When John Gibbons was fired by the Blue Jays in 2008 we were still deep in the wake of the shitstorm that occurred when a frustrated JP Ricciardi lost his patience and accosted a Wednesdays With JP caller for suggesting the club should pursue Adam Dunn. Ricciardi, you’ll recall, insisted to the world that he’d done research on Adam Dunn, and that Jays fans wouldn’t like Adam Dunn, because Dunn didn’t actually like baseball.
The Jays were 35-39 at the time, two seasons removed from the 86-win 2006 club that stands next to 1998′s Roger Clemens/Tim Johnson year as the franchise’s best since the World Series days. They were seven years into Ricciardi’s tenure as GM, heading towards Gibbons completing his fifth fourth full year as manager, and last in the American League East, atypically behind an Orioles club that would eventually fall back to earth, and a Rays club that was in the midst of breaking out.
In terms of self-preservation for a GM who held all the power and was facing an uncomfortable number of questions about his own competency, it made too much sense to fire the manager at the time he did. And for the hopelessly cynical former president of the club, I suppose it probably even made sense to patronize the fans and jeopardize the development of the organization’s young players in order to miscast Cito Gaston as some kind of saviour.
John Gibbons’ ultimate fate was inextricably linked to these forces, even though his most glaring fault as a manager was that he didn’t have a particularly good team to work with in the first place.
The Jays of that era weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t so good that they were being held back by their manager.
Gibbons managed his bullpen well– he got great years from Jeremy Accardo and pre-surgery Casey Janssen; Scott Downs emerged under his watch; Jason Frasor became Jason Frasor; and Jeff Blair of the Globe and Mail remembers BJ Ryan telling him that in his first year he could only recall getting up once in the bullpen and not actually getting into the game.
He was liked and respected by his players– on Blair’s show Tuesday ex-Jay Frank Catalanotto painted Gibbons, impressively, as both a player’s manager, and a guy who, “if things need to be taken care of, Gibby’s not afraid to take care of it.”
Catalanotto– who, it should be noted, may have been politicking slightly– added that he “gained a lot of respect, and a lot of players gained a lot of respect, for what happened with Shea Hillenbrand, and also Ted Lilly,” undercutting the most vital argument of the tools who try so desperately to work backwards from Gibbons’ poor on-field results in order to find flaws to hang on him.
He actually deployed platoons, using left fielders Catalanotto and Reed Johnson to tremendous effect– something he may be called on to do again in 2013– and was willing to be unorthodox with his lineup construction, hitting Catalanotto, Vernon Wells, and Alexis Rios lead-off at various times during his tenure.
Gibbons was hardly perfect, but in the most general sense he put his players in position to succeed, and it just so happened that they didn’t. Or, perhaps more accurately, they were unable to succeed to the same level of the powerful Yankees and Red Sox clubs of the time. To me, and evidently to Alex Anthopoulos, that’s about as much as you could ask of a manager– at least as far as on-field stuff goes.
Off the field, despite what he referred to as “a couple of dust-ups” at this morning’s press conference, which will certainly dog him for several years more at the very least, Gibbons comes off as warm, conversational, intelligent, and damn funny– as I saw first hand in the Jays’ media conference room this morning, with Paul Beeston practically breathing down my neck for much of it.
I purposefully don’t go to a lot of these things. Getting so close to the gravitational pull of Beeston’s personality as to comprehend how he might kinda be the fucking best, for example, doesn’t make it any easier when down the road I may feel the need to write about him being thoroughly full of fucking shit. And all I managed to take away, physically, from the event is a bunch of quickly-entered and wholly incomplete notes on my phone, and one picture (above) where AA and Gibby’s faces were so brightly lit and indistinguishable that I had to filter it to death to get it anywhere close to usable. (Now, had I known that Getty wouldn’t have any for us to use by now, I might have taken a few more snaps.)
I could have done a much better job digesting and writing about what Anthopoulos, Gibbons and Beeston said if I’d just stayed in the office, frankly, and I’ll have to catch up on Wednesday with some of that stuff based on what exists in my notes, plus the other sources out there, and the numerous radio hits that followed the formal presser. But what I wouldn’t have got that way was any sense of the feeling in the room, which was convivial, if not a bit surreal, at least for me, to be rubbing elbows with the many suits who made their way down for the event.
Even though I wasn’t ever there when John Farrell– a name conspicuous by its near-total absence Tuesday– held court, I could sense clearly that this was probably a bit of a different atmosphere, given what I’d seen of the thoughtful, politician-like answers he tended to give.
Gibbons provided a healthy contrast in terms of presentation, without lacking anything in the way of substance– a suggestion that ought to be doubly impressive seeing as for all his high talk, Farrell never seemed able to manage the club with the intelligence he could ably show off fielding questions, while Gibbons long ago demonstrated such tactical substance– and not just with the Jays, but while he was winning Manager of the Year awards in the Appalachian League, the Eastern League, along with a pair of championships and four playoff appearances during his seven years as a manager in the Mets’ system.
Gone was the talk of getting into opposing pitchers’ heads with aggressive running game, replaced with an unwillingness for the club to run their way into outs with the likes of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion at the plate. Better still, this was coming from a manager whose clubs finished bottom three in the Majors in sacrifice bunts attempted in each of the three full seasons he was here.
He may come off like an old-school hard-ass, and he may be ridiculously unfairly dismissed by reductive-thinking boobs because of the way he speaks, but there’s a very progressive manager underneath that exterior– and one who claimed at the end of the presser to model himself after Davey Johnson. *SWOON*
Shit, Anthopoulos, like Catalanotto, even said he sees the “dust-ups” in a positive light– or at least was able to convince himself that it wouldn’t look foolish to suggest as much, explaining, “I don’t have a problem with it. I look at it as a strong point. What happened with Shea Hillenbrand, he needed to be confronted.”
I mean… seriously.
Yes, it truly was a remarkable love-in, with Gibbons at the centre of it, somehow convincingly painted as being all things to all men: a warm, intelligent, funny, human, good-natured disciplinarian who takes no shit but can work with anyone, is an excellent evaluator of talent, manages progressively with tactics, and told the media horde that his “dream job” was the one he was in last year, managing at Double-A in his hometown of San Antonio.
“It didn’t go too well,” he explained of his now former gig. “And I left that one for this one– that ought to tell you something.”
It did. But how could it not have? We were buying whatever they were selling today. Or at least I was. And why the hell shouldn’t I have been? John Gibbons is back!