Thank You Cito

If I was baseball’s version of Barbara Walters, in addition to having fabulous legs, I’d host a year end interview show in which I talked to the most interesting people in baseball that year and tried my hardest to make them cry on air.

My first interview request would go to Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston.

Gaston, a two-time World Series winning manager who never found managerial work outside of the Blue Jays organization is a fascinating study in race, attitude and baseball.

However, I’m not Barbara Walters.  I’m a blog writer, and so the only thing I can do is wield what limited power I have to write a long form piece on Cito Gaston.

If that’s not an inspiring pre-jump blurb, I don’t know what is.

Born in 1944 to a Texan truck driving father and a mother who taught him from an early age to “say nice things or hold your tongue,” Clarence Gaston was given the nickname Cito because of his resemblance to a Mexican wrestler who was popular in San Antonio during his youth.

A three sport star in high school, Gaston eventually signed with the Milwaukee Braves as an amateur free agent in 1964.  He toiled in the Braves system before making his MLB debut in 1967 as a centre fielder. During his time with what were now the Atlanta Braves, Hank Aaron took Gaston under his wing.

Hank and I are good friends, and I’ve never expressed this to him, but he taught me how to be a man; how to stand on my own. Hank taught me how to handle my money and how to deal with many of those things associated with baseball off the field. He even taught me how to tie a tie. He was kind of a father-figure. And when you are younger and away from home, it’s good to run into those type of people. I just thank God that I ran into Hank Aaron.

Gaston was left unprotected in the 1968 expansion draft, and the San Diego Padres selected him in the later rounds. In San Diego, Gaston excelled as a player, putting together a career year in 1970 by hitting 29 home runs and accumulating an OPS over .900.

Interestingly enough, Gaston, who later as a manager would become known for keeping players in the same place in the batting order no matter what the rest of the lineup looked like, hit almost exclusively from the third spot in his most successful season.

Gaston was eventually traded back to the Braves (where he became teammates with Dusty Baker), but he could never find the same success with the bat that he had earlier in his career.  His final season as a player was split between Atlanta and Pittsburgh in 1978.

Four years later, Gaston was contacted by former Minor League teammate and manager Bobby Cox, who believed that his solid work ethic would make Cito an ideal hitting coach with the Toronto Blue Jays.

Seven years after that, on May 15, 1989, Gaston reluctantly took over the managerial duties from Jimy Williams, who had led the Jays to a dismal 12-24.  Gaston’s first season at the helm was miraculous in nature as he transformed the team from its lousy start into a division winner.

Under Gaston, the Jays finished second the following year, but won the AL East again in 1991, and as you may remember, brought the World Series trophy to Toronto in 1992 and 1993.

Cito Gaston was a hero on the Toronto sports scene.  It was more of an afterthought to Toronto sports fans that he had become the first African-American manager to win not only one, but two World Series.  However, after growing up in the South during the Civil Rights movement and witnessing the racism directed toward Hank Aaron first hand, it couldn’t have been anything but a point of pride for Gaston.

Despite the baseball work stoppage and the departure of key players in addition to the Jays executive team of Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick, Gaston stuck around for four losing years with the Blue Jays before leaving the team with one week to go in the 1997 season.  Things turned especially ugly earlier that year when Gaston accused Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons, Globe and Mail sports editor Dave Langford and FAN 590 radio host Bob McCown of being racists because of their ongoing criticism.

It was a strange accusation.  Gaston was using the right to speak his mind, a right earned through the Civil Rights Movement, to accuse people of an attitude that the Civil Rights Movement had also changed.  No one is pretending that the events of the fifties and sixties had eradicated racism, but it did do a lot to promote equality.  Instead of being criticized because he was black, Gaston was being criticized because he was managing terrible teams.

Despite being close on a couple of occasions and even being offered roles as a hitting coach with other organizations, Gaston was never hired for another managing or coaching position.  The former Jays manager grew bitter over what he believed to be racist treatment, and eventually refused to interview for positions because he believed he was only being used by teams looking to fulfill MLB’s policy requiring them to interview minorities for managerial positions.

However, Gaston did return to the Blue Jays fold as a hitting coach and as a special assistant to the team, which he remained until being hired to replace John Gibbons as the team’s manager in 2008.

The move was shocking.  Gaston, who, despite his nominal position within the club, had been out of the manager game for ten years, was thrust back into the role mid season.  Cynical Blue Jays fans saw the move as yet another attempt by team president Paul Godfrey to reach back to the past as a means of inspiring fan interest.

However, after Godfrey’s resignation, and Paul Beeston’s subsequent interim hiring, Gaston was brought back for another year, and then another final season after that.  And that’s where we find ourselves now: Cito Gaston is preparing to manage his final game in Toronto tonight.

These last two and a half seasons for Gaston have acted like a microcosm for his entire time in Toronto.  Polarizing for some and confusing for many, Gaston is the best representative I could ever imagine for the duality of baseball.

On one hand you have Gaston The Good: A two-time World Series winning manager who brought success and attitude to Toronto.  During his second time around, he also managed to draw out career years from Adam Lind and Jose Bautista in separate seasons, while maintaining an incredibly respectable record for a team many picked for dead last in the AL East.

On the other hand you have Gaston The Bad: A stubborn man, in and out of controversy, who in his earlier days seemed to have difficulty understanding motivations that weren’t based in race.  This stubbornness appeared in his second term with the club through dated in-game strategies and decisions to play veterans chasing milestones over rookies seeking experience.

It’s almost fitting that in the game before Cito Gaston is honoured for all he’s done for baseball in Toronto, he was ejected for arguing a call in which he was obviously in the wrong.  Then today, we see this letter to the fans who have loved him and hated him for all he’s brought to us.

That’s our Cito. That’s the most memorable manager in Blue Jays history.