When his time with the Blue Jays ended, John Gibbons wasn’t sure he’d get another shot in the majors. Now, on the Mets staff, he’s back in the game — and back where he started.

J ohn Gibbons is sitting with that familiar lean inside a meeting room at Clover Park, the spring training home of the New York Mets, toothpick in mouth, hands resting on the knob of his fungo, all mischievous winks, impish grins and hearty belly laughs. He’s back with the team that drafted him 24th overall in 1980, with the team he logged all 18 of his big-league games, with the team that gave him his start in coaching way back in 1991. And he’s back in a big-league clubhouse for the first time since parting ways with the Toronto Blue Jays after the 2018 season, the bench coach for rookie manager Carlos Mendoza. He’s savouring the opportunity to be part of a staff, one that he’d accepted might not come again.

“The No. 1 thing I missed, man, is coming into the clubhouse, hanging out with the boys, the coaching staff, the players. I always missed the competition and hanging out with the guys. There’s something special about that,” says Gibbons, who is second only to Cito Gaston among Blue Jays managers with 793 wins amassed over two stints, 2004-08 and 2013-18. “I did it for so long. I didn’t miss the B.S. But the game is different, there’s no doubt. A lot more preparation, stuff like that. I had some great coaches in Toronto. They did all the work, I just ran the game, basically. Now that I’m not in that role, everybody’s got a specific job, so my job really hasn’t even started yet. Mendy’s awesome. I really, really like him. He’s going to be really good at this. And David Stearns [Mets president of baseball operations], he’s everything that everybody says. In a way, he’s a lot like Alex [Anthopolous, who was Gibbons’ general manager in Toronto and is now Atlanta’s president of operations]: Good baseball guy, he’ll listen to you. He doesn’t talk as much as Alex, but he cares what you think.”


Mendoza, crossing town after five years as bench coach for the Yankees, first met Gibbons back in 2018, but didn’t know him particularly well. Both he and Stearns wanted an experienced bench coach and as they called around to do background work, both DeMarlo Hale — Gibbons’ bench coach with the Blue Jays, now back in Toronto as associate manager — and Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash recommended the 61-year-old. When they spoke on the phone, “we hit it off right away,” says Mendoza. “The knowledge, obviously, he’s been in the game for a long time, manager, he’s done it before. But the feel for people was the biggest piece for me. I’m excited to learn from him, because I’m going to be relying on him a lot.”

Stearns similarly valued Gibbons’ experience, believing coaching staffs need to be well-rounded and feeling Mendoza would benefit from having someone by his side that’s felt the various pressures and stresses on a manager. “Even, like, 10 years ago, when the younger, tech-savvy wave first came into the dugout, most of those staffs were balanced out with significant experience,” Stearns says. “So, as you’re building a staff, you’re trying to find that balance, you’re trying to accumulate skill sets that help put your players in the best position to be successful. … Carlos felt very comfortable with Gibby. And so much of this is the relationship aspect between those two people. I also enjoyed my conversations with Gibby. He’s a very enjoyable, easy person to talk to. And he does bring both that sense of enthusiasm for the game and a ton of experience that we were looking for.”

Gibbons sat down with Sportsnet one recent spring morning to discuss his time away from the game, returning to the dugout and life with the Mets — in the process confirming that he indeed remains an enjoyable, easy person to talk to.

Gibbons on the field at spring training in his new role as Mets bench coach.

SPORTSNET: When you parted with the Blue Jays, did you think it would take five years before you were back on a coaching staff? Did you worry you wouldn’t get back in?

GIBBONS: At that point, I had a lot of things going on in my personal life, family life. It really wasn’t a focus, but I didn’t think I’d have problem finding a job because I had a lot of experience. But I was in a good spot where if it never happened again, so be it. I had an opportunity that most guys never get. So many people took care of me. But I do think I got a reputation, and I even asked a couple of guys that interviewed me — I interviewed [for managerial openings] down in Houston and Boston and Miami — ‘Do I have the reputation of being anti-analytics?’ They said no, but I think I kind of got that and you never know what you hear from your ex-employers. I just never took it to the extremes. I’m really trying to learn it but I’m going to tell you, it still comes down to basic baseball, playing the game the right way, get the most out of what you’ve got and if you’ve got more talent than the other guys, you’re probably going to be all right.

Mendoza said you two hit it off when you first spoke. How did you two connect?

DeMarlo called me first. He said, ‘Hey, I know Mendoza. We were talking about you. Can I give him your number?’ I said sure. If DeMarlo likes you, definitely. And then Cashie called about a week later, same thing. So automatically, if those guys are vouching for him, I feel pretty good. And you know when you’re talking to somebody for the first time, you could tell whether you like him, if he’s legit. He’s a good balance, man, where he gets it. And that’s an important job he had over with the Yanks. It’s not like it’s a rinky-dink operation he was working for. He’s on top of things. But there was a connection I felt good about, and obviously he did, so here I am.


You felt like with the way Mendoza balances the human and analytical sides the game, he could be your kind of guy?

Oh yeah. And he’d been waiting his turn, interviewing some different places. I can see why [teams were interested]. I’m hoping I can add a little bit to it. He’s a good baseball guy. You have to be really analytical nowadays, but he understands the human side of it, which is big. And that’s the same way with Stearns.

How will your approach to building clubhouse relationships be different as a bench coach as opposed to a manager?

Managing is different, right? You’ve got to keep that fine line. You still have fun with the guys, but coaching, you get a little bit closer to them. You’re with them more. You’re a buffer. You can put out some fires before things even start. As a manager, you get a lot of control over these guys’ futures, so you can’t get too tight. I’ve always felt that, even though I get along with everybody. I love this job and I have fun with it, right? Even through the pressures of the crazy ups and downs in season, you’ve got to enjoy it. You’re with these guys for eight months. You better have fun with them. But I don’t think it’s an adjustment. I am definitely a little older now. But they’re still the same kids that they were 20 years ago. Just a little more sophisticated.

