Well, a star was born this week, in the eyes of the American media at least. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put on quite a show at the All Star Game’s Home Run Derby, setting a new record for the event with 91 dingers. Even though he came runner-up to another rookie phenom, Pete Alonso of the Mets, USA Today declared VG “the real winner” and it was clear by and large the media and fans were rooting for our #27. It was a great reminder as to the potential this young guy holds and why with a bit of pitching help, Toronto could be back in the thick of things soon. In the meantime, let’s finish off the list of Toronto’s best-ever and today we go off field.
Toronto has had 16 managers through the years, give or take. Counting them isn’t quite as simple as you might think, given several of them, including Cito, have come back for a second kick at the can, and others have been short-term or “interim” – remember Cookie Rojas, manager? No, neither do most fans (wonder if Cookie himself does?), but he was listed as manager for three days in 2001. Similarly, catcher Russell Martin is not included officially but was given the job of managing the final game last season after the Jays and John Gibbons had parted ways.
Speaking of “Gibby”, he merits consideration. He spent two tours in the Toronto dugout, has managed the second-most games and won the second-most (793), having a better than .500 record through his 11 full or partial seasons in charge. He took over from a redoubtable Carlos Tosca in 2004 and turned the season around, then came back in 2013 when surly John Farrell asked to leave town and go to his beloved Boston organization. Gibbons was a breath of fresh air, approachable and having a great balance of being easy-going and a buddy to his players with an iron fist when needed.
Likewise, Bobby Cox, who went on to greatness in Atlanta, deserves notice too, for being the manager that helped Toronto rise to greatness and in fact won the team’s only Manager of the Year award, in 1985 (the first time the Jays made the post-season.) His .549 winning percentage was best among managers who stuck around for a year or more, but his four years here don’t quite rank with Gibbons and his fellow San Antonionian – Clarence “Cito” Gaston.
Gaston was somewhat unusual among Toronto managers in coming from a pretty decent playing career. He was an outfielder from 1967-78, mostly with San Diego and Atlanta and he was a 1970 All Star, when he hit .318 with 29 home runs. All of which seemed to make him an ideal hitting instructor, which he was for the Jays for several seasons. His eye for detail and quiet nature paid dividends in the improvements in the hitting of Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Damo Garcia and others in the early years of winning. He was still doing that in spring 1989. But the team got off to a dismal start (12-24) seemed disinterested and at least a few players in the clubhouse seemed to have given up on Jimy Williams. The team asked Gaston to become manager. “When I was offered the job as manager, I didn’t want it. I was happy working as the hitting instructor,” he later told a magazine. But he got talked into it, and the Blue Jays rocketed up the division, going 77-49 the rest of the way under Cito and winning their second division title. Another followed in 1991, then ’92 and ’93, the pair of years he wears World Series rings from. By 1997, ownership had changed, the payroll had been cut and the Skydome was no longer drawing 4 million fans a year as the Jays fell from contention. He was fired in the last week of the season, replaced (also seemingly less than willingly) by pitching coach Mel Queen, who’d win four games in his managerial career.
Then, just like an old TV show found by Netflix, Cito came back. With the team heading towards the 2008 All Star break lethargic and below .500, they fired John Gibbons and brought back Gaston. Like before, he turned the team around and they went 51-35 the rest of the way and fans once again cheered. After a losing 2009 followed by a winning 2010 he retired (and yes, three years later, like the cat in the hat, John Gibbons returned to the job!).
Through the years, he not only was the longest-serving manager for Toronto, he won the most games(894) and still presides over the only two World Series championships for the team. He had a .516 winning percentage, which included time managing a great, highly paid team and other seasons with lesser-talented teams and smaller payrolls.
It would be incomplete to speak of Gaston the manager and not mention that he did have something of a chip on his shoulder. While he got along with most of his players well – particularly the veterans whom he let do their thing and shine – he at times was cranky with the press and didn’t like the MLB offices, accusing both of racism at several points during his career. While I personally don’t think that his race was the reason, it is true he didn’t get a great deal of respect on the national level during Toronto’s glory years. He never won the Manager of the Year award despite the back-to-back championships. I ascribe this to a belief that he didn’t have to “work” with a team loaded with the likes of Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and Joe Carter but that ignores the job of dealing with a lot of egos in the clubhouse, working around injuries and actually managing at bat by at bat through the post season to win it all. Gaston was under-rated as a manager, although Toronto has tried to rectify that by putting him on their Level of Excellence (in effect the club’s Hall of Fame.)
As a person who’s spent time in Texas and have visited the state Sport Hall of Fame in Waco, I am surprised Gaston – born and raised, and still residing in San Antonio – hasn’t been enshrined there. If you think he should be, add your name to the petition!
Bring on the “Second half” of the season!