Gaston leaves quite a legacy behind
Taking reins of Jays twice proved to be great decisions
MINNEAPOLIS -- Cito Gaston heard the knock and headed for his door. He had already received a phone call telling him to stay home. Members of the Blue Jays' front office needed to speak with him in person.
Gaston grabbed the handle and swung the door open. Pat Gillick and team president Paul Beeston were standing outside. It was still early in the 1989 season, but Toronto was rapidly sliding down the standings.
A change was coming.
"That day, I'll never forget it," Gaston said.
Gillick and Beeston had just been over at Jimy Williams' place -- only a few blocks away from where Gaston lived -- and the pair informed him that he was no longer going to be the Toronto's manager. When they told Gaston he was the man they wanted guiding the ship, unease set in.
Gaston was content in his role as the Blue Jays' hitting coach and he was not sure why he was suddenly the top choice for the manager's chair. There were more experienced options available.
"I said, 'What about Al Widmar? What about John Sullivan?'" Gaston recalled. "They've done this before. I said, 'Besides that, I'm pretty happy with what I'm doing.' It's not too often we can go to work and be happy with what we're doing, and I was really happy."
Gaston was reluctant to take the job.
"I had never managed before in my life," Gaston said. "I was a little, not afraid, but I didn't know what to expect."
On Sunday afternoon, Gaston shifted out of his seat on the bench, walked up the steps of the visitors' dugout at Target Field and headed on the field. The 66-year-old manager shook the hands of his players, congratulating them for ending the 2010 season with a 2-1 victory over the Twins.
It marked Gaston's 913th win in his final game -- No. 1,764 as manager of the Blue Jays.
Gaston then spoke for a few minutes with Twins slugger Jim Thome, who sent a bottle of Dom Perignon to the manager's office a few days earlier. Minnesota's first-base coach, Jerry White, came over to Gaston and the two embraced in a warm hug.
White told Gaston he was a hero of his.
"He meant it from his heart," Gaston said.
It seemed fitting that Gaston's final moments as the Toronto's manager came in Minnesota. After all, it was there that the Blue Jays suffered a three-game series sweep at the hands of the Twins in May of 1989, leading to Williams' dismissal and Gaston's hiring.
Prior to Sunday's game, Paul Molitor and Jack Morris -- two of Gaston's former players -- met their old skipper at home plate. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and Orlando Hudson, another former Blue Jays player, stood nearby listening to Molitor and Morris offer kind words about Gaston.
It was a brief tribute that the Twins felt Gaston deserved.
"It was very important to let him know how much we appreciate what he's done in this game," Gardenhire said. "As a manager, you get a chance to go talk to guys. You talk to a guy like Cito Gaston, who has been there and done it, it doesn't get much better than that."
Gaston's name resides on the facing of the fourth deck inside Rogers Centre in Toronto, part of the club's Level of Excellence. High above center field hang the banners that he helped bring to the city.
Four American League East titles. Two World Series championships.
The first World Series victory came in 1992, bringing baseball's ultimate prize to Canada for the first time. The Blue Jays had come so close in previous years, creating an overwhelming sense of joy when Toronto finally took down Atlanta to claim its first title.
"After [former Blue Jays coach] Gene Tenace picked me up and just about broke my back," Gaston said, "I ran out on the field kind of in a slump, just yelling. It was kind of like relief, because we had been through all those things. We had been so close."
A year later, during Game 6 of the World Series, Joe Carter sent a pitch from Phillies pitcher Mitch Williams over the left-field wall in Toronto to clinch a a second straight crown in walk-off fashion. Carter touched 'em all, and Gaston ran on the field again.
And then there was another parade to plan.
"It just seemed like it was a dream," Gaston said.
Gaston's legacy, first and foremost, will be the pair of World Series rings that he helped deliver to the Blue Jays. Ask Gaston what achievement brings him the most pride, however, and he is quick to mention something else.
In 2008, Gaston was given the Jackie Robinson Award for Career Achievement by the Negro Leagues Museum. That honor humbled Gaston, who knows that Robinson paved the way for the manager's success by breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.
"I feel like I have three World Series," Gaston said of the award.
When Gaston won his first World Series with the Blue Jays, he became the first African-American manager to do so in baseball. Gaston believes that fact shows the progress baseball has made over the years, but the manager believes more can be done in the future.
"I think God had a plan for me," Gaston said. "This was his plan. I thank him for choosing me for this plan, for these things that have happened in my lifetime. It's really big, because I think it opened doors for a lot of people.
"I still think there's a lot of work to do out there as far as bringing more minorities into this game."
Gaston hopes to one day see more African-American managers, coaches, umpires and players. And he wants minority candidates to be taken seriously. After being let go as Toronto's manager in 1997, Gaston was out of managing for 11 years.
