Gaston's second act a lot like the first
Jays manager reminding AL of burning desire to compete
Cito Gaston has a philosophy that has helped him throughout his life. Whether he is dealing with something as simple and frustrating as sitting in traffic, or he is confronted with a more complicated scenario -- say, going more than a decade without a managing job -- Gaston goes back to one saying.
"'This is where I'm supposed to be,'" Gaston said. "That belief, it calms you."
It is that idea that has helped Gaston live with the fact that he was out of the game as a manager for 11 years before the Blue Jays came calling last June. He won two World Series championships with Toronto in the early '90s, becoming the first African-American manager to capture baseball's crown in the process.
Yet, when Gaston was relieved of his duties with the Jays in 1997, it took two years before another team picked up the phone and reached out with an offer to interview for a managing position. Gaston received similar queries for a few years, but the job always went to someone else.
More than a decade later, Gaston doesn't look back with anger or bitterness, even with the belief that race might have played a role in his prolonged absence from the game he loves. Instead, Gaston smiles warmly, something he does often these days, and goes back to that old saying of his.
"You're there for a reason," Gaston said.
For whatever reason, Gaston was meant to be away from the game for as long as he was. Now, the 65-year-old Gaston is supposed to be right here -- back at the helm for a Blue Jays team that is providing one of baseball's early surprises.
Gaston at the helm
|The year-by-year breakdown of Cito Gaston's tenure as manager of the Blue Jays, including their finish in the AL East and how many games they led or trailed in the division.|
|*The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and '93. |
^In 1989, Gaston took over on May 15 for Jimy Williams. He was dismissed in 1997 on Sept. 24. In 2008, he replaced John Gibbons on June 20.
Toronto owns the best record in the American League at 22-12, a product of boasting one of baseball's most potent offensive groups to this point. Since Gaston took over as manager last June 20, the Jays have run to a record of 73-49 -- the second-best mark in the Majors over that period.
The baseball world might be startled by the Blue Jays' run to the top of the AL East standings, but Gaston insists he is not. Given Gaston's resume (World Series titles in 1992 and '93 and a 775-699 managerial record), the only surprise might be that he wasn't given the chance to lead again sooner.
"I'm amazed that he didn't get a job or wasn't offered a job," Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said. "You think about some guys who have gotten jobs who have received second or third opportunities and really don't have the same credentials that he has.
"It makes you sit there and wonder sometimes why someone of his stature was not given another opportunity to manage."
Ricciardi's comments represent a common theme. The people who are around Gaston on a daily basis, and those who have known him over the years, act more appalled by his absence from the game than the manager does.
"Being away from the game that long, it didn't seem to bother Cito any," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, who managed the Jays with Gaston as his hitting coach from 1982-85, and later managed against Gaston in the 1992 World Series with the Braves.
"It's a grind," Cox added. "But, he spent all those years staying involved in different roles, so he wasn't exactly away from the game."
Sure, there was Gaston's stint as Toronto's hitting coach again from 2000-01. He also pried himself away from the Florida golf courses and headed to Spring Training "kicking and screaming" once a week as a guest coach for the club from 2005-08. During that three-year span, Gaston was also given the title of club ambassador and special assistant to the Jays' then-president and CEO Paul Godfrey.
It wasn't managing, though.
After the Jays let him go in 1997, Gaston received an offer from Kansas City to serve as a hitting coach. Two years later, he started receiving calls to interview for other big league jobs. Gaston heard from the Brewers, Angels, Dodgers, Indians and White Sox, but nothing came to fruition.
Gaston sat down with Cleveland in 2000 and the managing job went to Charlie Manuel. In 2004, the White Sox interviewed Gaston and Chicago general manager Kenny Williams -- a player under Gaston with the Jays in 1990-91 -- wanted to hire him as the manager. The final call went to Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and he handed the job to Ozzie Guillen.
"I wasn't upset about that," Gaston said. "The owner over there is very loyal to the people who played in that organization. But, after I didn't get that one, I just said, 'You know what? That's it. I'm not going through any more interviews.'"
Race played a role in that decision for Gaston.
He was tired of sitting down for an interview and wondering if the only reason he was called in was because he was an African-American candidate.
"I think some of them were calling just to say they interviewed a minority," Gaston said.
Gaston decided that he would accept a managing job if one was ever offered, but he wasn't going to go through any other type of process. So, when the Dodgers called in 2006 and asked if he would interview, Gaston respectfully declined.
He reached a point where he began to believe his time as a manager had come to a close. That was fine with Gaston. He admits the first year after being dismissed was hard -- when spring arrived, the ballpark was the only place he knew to be -- but Gaston quickly adjusted to life away from the dugout.
