Cito Gaston's satisfying second helping
At some point, Cito Gaston stopped trying to understand why he couldn't get a managing job. He had won two World Series. Twenty-one other managers had accomplished that, and never did they have any trouble finding a new gig. Joe Torre was unemployed for two weeks when the Dodgers threw $13 million at him and told him to win another.
For a decade, Gaston never found steady employment outside of the franchise to which he delivered back-to-back championships. The Toronto Blue Jays fired him in 1997, then brought him back as a hitting coach and a scout and an ambassador, never willing to go the full monty as the organization spelunked the bottom of the American League East. And no other franchise bothered much beyond an interview, either, and Gaston is pretty sure the only reason they talked with him was that the color of his skin matched the requirement that teams consider a minority candidate.
"What was I going to say?" Gaston said. "Did you interview me because you needed to? I never asked anyone because maybe I didn't want to hear the answer. And I never asked myself because I didn't think there was any use in that."
So life went. Gaston won more championships than Jim Leyland and Bobby Cox and Lou Piniella, and he was a leper. Was it because he had been out of the game too long? Or because his reputation as a laissez-faire manager turned off executives? Or because he was black?
"Doesn't matter now, does it?" Gaston said, sitting in a major-league dugout again, wearing a major league uniform again, managing the first-place Blue Jays again. He vowed that he'd never interview for a managing job, the heartbreak of rejection too much, and he didn't have to. When Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi called last June and asked him to take over for the fired John Gibbons, Gaston said yes so quickly his wife, Denise, said: "You didn't even think about it?"
Nope. Gaston didn't have to. He had been rejected by Cleveland and Detroit and the Los Angeles Dodgers, and at 64, he wasn't getting any more chances. If he wanted to manage again, he would take over a last-place Blue Jays team and try to do what he did in 1989: Turn woebegone into winners.
Only five teams played better baseball than Toronto over the final 3½ months last season. And the carryover has been remarkable: The Blue Jays are the best hitting team in baseball, and their record is the best in the American League.
"If you come back and they don't play well, it's different," Gaston said. "As much as I'd love to take credit, I won't. This is about these guys. They're winning because of their talent, not their manager."
Actually, their schedule has something to do with it: The Blue Jays went all April without a game against an AL East team. Though it bears noting, too, that Toronto is 16 games over .500 against its division over the past four seasons, the beasts of Boston and New York instilling little fear in their Canadian counterpart.
Convenient schedule aside, that Gaston has kept the Blue Jays not just afloat but atop the mountain with a patchwork pitching staff is quite the feat. He's got a rotation's worth of starting pitchers on the disabled list – Dustin McGown (labrum) and Shawn Marcum (Tommy John surgery) were burgeoning stars,
(oblique) solid pieces and
(labrum) a valuable swingman – and is making do with
and the No-Names.
Which is easier with a bullpen whose top three relievers –
– have given up three earned runs in 26 2/3 innings, struck out 32 and walked six. And a lineup hitting a major-league-best .295, buoyed by second baseman
breakout, the unexpected emergence of veteran shortstop
and a pair of young left-handed hitters, DH
and left fielder
Gaston's reticence in the past to commit to young players was one of the knocks on him. Age and urgency seem to have remedied most of those issues – though he generally sits Snider against left-handed pitchers, a curious choice given the 21-year-old's .289 average and .488 slugging percentage against lefties in the minor leagues.
Bugaboos notwithstanding, little has changed about Gaston. He still gets to the ballpark at 2:15 p.m. and still asks just two things of his charges: Show up on time and play hard. It's easy to appreciate such a hands-off demeanor when the Blue Jays' record since Gaston took over, 68-46, is the second best in baseball, only percentage points behind the Angels' 67-45.
"It always helps that you won," Gaston said. "Though I'm honest. A lot of the guys on this team are young enough that they don't even remember when we won the World Series."
The last of the two championships came on Joe Carter's famous home run in the 1993 Series. Carter was in Gaston's office last week in Kansas City, visiting, reminiscing, wishing his favorite manager well. Carter is organizing a reunion of the title-winning teams at a golf course in Toronto sometime in August. Gaston had one request: Make sure it's on a Blue Jays off day.
He has a team to manage.