I have no idea where this came topic came from. Not that I was wistfully considering John Gibbons’ dismissal or anything, but in a rare moment of thought I was pondering a question that pops up every so often when there’s a managerial opening. Commissioner Bud Selig has made a lot of noise in recent years about minority hiring when a vacancy comes up.
Which logically brings up the following question: Why hasn’t anybody hired Cito Gaston? The man pulled a 12-24 team in 1989 into the postseason. He followed that up with a three-peat in the AL East from 1991-93 which included back-to-back world championships.
Granted, the years after that, Gaston didn’t cover himself with glory. Once a skipper who nurtured young players, he became impatient with them. He’d prefer to play an out-making veteran over a promising youngster. No matter how rough a patch such a player was having, Gaston would stick doggedly with him. He’d leave veteran starters and relievers in the game when they were getting the (Samson) kicked out of them.
Usually his rationale was that he wanted to demonstrate to the ol’ guys that he had faith in their ability to come out of a bad situation—whether in a single or long stretch of games.
He developed foibles: After second baseman Roberto Alomar’s brilliant work as a Jay where he usually batted second behind centerfielder Devon White, it appeared that if you played second base, you batted second, regardless of your aptitude for the role. As any Jays fan can tell you, Toronto has had a black hole (black hole: where a player’s hitting sucks so hard that offense cannot possibly escape) at that position since he left. The O-Dawg (Orlando Hudson) looked like he’d finally end the curse, but he was dealt to Arizona. Now, it appears the Jays have found a competent two-way player in Aaron Hill. Despite a long succession of Jedi Out-Masters such as Tomas Perez, Domingo Cedeno, Tilson Brito, Miguel Cairo, Carlos Garcia, Mariano Duncan, etc. Gaston would often bat them second.
In a season the Jays’ front office called—long, loud and repeatedly—a “rebuilding year,” Gaston inexplicably platooned left-handed hitting Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado. How could they possibly learn to hit lefty pitching if they didn’t face them? If they weren’t learning in an admitted rebuilding year, then when in the world did the Jays expect them to learn? But noooo…he just had to give the veterans at-bats. So instead of having the young players learn how to hit southpaws, re-treads like Ruben Sierra, Jacob Brumfield and Juan Samuel were tabbed to teach the kids how to make outs like a veteran.
It was obvious Cito had to go, and finally in 1998 he was gone. I was happy. No, I was thrilled. On the old FASTBALL.com forums, we had nicknamed him Cito “Losing is Neato” Gaston, since it appeared he‘d rather give veterans at-bats than win. It didn’t help that Tony Castillo was a favorite out of the bullpen. Gaston even had him close games for awhile. Long suffering readers of this column know that Castillo is right up there with David Samson on my primary fecal manifest.
When he didn’t get any offers to manage, I figured that his fixation on players exhumed from Arlington National Cemetery at Camden Yards (translation: old coots whose careers were best left buried) over promising youngsters was the reason. With player salaries in the 10-digit range and clubs looking to get younger and cheaper, a guy like Gaston would be the last guy you wanted running your 25-man roster.
I was also less than thrilled when Gaston was later hired as hitting coach. His hacktastic approach to hitting (career OBP of .298 as a player) didn’t bode well for developing young talent.
While my feelings on Gaston’s approach remain unchanged, my attitude toward him has (changed).
I had a chance to meet and speak with the man. This isn’t a “person nice to the media getting good press” situation. This wasn’t a formal interview. I was covering the series for MLBtalk/Yankees.com. I simply asked if he could spare a little time to talk. My time spent with him helped me understand why (1) his players loved playing for him and later (2) why he’s an unlikely candidate to manage again.
When I introduced myself, he shook my elbow—the man’s hands are huge. Although I’m not a little skinny runt by any means, I felt small alongside him.
This is a big man.
What surprised me was how he handled the conversation. He never broke eye contact. He never clichéd. Every question I asked, he answered forthrightly. When the conversation turned to plate discipline and batting eyes, I asked whether it’s an inherited skill or learned one. He replied that it’s inherited but can be improved somewhat with practice and discipline. However, he feels you should try to build up strengths rather than being concerned with what a hitter cannot do—it’s important that the hitter have confidence in what he can do and not worry about things he can’t.
