Dave Stewart ‘disappointed’ by Hall of Fame’s Cito Gaston snub

Cito Gaston, manager of the 1992 and 1993 World Series-winning Toronto Blue Jays teams acknowledges the crowd on the 25th anniversary of their back-to-back championships before the game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre Saturday August 11, 2018 in Toronto. (Jon Blacker/CP)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Dave Stewart doesn’t need to dig deep to come up with an example of what, in his experience, separated Cito Gaston from other managers. The all-star right-hander with the famously fearsome scowl quickly points to the sixth inning of Game 2 in the 1993 American League Championship Series, when the Chicago White Sox loaded the bases against him and the Toronto Blue Jays skip made his way to the mound.

“You’ve got a 38-year-old guy in the ALCS, there are no outs and you’ve got a Mike Timlin and a Danny Cox down in the bullpen warming up and they’re ready to go,” Stewart recalls. “Cito comes out and he says, ‘How are you feeling?’ I said, ‘I can get out of this.’ He says, ‘All right,’ and then he turned around and went back to the dugout. And I got out of it. To me, all a player wants is for a manager to have confidence in you. And if he displays that he’s got any level of confidence in you, you’ll run through a brick wall for him. That’s what I appreciated about Cito.”

For nostalgia’s sake, the pivotal sequence went Dan Pasqua flyout to centre, Lance Johnson popper to third and Warren Newson comebacker to the mound in what finished as a 3-1 victory. That moment of faith reinforced what Stewart perceived about Gaston while watching him on opposite ends of the Blue Jays-Athletics rivalry, and why he was so “disappointed” the Hall of Fame’s Contemporary Baseball Era Committee didn’t name him for an induction last Sunday. 

“It’s crazy because I was so confident that he was going to be elected, I sent him congratulations and a good luck on the day of the vote, because I knew he was going in,” says Stewart. “I was disappointed because I know the type of manager he was for me and my teammates. I know how well he communicated with us. I know how well he managed the game. But even more importantly than that, how many managers in major league history have back-to-back championships? There are just so many things that he’s done in the game that, in my opinion, make him Hall of Fame quality.”

That Gaston – who led the Blue Jays to consecutive World Series championships, four AL East titles and an 894-837 record over 12 seasons in two stints as manager – received less than five votes from the 16-member committee is an appalling omission. While he could be on the ballot again when a new 16-member committee next considers contemporary-era candidates three years from now, the result is yet another failure to recognize his oft-underappreciated elite guidance.

Stewart’s anecdote is one of many like that from Gaston’s tenure. But it’s also worth considering now, given how divisive a pitching call in another Game 2 of a Blue Jays playoff series, the removal of Jose Berrios in the fourth inning of the 2-0, season-ending loss to the Minnesota Twins, remains two months later.

Manager John Schneider, Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins and president and CEO Mark Shapiro have all met with players to discuss the club’s internal processes that led to that pull, and to address a perception that the front office was pre-determining in-game decisions. Speaking at the winter meetings Tuesday for the first time since Atkins placed full responsibility for the Berrios call on Schneider during his season-wrap media availability, the manager toed the company line, saying “first and foremost, the decisions that are made in real-time are always mine,” and later added that “going forward, me being better in those times to pivot if I need to,” was among his conclusions.

“A lot of different people, we prepare for different games in different ways,” Schneider said. “At the end of the day, they scored two runs, we didn’t score any. I understand how it’s viewed, and I think I just need to be better in those spots going forward.”

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Easier said than done, especially when forced to weigh reams of objective data against subjective assessments under the pressure of the moment. Viewed through current thinking in the game, for example, Gaston’s decision to hang with Stewart in that spot in back 1993 is incomprehensible, yet the high emotional-quotient value of showing faith in his pitcher is a reward that can’t be measured and properly accounted for. 

At the same time, habitually losing games due to faith-building decisions doesn’t make much sense either, which is why the feel of a veteran manager like Bruce Bochy matters so much. The challenge all current managers face is finding the right weighting between interpersonal thinking and cold-hard analysis, a sweet-spot that’s truly the secret sauce.

To that end, Schneider said he spent time talking to his players and “I think the biggest thing where we landed was just having everyone understand that I crave information, and I like it from a lot of different outlets. At the end of the day, every decision is made by me and the coaches around me. So, hearing them and I think making sure that that message is loud and clear is great for everyone involved.”

As for how the Blue Jays got to Berrios for Yusei Kikuchi in that spot, he later added: “The process was consistent all year and it’s something that I think we’re going to continue to do. The only thing that’s going to be a little bit different is just being a little bit more agile in times where you need to pivot during games. I thought that it was a good plan (in Game 2), tried to make the best decision to help you win and it didn’t work out.”

During his 16-year career, Stewart experienced that reality while pitching for two Hall of Fame managers in Tommy Lasorda and Tony La Russa. He won a World Series with Lasorda’s Dodgers in 1981 only to miss the playoffs the next season and get bounced in the NLCS the year after, while with La Russa’s Athletics, he went to three straight World Series, winning only one.

Winning is really, really hard.

Stewart joined the Blue Jays as a free agent following the 1992 season, after Toronto ended an extended stretch of playoff futility by knocking off his Athletics in the ALCS en route to the franchise’s first championship. Watching that run only confirmed what he had observed of Gaston, rather than changed his opinion, as players are smart enough to distinguish between faulty thinking and faulty outcomes.

“You watch how a guy has presence,” explains Stewart. “What he does during the course of the game. How he reacts to the different aspects of a game, the positive or the negatives. Cito was steady. Games you’re winning, smile on his face, but there wasn’t any of the jumping around. If he’s losing or a bad play, his reactions were the same. Then you watch how he manages the game and you watch his relationship with the players, how the players react to him. Pat Gillick, when I became a free agent, made the first call, but I already had determined that if I had an opportunity to play for Cito, I would like to play for him before my career ends.”

There is so much more that can be said of Gaston, of his grace, his dignity, the way he overcame so much, including societal racism as a player and later industry bias against Black managers, to succeed the way he did. Beyond all of that, and complementary numbers that go with it, his unique ability to navigate the nuance of the game’s human elements further underlines why he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

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