,” Atkins says. “That is probably the biggest and most significant piece of the puzzle … Coming off the 2015 season, it would have been very reasonable, and maybe understandable, for him to say, ‘You know what? I’ve got this and we don’t need to change.’ And that’s not the case. He wanted to learn what high performance was about. He wanted to learn if there were ways to be more effective and efficient. He wanted to learn if there were more robust analytical investigations into lineup construction that would help him.”

It is safe to say that John Gibbons has never in his life uttered the phrase “robust analytical investigations into lineup construction,” but it seems that wasn’t a deal-breaker.

"The thing about being a coach or a manager," Gibbons says, "is if you have to take charge and do something all the time, you’re in trouble."

The 2017 Blue Jays were a different kind of disaster, beginning with an 8-17 face-plant April from which they would never really recover. Donaldson was injured and angry and frustrated. Aaron Sanchez was injured and angry and frustrated. Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki saw their seasons cut short. Russell Martin played only 91 games. Jose Bautista stewed at his corner locker, unable to summon even a shadow of the great player he had been.

All the ingredients were present for a clubhouse meltdown, and yet it didn’t happen. Given every opportunity to surrender, the team remained in at least theoretical contention until a disastrous series at Wrigley Field in mid-August. Managers sometimes get fired after a season like that, being the most convenient scapegoats no matter what the details, but you could make the case that on the human dynamics side of the job, it was Gibbons’s finest year.

His bosses seemed to agree, or at least agree enough to bring him back for another kick at the can. “You know I don’t do everything right,” Gibbons says. “Nobody does. The beauty of baseball is everybody has got their own ideas of what you should do in a game, what you should do in the big picture. Putting a team together, how you run a team. I’m the guy who has to answer for how I do it. And I’ve always believed you do it the way that you think is right and then you can answer for that, good or bad. If you’re not doing it that way and something goes wrong, you end up kicking yourself.”

"I’ve always believed you [manage] the way that you think is right and then you can answer for that, good or bad," Gibbons says.

This spring, Gibbons quietly ducked home to San Antonio for a few days to deal with family matters. He did the same thing during the late stages of last season. The specifics remain private, as they should, but it’s a reminder that this game, with its season stretching from the middle of February potentially into November, with so many days and nights spent away from home, with so many hours spent at the ballpark, can be hell on real life. Staying married and being a responsible parent is difficult from a distance. “I don’t think people realize that,” Gibbons says. “If you have a family, you have to have a tremendous wife, a strong wife, because basically they’re running the family … We’re just gone so much. In a lot of ways, it’s like the military. Those guys head off, and we head off.”

Last spring, Gibbons signed a contract extension that goes through the 2019 season, with a club option for 2020. If he gets to the end of it, he’ll have the chance to manage those kids who played in Sarasota for real, to oversee the transformation of the roster that changed his life and the franchise’s fortunes. If he gets through two more seasons, he would surpass Gaston for the most games managed in franchise history. That’s a heck of a story given the twists of fate, given the doubts, given the changes at the top. Imagine how it would feel when they unveiled his name on the Level of Excellence.

Or… the Jays could stumble out of the gate again this spring, there could be signs that Gibbons is losing the clubhouse or not sufficiently in tune with the advanced methods of his bosses, and he could be sacrificed on the same pyre where virtually every manager and coach ends their career. He knows that better than anyone. “I’m getting a little bit older now, so whatever happens happens. That’s how I take it,” he says.

Someday, sooner or later, by choice or by circumstance he’ll be heading back to San Antonio for good. And he’ll be just fine with that.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Video produced by Domenic Gentile
Patrick Semansky/AP Photo (2); Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press; CP (9); Getty; Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press