Despite his incredible track record, offers never came.
"It was two years before I even got an offer for an interview," Gaston said.
The Indians, Brewers and White Sox each considered him at one point in time.
Gaston decided to decline offers to interview and he is not afraid to say why.
"A couple times I just felt like I was going to interviews so they could say they interviewed a minority," Gaston said. "So I just said, 'No, I'm not coming.' I was happy in what I was doing and had peace of mind in it, too.
"It's not anything I'll look back on and wish I did differently."
Gaston's life out of baseball came to an abrupt halt on June 20, 2008. Former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi called with an offer -- the type Gaston hoped would come during the previous decade -- and suddenly, the manager was on a flight to Pittsburgh.
He had a team to lead.
The Blue Jays dismissed John Gibbons as manager and handed the reins to Gaston once again. All Toronto did was respond by going 51-37 the rest of the way. Coincidence or not, Gaston's presence breathed life into a franchise that had been in a downward spiral.
"We had never had a 10-game winning streak under J.P. as the general manager," current Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said. "Cito came in the first year and the team went on a 10-game winning streak."
Over the past two and a half seasons, Gaston compiled a 211-201 record, improving his overall ledger to 913-851 as the best manager in Blue Jays history.
Gaston did not boast the All-Star squads of the early '90s, and the team no longer saw crowds of 50,000 every night at home like they did during the World Series years. But those facts make his second stay with the Jays impressive in its own way.
"We had some really good teams back then," Blue Jays bench coach Nick Leyva said. "When you have the talent that we had, I think his job then was to just make sure that you put them in the right place at the right time. Since we've been back, I actually think he's done, not a better job, but he's had to manage a little bit more."
As memorable as his time as manager has been, life with the Blue Jays has not been void of controversy for Gaston.
In 1991, Gaston and former Blue Jays pitcher David Wells wrestled under the stands after the left-hander -- angry at the manager's decision to pull him from a game -- threw a baseball down the left-field line.
"That's the first time we ever saw Cito just going berserk, crazy," said former Blue Jays outfielder Devon White.
Six years later -- not long before being let go as the Blue Jays manager the first time around -- it was perceived that Gaston called out a handful of media members, with racism at the forefront of the issue. It was an ugly period that likely played a role in his dismissal.
For Gaston, though, his most disappointing moment as manager came last year. During Toronto's final series of the season in Baltimore, a group of players complained about Gaston's managerial style, citing communication issues among other things.
The reported quotes were anonymous and the tension in the clubhouse was obvious.
"I probably had one of the worst winters of my life last year," Gaston said, "when I went home from what happened in Baltimore, and all the things that were said, and people not even having enough guts to stand up and say that they said it. So, my winter wasn't too good thinking about that."
The complaints caught Gaston completely off guard and went against what he strives to be as a manager.
"The thing that was so disppointing for me," Gaston said, "is I would like to think I'm the most fair manager that they're ever going to be around."
Changes were made to the coaching staff over the winter, the players who Gaston believes were behind the comments are no longer with the organization, and the Blue Jays as a group put the issue behind them at the start of this season.
"It's been forgotten for me," Gaston said, "and I think the guys on this ballclub, they don't mind me being around here."
Gaston doesn't plan on watching too much of baseball's postseason this October. He has a round-trip ticket to Hawaii, where he and his wife, Lynda, will join Leyva and Tenace for a well-earned vacation.
"We're going to try to play all the good golf clubs on that island," Gaston said with a smile.
This is the way Gaston wanted to go out.
The controversies and misunderstandings are in the past, the Blue Jays appear to be heading in the right direction, and he was able to board his flight home to Florida with the taste of one final win still lingering.
"It feels a lot better," Gaston said. "I'm leaving on my own terms this time."
Gaston enters life's offseason with a role awaiting as an advisor for the Blue Jays. He plans on spending the winters in Florida and the summers in Toronto, where he can watch the team play from a suite as opposed to the dugout.
Asked what his new advising role includes, Gaston cracks a smile.
"First of all, the cap will have Titleist on it," he quips. "The next thing, I'll have a whole bunch of Titleist golf balls."
And his advice to the next manager of the Blue Jays?
"Just pick up the baton and keep it going," Gaston said.
After all, you never know what might happen.
When Gaston reluctantly took the reins in 1989, the Blue Jays were 12-24. They won 77 games the rest of the way, earning a spot in the postseason.
"I thought that was probably one of the best years I ever had," Gaston said. "This year has been a good year, too. It's been a fun year for me to see these kids grow and get better and really care about what they're doing.
"I think they can see it getting brighter on the other side. If you're starting to look at next year and you're looking at the rotation this club might have, it's encouraging, man.
"The guy who comes in here next, he's going to have some fun."