There is irony aplenty here.
Then, especially at the bitter end, he was Cito Gaston, a passive, do-nothing, fill-out-the-lineup-card-and-hope-for-the-best manager who somehow, inexplicably, had won two World Series.
Now, at least until the magic ends, he is Cito Gaston, Zen master, understanding the long season, the long view, imparting his wisdom on what suddenly, unexpectedly seems the most promising group to wear the uniform in many a year.
"It's the same," he says. Same guy, same style, shifting circumstances, and it could all change again.
Though the slings and arrows and slights are not forgotten at 65, Gaston right now is serene. "I don't let too many things upset me," he says during a long, informal conversation. "A lot of things you can't do anything about it in this game. I think I'm more calm even than I was before - with the press, certainly with umpires. I'm just more calm."
Rarely in sport or elsewhere is there the opportunity for this kind of second act, following an opening that for anyone of a certain age represents the best of Blue Jays lore.
I don't let too many things upset me. A lot of things you can't do anything about it in this game. I think I'm more calm even than I was before. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston
Twenty years ago, Gaston was the team's hitting coach as the franchise struggled through a difficult transition. Bobby Cox, the manager who had led the Jays to respectability and the postseason, had taken his act to Atlanta. Cox's third-base coach, Jimy Williams, turned out to be emotionally unsuited to make the shift from second banana to boss within the same clubhouse. The team stumbled out of the gate in 1989. Pat Gillick, general manager then, wanted Williams replaced with Lou Piniella - but the New York Yankees still owned him, even though by then he was relegated to working in their broadcast booth.
Gaston was a second choice, a compromise, a loyal organization man who had to be persuaded to take the job.
That may in part explain why it was so hard for some to take him seriously from the get-go, and to give him full credit as the Jays matured into postseason regulars and then into the best team in baseball. Even as those championships were celebrated, it wasn't hard to find someone to detail what Gaston was doing wrong - or rather, what he wasn't doing right, since his were nearly always perceived to be sins of omission. A pinch hitter not called upon, a base not stolen, a pitching change not made, a slumping player left untouched in the batting order…
"For a guy that did a pretty good job around here, I caught a lot of shit," Gaston says. "There was a lot of people hanging around who haven't done quite the job but don't catch the shit at all."
Everything changed after 1993. The strike. An organization in ownership flux. Gillick's departure. Paul Beeston's departure. The stands in the 'Dome slowly emptying. Shifting operating philosophies from season to season. And finally, inevitably, in 1997, Gaston on the clock.
"I was ready to go," he says. "There were different owners, and I think they had different ideas about what they wanted to do. I always felt like maybe they felt like I made too much money. They could get somebody cheaper. Well … they got him."
They got him in the form of Tim Johnson, who lasted a single season. Just before being shown the door, Gaston added to what had become a bitter mix. Prompted in an interview by broadcaster Jerry Howarth, he identified three of his most vociferous media critics - Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons, radio talk show host Bob McCown and former Globe and Mail sports editor Dave Langford - and suggested that underlying their lack of respect for his managerial skills was racism.
He is asked now if he regrets having said that. He won't go that far.
"I don't really look back at it," Gaston says, "but if I look back at it, who knows if I was right or wrong? I don't know. Only they know."
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