TORONTO – The stroke of midnight that signalled the arrival of 2015 also triggered a clause in the contract of manager John Gibbons, guaranteeing his deal for the 2016 season while adding another rolling option for 2017.
So, already, it’s been a happy new year for the Toronto Blue Jays manager.
"New Year’s Day is more important to me than a lot of people, I’ll put it that way," Gibbons quipped back in September. "I celebrate a little harder."
The unique structure of his contract – set up by Alex Anthopoulos to prevent his skip from ever having a lame-duck season – has been well publicized, and that he made it to this point is no surprise. Back in October the GM made it clear Gibbons would return.
Still, ever since his surprise hiring in November of 2012, following the unfortunate John Farrell to Boston saga, Gibbons has served, somewhat exaggeratedly, as a lightning rod for fans.
While managers tend to be obvious scapegoats in tough times, the public discourse about him – often reactionary demands for his dismissal on social media and talk radio – borders on absurd. Listen to it enough and you’d think Gibbons worked with one foot off the ledge.
"I don’t see it from a media standpoint, I don’t see it in the industry, and I don’t have fans coming up to me in the street," Anthopoulos said of the conversation about his manager. "We were in the hunt, sometimes we were close, our bullpen failed us, I think that goes without saying – it’s just convenient and it’s easy (to criticize Gibbons).
"But I also accept it, too. It’s sports, it’s what happens, you blame managers, coaches, front offices."
Blaming Gibbons for the 74-88 mess in his first season back would be unfair – pin that one on injuries that decimated the starting rotation and, later, the lineup – and the same goes for last year’s 83-79 disappointment, when a lack of depth undermined a very promising start.
Rarely do managers submarine a team’s chances the way Bobby Valentine sunk the Boston Red Sox during a 69-93 run in 2012.
That’s why the key question for the Blue Jays as they prepare for a tipping point 2015 campaign is whether the additions of Russ Martin, Josh Donaldson, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak and whoever is brought in to bolster the bullpen are enough to close the gap on a post-season berth.
Gibbons’ role, as always, will be to provide a steady hand, put out any fires that may arise and continue making the type of in-game decisions that Anthopoulos praises.
"He manages the bullpen well, guys have to get outs but he manages the bullpen well," said Anthopoulos. "The only time I’ve heard a move debated was when he pinch-ran for Ryan Goins in Boston … which to me is a compliment to him."
That controversial decision came during a 9-8, 10-inning loss to the Red Sox on Sept. 5, and was widely pointed to as an example of overmanaging by Gibbons. It was notable because of how rarely his calls are scrutinized that closely.
Tied 6-6 with two outs in the ninth, he ran Dalton Pompey for Goins at second base to give the potential go-ahead run a better chance of scoring on a single, but the decision backfired in the 10th when Goins’ stellar defence might have kept an inning from unravelling. Steve Tolleson, his sure-handed defensive replacement at second, made an error that eventually helped lead to the winning run.
"With all due respect to Ryan Goins, we know he’s not a base-stealer, we know in pure scouting foot speed he’s below average in speed, so it made complete sense to do it," said Anthopoulos. "To me a good manager, in terms of in-game, is like a good umpire, you don’t even know they’re there. If there’s discussion about the in-game moves night after night, there’s normally something to it, and not for the better. That was the first time I heard about it.
"I’m sure there’s the occasional time here and there, but he’s very good at utilizing the roster, putting guys in position to succeed, there are a lot of things he addressed behind closed doors that no one sees because he’s not a self-promoter, he doesn’t need to announce what’s being done, and so on."
Taking that approach allows Gibbons "to keep the focus on the field," another strength Anthopoulos points to, an element important to not overlook.
Worth remembering is that he took over after the Farrell sideshow, at a time when the GM needed someone with whom he had some history.
The relationship between the two began during Gibbons’ first run as Blue Jays manager from 2005-08, while Anthopoulos was an assistant general manager.
J.P. Ricciardi, the GM at the time, gave Anthopoulos lots of responsibility and he ended up regularly running through player moves and other transactions with the manager. A friendship formed and even after Gibbons was fired in June 2008, the two kept in touch, making his return a seamless one.
At the time of his rehiring, Anthopoulos said, "I’ve got more conviction in this transaction, this hiring, than I’ve had in any."
Two seasons later that hasn’t changed.
"Any time you know someone and have worked with someone before there’s an advantage there, that goes without saying," said Anthopoulos. "In terms of running smoothly, the role is the role. There’s respect on both sides, and things ran smoothly in the past, too."
Things need to keep running that way in the season to come, too, for Gibbons to have as much to celebrate next New Year’s Day as he does on this one.