I’m not crying, you’re crying.
Saps R Us, the flower of baseball reportage, far more sentimental than wise-ass-y, all broken up over, finally, formal confirmation of what had been bruited about for weeks, months: John Gibbons will be manager of the Toronto Blue Jays no more, come curtain-drop on the 2018 season.
“We kept that secret pretty good didn’t we?” Gibbons snorted at the jammed press conference.
Cracked himself up, as he often cackles at his own jokes, much less yours.
Second time around, second time gone, but more poignantly waved off this time than June, 2008 (canned on the road) — by the franchise, the media and the fans who gave “Gibby” a standing ovation when he emerged from the dugout and delivered the lineup card to the umpire crew before Wednesday’s late afternoon game versus Houston at the Rogers Centre, a duty that usually falls to bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
A scant crowd — get used to it — on a gorgeous early autumn afternoon but they made up for it in noisy tribute to Gibbons as he doffed his cap and raised a thumb in acknowledgement, this after much hugging around home plate.
He’s a huggy kind of guy, down-home genial, courteous, endlessly self-deprecating. And he likes us, he really likes us, the city and the reporter scruffs.
It comes naturally to Gibbons, that human touch. On what was a bullpen day, cobbling together arms for Game No. 159, there was a moment, first visit to the mound to take out a pitcher, second standing ovation of the day, when Gibbons, smacking his gum (addicted to the anti-nicotine chew as he once was to tobacco chaw), spontaneously reached to wrap his arm around Jon Berti. Who’s Jon Berti? An oft-concussed utility player making his Major League debut after his minor league contract was purchased by the Jays prior to the game. Gibbons inserted him into the roster, nine-hole. Meeting near the bump, Gibbons turned Berti towards the cameras and smiled.
Keeper-photo. Just because Gibbons sensed it instinctively.
I gush. I don’t apologize.
You know, there’s no cheering in the press box. That’s a rule. (And this, last home game of the season, might also be final time baseball correspondents get to enjoy their perch up behind home plate, flanked either side by the dugouts, if president Mark Shapiro proceeds with his professed intention of shifting media to the football press box to make room for more private suites. Because it’s all about the ka-ching for greedy, grasping, Rogers ownership. And attendance will crater next year.)
So weird, being this overtly adoring. In Toronto, coaches and managers come and go, the departure of some — Pat Burns, in the middle of the night; Dwane Casey, simultaneous with coach of the year laurels — more dismaying than others. Nobody shed a tear when hard-ass Punch Imlach got his ticket punched, two years after the Leafs won a fourth Stanley Cup under his combative stewardship. Many tears of horror were shed when Imlach was rehired a decade later.
There has to be professional distance. Yet we do, nearly all of us, internally, among ourselves, cheer for John. I’ll admit it.
And we feel sorry for ourselves. Because we’ll never have it this good again.
Gibbons has been a gracious, entertaining and usually straight-up skipper ‘lo these last six years. In good times — we’ve had more than a few. In bad times — even more of those. Probably none so bad as ’18, except maybe 2013, with that star-studded roster, cover of Sports Illustrated, odds-on to win the whole enchilada. Finished last in the American League East.
Twice since then into the post-season, though, raucously, enlivening what had become the dome-tomb.
Staying alive, staying alive, somehow, when a new regime, Cleveland carpetbaggers, arrived in Toronto and GM Alex Anthopoulos left.
“To be honest, I thought I was probably gone then,” he said yesterday, not for the first time. Nodding toward GM Ross Atkins, who sat alongside — Shapiro noticeably absent — he added: “I can’t thank him enough for keeping me around. That doesn’t always happen. Actually it’s unusual.
“He put a lot of money in my pocket.” Chuckle. “That’s not bad either.”
Oh, there was plenty of verbal caressing from Atkins, odes and lauds, and I think it was genuine. How often I’ve heard the rookie GM say, “I love Gibby. How can you not?”
Well, duh, this is how.
Because, while manager and general manager have been kicking this issue around for some time now, and they apparently came to a mutual agreement on severing ties only this past weekend — Gibbons has a year remaining on his contract — and though Gibbons said “we’ve come to the conclusion it would be best for both sides that we go in different directions — the truth of the thing is there was no reason for this at this time. Especially when Gibbons has, arguably, never managed more adroitly than he has with this bunch, this year.
The Jays aren’t going to compete for anything next year. They’re still all about the rebuild and trending way younger. But while Gibbons had indicated a few weeks back he wasn’t in the mood to steer the ship through rebuild shoals, he’s clearly had a rethink.
“Actually, I think I’m the perfect guy for a rebuild,” he said yesterday, and Atkins blanched a bit because this was not in the hail-fellow-well-met script.
The rap on Gibbons is that he can’t manage young’uns. Which is bollocks. He managed a Double A team in hometown San Antonio before summoned back to Toronto by Anthopoulos. And he’s skilfully kneaded youth into the roster this season. It’s just that Gibbons had, previously, been given veteran-laden squads. He does prefer delegating the clubhouse to player peers of a certain vintage.
“I’ve heard the argument against me (managing young guys). But I don’t buy that.”
Good for Gibby, pushing back at least a little bit, publicly, because I’m not quite buying all this mutual lovin’.
So there was Atkins, telling a story about the two of them meeting with Lourdes Gurriel Jr., an out-go interview with the marquee rookie shortstop who suffered a Grade 2 hamstring strain in the series opener with Houston. “He stopped the meeting with a gesture towards Gibby and he said, ‘I just want to thank you for the opportunity. But more than that, I was really struggling, I was having a hard time offensively, defensively, physically, with where I was mentally, and you pulled me aside, you looked at me when I was on sitting on the bench, and you said, hey, remember to smile and remember to enjoy this.’ And he said, ‘I will never forget that. And I knew that in my heart, my dad’s told me that my whole life,’ he said. ‘But I had forgotten to do that.’ ”
Does that not actually demonstrate Gibbons’ savvy with youth?
Gibbons had joshed the other night, about the encomiums which were already piling up: “You never heard a bad eulogy, have you?”
Dead manager walking.
It just seems so damn pointless, when what the Jays will need next season is ballast and both-ways manager familiarity.
These tall foreheads keep getting it wrong and wronger.
Gibbons said what he wanted most, on the day, was a Blue Jays win in their last home-game. He got that, 3-1. And some half-a-dozen ovations. A whole lot of affection, a whole lot of respect. Closer Ken Giles handed him the game ball. Kevin Pillar dumped a cooler of Gatorade over his head. All the players waited in the dugout, to follow him in.
Tit for tat sentimentality too.
At his press conference, he’d thanked the bold face people who’d impacted his managerial career: From Paul Beeston to J.P. Ricciardi to A.A.
Then he made it personal, the manager and the media corps.
“We’ve had some good times … I can honestly say I’ve really enjoyed you guys. We had fun together. We didn’t always agree on things but you’re not supposed to.
“I can’t thank you guys enough…”
Got choked up, halted. Dropped a salute instead, this son of an Air Force colonel.
Here’s lookin’ at you, skip.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno