The most noticeable thing was the body language: Alex Anthopoulos looked more relaxed than at any point in the past two years and John Gibbons looked as though he had received a contract extension instead of being hired to manage the team that fired him four years earlier.
Anthopoulos sounded and acted as though he very much believed what he said: that he had a stronger conviction about bringing back Gibbons than any other move he’s made as Toronto Blue Jays general manager.
That had better be the case, because the other moves he has made this off-season have just been about spending ownerships money and moving prospects for guys with track records. This? Bringing back Gibbons? This is all about the GM’s gut instincts, the type of decision that determines the future of the person making it.
The Blue Jays formally announced an off-season’s worth of news in one hour on Tuesday: the expected, in the form of a 12-player trade with the Florida Marlins that landed Jose Reyes as well as 400 innings worth of starting pitching along with Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck (finally approved by commissioner Bud Selig); and the signing of free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera. Plus, the unexpected: that Gibbons was returning to manage the team in a move that was counterintuitive yet at the same time made all the sense in the world, because Gibbons pretty much checked off every box on Anthopoulos’s list, including the one that Anthopoulos couldn’t make public: trust.
Anthopoulos is hardly the first GM in sports to reach out for a comfort zone in a time of crisis, and make no mistake: while the Blue Jays’ front office kept a stiff upper lip when manager John Farrell departed for a division rival, the organization felt betrayed. You can spin a player leaving but it’s hard to spin a manager fairly itching to get out of Dodge.
Anthopoulos’s choice was clear: he wasn’t going to get Joe Torre or Tony La Russa, because the former seems to enjoy his gig as an eminence gris and the latter is waiting for a Hollywood manager’s job. So, he could bring in another bright young thing (which, come to think of it, is what the Blue Jays did with Farrell,) and reinforce the idea that this was an entry-level job or a guy who’d been fired elsewhere. Manny Acta ... Jim Tracy ... Mike Hargrove. Meh. Why not Gibbons? Look: if you’re going to bring in a manager who was fired, might as well make it a manager whose firing you were part of, no?
Anthopoulos knows Gibbons’s warts; he knows his strengths. The people who hate this hiring won’t listen to anybody who tells them that Gibbons is a smart handler of relief pitching, using anecdotal evidence gathered from the pitchers themselves. They won’t listen to anybody who tells them players like playing for him – at least, the ones that ought to matter, as opposed to players of weaker soul and character such as Shea Hillenbrand. They certainly won’t listen to Anthopoulos, who didn’t miss a beat when he was asked if he was worried about the run-ins Gibbons had with Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly by commenting that he’d have hoped his manager would have threatened to throttle Hillenbrand. Translation: “It would have been nice if Farrell had grabbed Yunel Escobar by the throat this season.”
But the truth is, Anthopoulos doesn’t care what you, I, Paul Beeston, John Farrell, Keith Pelley, Bob in Newmarket or anybody else thinks about this hire. This is a different American League East – the gap between top and bottom is not as pronounced – and Anthopoulos made clear on Tuesday that the new additions, particularly Johnson and Buehrle, are not going to be flipped. He was happy to be able to do most of the heavy lifting before his peers begin the annual rite of losing their collective mind in the free-agent market; and obviously at peace with his choice for manager.
If you believe in what Anthopoulos is doing, that counts for something. It has to.