Gaston and his wife, Lynda, traveled the world. He smiles when talking about their trips to Hawaii, and he quickly rattles off other stops he has made around the globe: "Europe. I went to Italy, Croatia, Turkey, Greece, Chile and all over South America."
Back home in Florida, being away from managing for 11 years allowed Gaston a chance to spend precious time with his family, especially his four grandchildren. That experience is something he missed out on as a player in his days in the Padres and Braves organizations.
"I wouldn't give it up for anything," Gaston said. "Unfortunately, I wasn't around to see my kids grow up. I was always busy and there was no such thing as going home when your wife is having a baby -- you had to stay there. So, the time off gave me a chance to see my grandkids grow up."
Over the past few years, when Gaston did make his way over to Toronto's spring complex in Dunedin, Fla., he would spend time talking to the hitters and he'd hang around for friendly chats with reporters. Gaston also spent time discussing the game with Ricciardi, who asked a few times if he had any interest in managing again.
"J.P. had asked me over the last three years, 'Would you manage again?'" Gaston said. "I'd say, 'Well, if someone called and gave me a job. I'm not going for an interview.' I think he was only asking that in case someone asked him -- I don't think he had any thoughts of me coming and managing here."
That wasn't entirely true.
"I think it was both," Ricciardi said. "I've always enjoyed talking the game with him and it was just a situation where I wanted to find out if he was ever interested in getting back in it. At the same time, in the back of your mind, you always remember good people."
Last June, Gaston came home to find a message waiting for him from Ricciardi. Gaston had been following the Blue Jays and he knew that hitting was the team's primary issue. He thought maybe Ricciardi was calling with a chance to return as a hitting coach -- something Gaston wasn't sure he was willing to do.
Gaston phoned Ricciardi back and was caught off guard.
"He was asking me to come manage again," Gaston said. "I said yes right away and my wife, after I got off the phone, said, 'You said yes in a hurry. You didn't even think about it or talk to me about it.' I said, 'Well, Lynda, I've been telling him for three years that if somebody said, "Here's a job," I'd take it.' I wanted to be a man of my word."
Gaston took over for former manager John Gibbons on June 20, bringing hitting coach Gene Tenace, third-base coach Nick Leyva and first-base coach Dwayne Murphy along with him. Gaston, Tenace and Murphy went to work on Toronto's hitting philosophy, preaching aggressiveness and a sound approach, and the results came fast.
The Jays finished the 2008 season with a 51-37 record under Gaston. The players agree that Gaston brings a calm to the clubhouse and he creates an environment of stability, showing trust in his players with something as simple as trying to maintain the same lineup. At the same time, his arrival ignited something else in the players.
"Timing is one thing," Jays center fielder Vernon Wells said. "We've expected a lot our of ourselves over the last couple years and just haven't been able to produce. Obviously, it was a matter of time before things started turning around a little bit. Since we kind of had that wakeup call with Gibby being fired, I think the guys woke up and have responded well to the challenge."
It's more than that, though.
Rookie Travis Snider wasn't with the Blue Jays when Gibbons was let go and, being only 21 years old, he doesn't remember Toronto winning consecutive World Series titles under Gaston. What he does know is Gaston has created a comfortable working environment, one in which the young players feel as important as the veterans.
"The feeling he gives off is so warm," Snider said. "He's very approachable -- very low-key. Everything he does, he keeps a manner about himself that's very professional and very respectful, whether you're 21 years old or a 10-year vet. He's an easy guy to play for in that respect. As long as you come out here and play hard every day, and you're busting it for him and for the ballclub to win baseball games, he's going to show you that respect."
Through that, Gaston has helped the Blue Jays gain more respect around the league again after a long string of mediocre seasons.
"He's got an aura," Blue Jays bench coach Brian Butterfield said. "When he speaks, people pay attention. He wants us to do things correctly and we do it. It's not a reflection of anybody that preceded him, but it almost feels like for so long we didn't really have an identity as a team. I feel like we're now starting to gain one."
The one constant throughout Gaston's career has been winning, but he has a hard time trying to explain why players seem to respond well to him. He leans back his chair, ponders the concept for a moment, and then eventually shrugs.
"I don't know," Gaston said. "That's a good question. I just have the desire to win and, hopefully, that comes off me to them."
So far, it has.
After a long separation, Gaston and the Blue Jays are right where they are supposed to be again. For now, that is in first place and off to their best start since 1992. Everyone but Toronto's long-time manager seems surprised.
"I expect to play like we're playing right now," he said.
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.