When the unfamiliar think of Texas, they’re prone to envisioning a barren land, one of desert and cactus, where hard lives beget hardened people. They imagine the repressive heat of a cruel sun and ever-present dust that combine to make teeth gritty, throats dry and sweat dirty. They think of the hardships of futile toiling, where the only possible reward is oil, a black and grimy substance that’s more reminiscent of the devil’s bath water than a natural resource.
They think of mainly nonsense.
The misrepresentations of Texas in popular culture are plentiful, as it would be for any unique region for which diversity, both in terms of population and landscape, creates complications that require more than a quick glimpse and labeling to understand. In truth, Texas isn’t the less than convivial hell hole described in the opening paragraph. Texas isn’t a desert wasteland. Prairies, grasslands, swamps, hills and forests surround the cities that aren’t located along the coastline. Two-thirds of the state’s population, which is comprised of multiple ethnicities, reside near large metropolitan areas, and less than 10% of the land area of the entire state is considered to be desert.
Fans of Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays should be able to relate to ignorance breeding malformed understanding. After all, the Blue Jays find themselves in a unique situation of their own, as the only team competing at baseball’s highest level to be located outside the United States of America. While this surely presents challenges when it comes to talent acquisition, club supporters become most acutely aware of the misrepresentation this characteristic creates through outside media consistently classifying the franchise as being that of a small-market. This is the case, despite being the franchise being owned by the richest ownership group in baseball and playing in MLB’s fourth-most populated city.
It’s therefore fitting on multiple levels that the often-mislabeled Blue Jays would hire a misunderstood Texan to guide a roster largely comprised of players misjudged by their previous teams. I’d liken John Gibbons to King Moonracer, but in all likelihood, the current incarnation of Toronto’s Major League Baseball team would be outcasts even on The Island Of Misfit Toys.
When news first broke of the surprise hiring on Monday evening, jokes about Gibbons’ confrontations, which occurred during his previous managerial stint with the Blue Jays, abounded. The jokes eventually took on a serious nature, with two incidents in particular being used as cause to question the manager’s ability to handle his players. When asked during Tuesday’s press conference about the tense standoff with Shea Hillenbrand and the shoving match with Ted Lilly that occurred in 2006, a reflective Gibbons admitted that he wished that he had handled those situations differently, referring to them as a black eye that he’s had to bear.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos was quick to jump in and suggest that no, Gibbons was in the right for confronting the players in both instances, and the character quality that pushed him toward this behavior was one that he looked for in a manager. The statement was more than merely a boss leaping to the defense of his newest hire. It hinted at something that was perhaps missing from the Blue Jays clubhouse over the last two seasons, that the head of the front office was happy to now be residing there.
When we revisit the moments-in-question from more than six years ago, we can agree with Gibbons that the threat of physical force and physical force itself, even in the form of an angry shove, has no real place in the relationship between manager and player. However, we can simultaneously agree with Anthopoulos that Gibbons was in the right for aggressively confronting the players in the first place.
The first bit of controversy occurred in July of 2006, when Gibbons chastised Hillenbrand in a closed-door meeting for writing comments on a dugout blackboard that referred to the team being a sinking ship. The confrontation escalated and ended with the manager allegedly challenging the first baseman and designated hitter to a fistfight. There were other factors at play, but ultimately upper management sided with Gibbons in the dispute, trading Hillenbrand away to the San Francisco Giants only three days after the heated dispute.
In August of the same year, a shoving match erupted in the clubhouse hallway after Gibbons had taken Lilly out of a game in which the starting pitcher had almost blown an 8-0 lead. With such a large amount of breathing room, the southpaw began experimenting with his arm slot in the third inning, eventually giving up seven runs. When the angry, but calm manager went to remove the pitcher from the game, Lilly, after a show of defiance, had to be coerced into handing Gibbons the baseball. When the manager returned to the dugout, he proceeded to follow his starter down the tunnel and push him. Lilly pushed back, and before things could escalate any further, players and members of the coaching staff intervened. After this, the matter was said to have been closed, with no ill will expressed by either toward the other.
The resolution of neither conflict seemed to result in anything negative. In fact, the 2006 season resulted in the team’s best year since 1998 in terms of winning percentage. In terms of division standings, it was the best result since the World Series victory of 1993.
However, it’s easy to understand why Gibbons might be vilified by the violent or verging on violent affairs of the past. His Boomhauer-drawl and outspoken admiration for President George W. Bush tend to pull the sleeve of the negative stereotype coat that we too often forget we’re wearing. Don’t mistake the slower pace of his speech or political associations for slower thought of mind or ignorance.
He proved to be a very smart tactician during his original time in Toronto, playing percentages with bullpen usage and platoon bats, managing aggressiveness on the base paths so as to actually produce an effective running game and exhibiting a clever avoidance of sacrifice hits. He also showed humility through being approachable to ideas from the rest of his coaching staff, often mentioning to the media that a particularly savvy bit of strategy was the idea of a bench coach, or a third base coach with a particularly good understanding of infield defense.
This is good for a baseball club. It’s better to have strategically sound decisions being made in the dugout than to not. However, the more time I spend thinking about baseball, the more inclined I am to believe that in-game decisions account for so very little of a manager’s role. It’s a part of their job that’s only magnified by critics because it’s one of a manager’s few duties that we can actually measure. Only arrogance would dare to suggest that an inability to quantify means that something doesn’t exist.
Arrogance would also be the culprit involved in imagining that we can take currently immeasurable actions, and assign them to be the causation of outcomes based solely on the assumptions that we make. John Gibbons is the prime reminder for us to be careful with what we assume in baseball. We see that Gibbons has had conflicts in the past, and so then we suggest that he’s bad at dealing with his players. Then, we see that when those conflicts occurred, the team played better baseball, better than a long time before and better than anytime since.
Somewhere in the mix of randomness and undetermined causation, Gibbons led a very good baseball team to perform very well. We don’t know what, if anything, he did to cause this. It’s just as likely that a confrontation could cause failure as it could cause success, but I think that a far more educated assumption, given the deliberation with which he approaches the other duties associated with his management, would be to not underestimate Gibbons.
Whether he regrets it now or not, the instincts that led to him physically confronting players were likely guarded and directed in choice of target. He didn’t confront Alex Rios or A.J. Burnett in the same fashion, even though both players had moments that might have been equally frustrating for the manager. He chose Hillenbrand, and he chose Lilly. One exited, and the other pitched better.
Again, I’m playing the same game as others who would use these incidents to discredit the ability of Gibbons, but that’s the point. We can use the same actions to explain a different result because there’s no provable causation. We’re dealing in the realm of assumptions based on a limited knowledge of variables and the existence of biases.
While we’re unlikely to ever improve our knowledge of incidents that occur behind the closed doors of a baseball team’s clubhouse, we do have the opportunity to be aware of our own biases and the shallowness of our understanding. It might have to do with misrepresenting a unique region of America, mislabeling a baseball franchise or even a misunderstood manager hailing from misrepresented Texas who is set to take control over the mislabeled Toronto Blue Jays.
On the whole, I believe that the hiring is a good one by the Toronto Blue Jays because I believe that John Gibbons is a smart man, and it’s a good thing to have smart people in charge. It’s not foolproof. It never is. Especially not in baseball, where so much is determined by randomness, despite what we think, feel or pretend to know.