Then out of the blue, he took full responsibility for Toronto’s mishandling of John Olerud.
That wasn’t his only moment of candor in our conversation, either. He was dead honest, even when it put him in a less than flattering light. Anybody who ever heard an interview with Gaston knows that he is a very well-spoken man. There were no “word whiskers” (uuhh, errr, ummm). After some questions, he would pause momentarily to get his thoughts in order before speaking, not at all uncomfortable with pauses in the conversation.
When our conversation ended, he shook my elbow again. The following day when I came to watch early batting practice, he explained what he had various hitters working on. I didn’t ask; he was volunteering the information. When I marveled how Tony Batista could hit with his funky batting stance, he commented: “Watch his hands through the zone. They always go through the same way.”
Sure enough, I remembered his remark from the previous day about working with a hitter’s strengths.
Anyway, the epiphany about why he’ll never manage again came about while I was reading Howard Bryant’s excellent Juicing the Game—Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball.
In chapter 11, the book discusses the changing managerial mindset in MLB; how at one time clubs hired managers for their approach and philosophy to the game. Now it’s the other way around. A team hires a manager it feels can implement the front office’s philosophy. There are some dinosaurs still around: Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, etc., but the trend is that the on-field manager is now the equivalent of middle-management. Now, it’s the general manager who’s the face of the club. In other words, the days of the field general are over. The manager is now the lieutenant, making sure the troops follow the higher-ups’ orders.
That’s not Cito Gaston, who’s a poor fit for any team with that philosophy. He treats players like men, not numbers. He will do what he feels is right, regardless if the numbers or higher-ups are agreeing or not. He is fiercely loyal to the men who have busted their butts for him in the past and feels strongly that they will eventually come through for him again if given a long enough chance.
He was an average in-game manager; his strength lay in managing the season as a whole. (Which would explain his patience with struggling veterans.) He would sometimes not use certain pitchers in an obvious situation if he felt they’d be needed even more a few days later. My favorite example: On June 25, 1997, the Jays had clawed back from a 7-1 deficit to make it 7-6 against the Red Sox. Pat Hentgen had given up 7 ER/6 IP when in the bottom of the frame, Toronto scored three, pulling to within one.
The obvious solution at this point was to get Hentgen out of there and give the Jays a chance to win.
He didn’t. Inexplicably at the time, he let Hentgen pitch the seventh, then the eighth and Boston scored four more times. Three-run rallies in the bottom the eighth and ninth fell short and the Jays lost 13-12. Why on earth had Gaston let Hentgen take a beating like that? Well, the Jays’ relievers had been worked pretty hard over the last while and Gaston didn’t want to use them in a lost cause. He wanted to give the bullpen a break. Indeed, Paul Quantrill, who pitched the ninth, gave up three runs (two earned).
The Jays’ next stop was in Baltimore for a four-game series against the 50-23 Orioles. The Jays swept. The bullpen, which threw 16 innings in that series, posted an ERA of 0.56. All because Gaston felt the bullpen needed a breather.
Gaston took a lot of heat for leaving Hentgen on the hill to get pounded by the Red Sox, but he was looking longer term.
I doubt a team today would give Gaston that kind of latitude. A G.M. in 2007 wants to tell his manager to jump and for the reply to be “Yes sir! How high?” Gaston will always be true to what he believes to be right, even if the his bosses think he’s wrong.
That’s why I doubt Gaston will manage again.
I doubt I’ll ever be a fan of Cito Gaston the manager, but I am a huge admirer of Cito Gaston the man.
As of July 26…
Players who are on (or close to*) pace to top Earl Webb’s record of 67 doubles (assuming 600 AB):
Player 2B Team Pace Chase Utley 41 PHI 62 Magglio Ordonez 38 DET 62
*on pace for at least 60
We’ll be following their progress on this page as the season goes on.