As the game’s new patron saint of second chances, it is no surprise that R.A. Dickey would relate easily to John Gibbons.
In Dickey’s mind, some of that owed to the natural affinity of Southerners – he from Nashville, Gibbons from San Antonio.
“Similar cultures, they made for an instant connection,” said the knuckleballer who won the National League Cy Young Award last season.
But it is also possible, Dickey said, that as someone who received a third, fourth and fifth chance after being a ballyhooed first-round draft pick, he could relate to a manager getting the rarest of second chances: being rehired by the same team that fired him, and not after an entirely successful first stint.
Dickey says that until he had a chance to talk to Gibbons when the Toronto Blue Jays’ brain trust visited him in Nashville to pitch a contract extension, all he knew about the manager was “he was the guy that had a confrontation on the mound that one time with Ted Lilly.”
“Which,” Dickey added, “is probably what most people knew about John.”
The Blue Jays will open their Grapefruit League schedule Saturday in Lakeland, Fla., against the Detroit Tigers, and if Gibbons has changed from the guy who was fired as Blue Jays manager in 2008, it is not detectable.
He is not the first manager to be given a second chance by the same team, of course. Billy Martin was on his sixth stint with the New York Yankees when he passed away, but that doesn’t mean the second chance is always a sideshow. Cito Gaston had two opportunities to manage the Blue Jays, including replacing Gibbons, but most people saw Gaston Redux as a convenient tying up of loose ends.
Bobby Cox had two separate terms in charge of the Atlanta Braves sandwiched between some good years with the Blue Jays, winning 14 consecutive division titles and a World Series in his follow-up. Danny Murtaugh won in three separate stints with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Earl Weaver, Al Lopez and Charlie Grimm all had success that made them obvious candidates the second time around.
(Grimm was the last manager to win a pennant with the Chicago Cubs, in 1945. He was fired in 1949, returned in 1959, and swapped places with broadcaster Lou Boudreau after 17 games.)
Gibbons was 305-305 in 41/2 seasons with the Blue Jays, finishing third twice as well as second and fifth.
“To come back a second time to the same place?” Gibbons asked in response to a question about whether this was the ultimate second chance. “Oh yeah. I mean, if we’d won something the first time I could probably understand it – like Cito coming back here. I have a big responsibility here. We want to win, and Alex [Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays’ general manager], well, he’s stuck his neck out. I don’t take that lightly.”
Dickey knows second chances. Drafted by the Texas Rangers 18th overall in 1996, he appeared in 79 games for the Rangers, including 33 starts, between 2001 and 2006, but he became just another guy. In 2005, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser suggested he start throwing a knuckleball, then gave him a shot as the No. 4 starter in 2006, a season that famously lasted one start in which he gave up six homers. But instead of throwing him overboard, Showalter and the Rangers let him go to the minors to refine the knuckleball. Do not underestimate the importance to an experimenting Dickey of structure provided by a familiar training and coaching staff.
“I had a second, third, fourth and fifth chance in Texas,” Dickey said. “I spent seven years in the minors, came up, went down, and when Buck took over in 2003, he told me he believed in me. I was a conventional pitcher then, and when that petered out, they gave me a chance to be a knuckleballer.
“A lot of what people call second chances in this game are really just opportunities. I know I had a lot of opportunities that other minor-leaguers didn’t get, but a lot of that depends on aptitude. What have you learned from your previous mistakes and experiences? Can you combine that with a work ethic that allows you to take advantage of the opportunity? Opportunity can come to a lot of guys who don’t change, either. You can be stubborn, and there’s always the chance that somebody will eventually come along and agree with you.”
Anthopoulos makes no secret about why Gibbons is receiving this second chance. He handles a bullpen well, and that is where a manager exercises the most influence on a game. Plus, Anthopoulos knows him. Anthopoulos was assistant GM under J.P. Ricciardi during Gibbons’s first stint. Anthopoulos didn’t know John Farrell and was, frankly, sold a bill of goods.
“I remember talking to a few GMs,” Anthopoulos said, “guys who have been around a while, guys I trust, and they all said they didn’t think they’d hire somebody that they didn’t know to some extent. I mean, these are people I respect. I asked about bringing Gibby back. They thought it would be great. Then they said: ‘Do you think Paul [Beeston, the Blue Jays’ president and chief executive officer] will let you do it?’”
Between Blue Jays stints, Gibbons spent three years as a bench coach with the Kansas City Royals and managed the San Diego Padres’ Double-A affiliate in San Antonio. He interviewed for managerial vacancies with the Seattle Mariners (Eric Wedge got the job) and Pittsburgh Pirates, pulling out of the process after making the short list, suspecting that his minor-league teammate, Clint Hurdle, would get the job.
Ricciardi, now with the New York Mets, suggested he apply for that team’s manager job. Gibbons declined, and admits he has been surprised at how positively his rehiring was greeted.
“I know I came to be defined by those run-ins with Ted [Lilly] and Shea [Hillenbrand] and that’s fine,” Gibbons said. “That’s fair. When a team’s not winning, everything goes under the microscope. I’m still going to do things the best way I know how. I’m not a politically correct guy, I won’t do things just to be popular. But at the same time, I don’t just want to survive as a manager. I want to be successful.”