With the success Dusty Baker had in Houston the past four years and Bruce Bochy getting back in, how do you see the industry rethinking the place of experienced, older-school coaches? Are teams perhaps saying, ‘We need to bring some of that back into the game?’

I think so. And I hope so. When they were battling it out at Texas and Houston, you had those two. You’ve got Brian Snitker down there in Atlanta, even Thomps [Rob Thomson in Philadelphia], he finally got a shot and he’s that kind of guy. … I think it’s good for the game. The game is still played the way it’s always been played. Right now, we’re a little more advanced than we have been. You can be better prepared, but there are also times you can be too prepared. You don’t want to be robots out there. You still want to play the game. The guys like Dusty and Boch and those guys, they bring that element, the pride in motivating guys or getting the most out of guys. It’s not all X’s and O’s. The papers may say, ‘You do this,’ but they know better. They’ve been there. They know their players, and they’re going to put in the player they think is going to be best, you know?

Gibbons, in his playing days with the Mets, backstopping a 1984 regular-season game against the Montreal Expos.

What’s it like coming back to the place where your pro baseball career began?

Same spot but it’s totally different. My dream when my playing career didn’t work out here and they gave me my start as a coach in the minor leagues, was to get to the big leagues as a coach, not necessarily a manager, here. That didn’t happen. I ran into a brick wall, so I left and ended up in Toronto. But this is where I first wanted to get my shot. The fact that I came back here, maybe this is meant to be. When I showed up, whoa, because you didn’t have all these stands and stuff in the outfield. They’ve invested so much money. And I’ll tell you what: the owners used to cry poverty all the time, but you see the size of the coaching staffs, front-office staffs, travelling teams, you name it, they came up with some money somewhere.

You debuted with 10 games in 1984 and during the World Series year of 1986 you got into eight games, you went 9-for-19 with four doubles and a homer, and then you didn’t play in the big leagues again. You were stuck behind Gary Carter and Barry Lyons, but what did you make of never getting another shot in the majors?

Well, I’m a pretty good realist, man. I’m pretty good at looking in the mirror. In triple-A, I might have had a solid year. I got called up, limited playing time, played pretty well. I came back in ‘87, in September, we were eliminated, I couldn’t get in a game. You could throw me a bone, you know? So that’s when I finally went to Frank Cashen, the general manager, I think it might have been in St. Louis, he was on the trip, and I said, ‘Can I talk to you?’ He said yeah. I said, ‘Listen. It’s time for me to go. There’s nothing here. I can’t even get in a freaking game when we’re eliminated.’ Frank was always tremendous to me. I really, really liked him and he said, ‘Hang in there. We’ll see.’ I had my agent start pushing it that off-season. And I came to spring training in ’88, and Joe McIlvane was starting to take over from Frank a little bit and so I’d run into him every day. ‘You’ve got to get rid of me. You’ve got to get rid of me.’ He said be patient and they traded me to the Dodgers for Craig Shipley.

I went to Albuquerque and Terry Collins was my manager, TC, and it was me and Gil Reyes, who was a big prospect for the Dodgers at the time. We split the games and he outplayed me, so he got called up in September and they ended up beating the Mets in the NLCS and winning the World Series. So yeah, I wondered why it didn’t happen but looking in the mirror, if I played better, it probably would have because catchers recycle if you’re producing. It wasn’t like I wasn’t producing at all, but if you’re viewed as a top prospect at one point and you start fading, it’s almost like they write you off a little bit. It’s like you’re that guy that keeps hanging around in there. It wasn’t a great playing career, by any means, but I’m satisfied. And I gave it my best.


You spent 1989 in triple-A with the Texas Rangers and 1990 at triple-A with the Philadelphia Phillies before you retired. What made you finally call it quits?

Well, I was playing there in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, beautiful little area, but I thought, ‘Nah, I’m done.’ I was splitting time there, me and Tom Nieto, who used to catch for the Cardinals, and we had some older players. There was a lot of b—-ing and moaning going on, a lot of nitpicking-type stuff. I said, ‘I’ve had enough.’ I didn’t want to hang on. Never been a hanger-on. So, I’d made up my mind but I didn’t know what I was going to do. Then when the season was over, the Mets called. Gerry Hunsicker and Steve Phillips were running it, and my old catching instructor, Vern Hoscheit, was retiring and they were looking for a catching instructor. I jumped on that.

So, everything fell in place. You know, my whole career, people have been good to me and the good Lord takes care of me, man. I wasn’t making a lot of money, that was 20 grand a year back then. My wife and I, we wanted to have some kids and that kind of thing. That’s how it all started. And to be honest, I didn’t know where that would take me. But I came from a modest background, my dad was a military guy. I figured I’d survive. People took care of me, man. Things just fell in place when they shouldn’t have.

And now you’re back with the Mets, full circle, where it all started…

Darryl Strawberry is here and Edgardo Alfonzo is coming next week, and [the team’s] always done a pretty good job, I think, of bringing back players, people that I would have known. But it’s such a new day and age, and that was a long time ago. I spent more time with these guys than I did in Toronto, as far as the organization and the coaching, so there are a lot of good connections. I’ll see some old faces. I don’t remember all their names but it’s like, ‘Hey.’ Maybe it’s a good way to end it all. Go down in a blaze of glory, I guess. Or show them what they missed in the ’80s.

Photo Credits
Jeff Roberson/AP; Courtesy of the New York Mets; Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images.