Gaston: the reluctant skipper

When the Toronto Blue Jays conclude their home schedule on Wednesday against the New York Yankees, the organization’s greatest skipper will be in his spot in the dugout for the final time.

Cito Gaston has had his supporters and detractors since first becoming manager in May of 1989, but no one can argue with the success the team achieved during his two stints.

In his time as manager from 1989-1997 and 2008-2010, Gaston has a record of 890-835 entering play on Tuesday night, including four American League East flags, two American League pennants and two World Series championships.

Looking back, it is hard to believe that Gaston almost did not get the promotion from hitting coach in 1989, when Jimy Williams was fired after a 12-24 start.

Then-GM Pat Gillick was looking for an established name to take control of a team that could not match expectations after the franchise won its first division title in 1985.

Lou Piniella was on the top of Gillick’s wish list, but team president Paul Beeston recalls it was the top candidate that pointed out to the team what they had in their hitting coach.

“It was actually [Piniella] who said, ‘Why would you want anybody else? You’ve got the right guy here with Cito,’ ” Beeston told the Toronto Star a few seasons ago. “Cito, of course, had to be talked into it.”

Gaston was persuaded to take on the manager’s position on an interim basis, and then was later named the permanent skipper after the Jays record improved.

“I wasn’t really into it, and Paul [Beeston] said, ‘Well, you’re it. You just take it for a while. You’re it.’ So I said, ‘All right,’ ” Gaston told the Toronto Star. “I always thank Paul for making me take the job.”

The club, under Gaston, went 77-49 in the remainder of 1989, good enough to win the A.L. East division.

Entering the 1992 season, critics argued that Gaston could not lead the team to deliver in the playoffs, after the Jays failed to win the ALCS in 1991.

When the “Blow Jays” finally broke through and won the World Series in 1992, and again in 1993, Gaston was not given much credit by some pundits.

The argument went, how could the Jays not win with the talents of Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, John Olerud and Juan Guzman?

That line of thinking can be used for any manager or coach in any sport, whether it be the Edmonton Oilers dynasty that boasted Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Mark Messier, or the Chicago Bulls of basketball who had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

The coaches of these teams were not responsible for improving the talent levels of their squads, but to ensure that the players were simply playing to the best of their ability as a cohesive group.

The argument gained momentum as the Blue Jays’ record continued to worsen following the baseball strike in 1994, and Gaston was eventually fired in the last week of the 1997 season.

In the years between his firing and his re-hiring, the Blue Jays struggled to find stability in the managerial position, with Tim Johnson, Jim Fregosi, Buck Martinez, Carlos Tosca and John Gibbons all having chances to fill the role.

Getting the best out of talent

In the two full seasons Gaston has managed the Jays in his second stint, fans of the team have been able to witness the single skill that he should be remembered for, getting the best out of talented athletes who others have given up on.

Jose Bautista arrived on the Jays scene during the 2009 from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with the help of Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, developed a powerful swing previously unseen.

The right fielder has been the biggest bright spot during a season that many predicted would be a disaster for the Blue Jays, breaking George Bell’s single season home run record of 1987.

Another player to reach a new level under Gaston is Fred Lewis, acquired in April from the San Francisco Giants.

Lewis became a fixture in the leadoff spot for the Jays this season, displaying plenty of speed with a strong on-base percentage.

The Jays left fielder was compared throughout the season to a player during the height of the Jays success, former centre fielder, Devon White.

White was acquired by Toronto in the winter of 1990, as a talented defensive player who had not realized his potential with the California Angels.

The centre fielder, who had a reputation for being a problem in the clubhouse, dramatically improved in Toronto after he became the permanent leadoff hitter.

He will always be remembered for a spectacular catch in game three of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves that resulted in what should have been ruled a triple play.

As it stands now, the Jays skipper is leaving on his own terms, with many fans wishing he would remain as manager as the club builds with young players such as Aaron Hill, Adam Lind as well as a developing rotation.

At the very least, the manager with the most wins in club history and a spot in the Level of Excellence, deserves that.