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."
But it doesn't end there because Gaston still feels the need to explain something that probably shouldn't require explaining.
"When people have a tendency to treat you a little differently, then whether they're racist or not, that's the first thing going through your mind because you're used to that happening to you. I can remember earlier this year and being in a hotel. I came back from working out and I was on the concierge floor. I thought I'd go in and get myself a bottle of water. Well, I was questioned about whether I lived on that floor or not. So things still happen like that. And I guarantee you that if I was white, I wouldn't be questioned at all. I see it all the time. It still happens… So when I see things happen or people say stuff, I'm more likely to ask is it because of race or is it because they don't like me? I would rather it be because they don't like me, not because of the colour of my skin. But there's not too many black guys who can go around to this day and say there's no racism, because there still is."
So back to what he said: "I believed it then."
He got a call two days after his firing, from the Kansas City Royals, asking him if he wanted to be their hitting coach. What he wanted was another shot at managing a big-league club. The phone rang occasionally. There were interviews. "How do you interview a manager?" he wonders. "I'd really like to know that one. What do you look for when you interview a manager?"
No job offer came, until the Jays, with new manager Buck Martinez, invited him back as the hitting coach in 2001. Gaston took the job, deciding that he could go home again, even in a subordinate role, and then was fired along with the entire staff a year later by the team's new general manager, J.P. Ricciardi. The back-to-the-future approach had failed. The franchise was headed in a different direction.
After that, Gaston admits that he lost much of his burning desire to manage again. He started turning down interviews, especially if he thought he was being used as a token minority candidate. "I wasn't looking any more," he says. "I had come to the conclusion that I would just keep doing what I'd been doing [in a consulting role for the Jays] I was travelling, playing golf, doing stuff with my grandkids every year, taking them on a trip or they'd come visit me. I was trying to pay back some of that time to my grandkids that I didn't give to my own kids. I had a great life."
Ricciardi, Gaston says, called him every once in a while, took his temperature, asked him if he ever thought about managing again. Last June he called again, when Gaston was out, left a message, said he wanted to ask him a question.
"He's probably going to ask me to come back and be the hitting coach," Gaston figured.
When they finally connected, Ricciardi offered him the manager's job. Unlike 1989, Gaston accepted immediately.
"You answered him awfully quickly," his wife, Linda, said.
"He's been asking me for three years," Gaston said. "I'd be going back on my word if I didn't do that. And besides that, what's better than coming back to a place that you love, a city that you love being in?"
Because Beeston was also back as the team's interim president, because the Jays were in the midst of another lost season, Gaston's hiring seemed to some a nostalgia play, and perhaps a cynical one at that - a kind of human shield, a happy reminder of how it once was to temporarily placate the fans.
Of course, Gaston didn't see it that way. For him it was an opportunity to work with a team that had plenty of pitching, but couldn't hit - his specialty. This season, which began with zero expectations, has been magical through its first two months, even taking into account the dispiriting sweep in Boston this week. But that flicker of success, that intimation of a pennant race has also restarted the kind of baseball conversation that's been dormant almost since Gaston left town: Why is the slumping Vernon Wells still hitting fourth? Why are players' days off sacrosanct? Why was rookie Brett Cecil left in to get pounded on Wednesday night? Why does Gaston seem happy to often let the game take care of itself?
He is managing, he explains, as he always has, according to the strengths and weaknesses of his roster, still aware of what it felt like to be a player. "I want to win really badly, and we want to play well, and if we win, we win," he says. "But I'm not the type that is going to be hurting one of these guys to win. I'm not going to hurt a pitcher pitching too much to win, I'm not going to play a player when he can't play to win. I'm always looking down the road. I will lose a game tonight to win three down the road, even if people in the media don't see it that way."
If anything has changed now, the second time around, he says it's in the perspective that comes with age, that comes with having been here before, that understands this second chance is a gift.
"Some of these [other managers]are worried about their jobs if they don't win," Gaston says. "I've been in that situation. I've seen guys that panic. They're uptight. They're worried about their jobs or they're worried about what people think about them. They fight with the umpires… I do care if we win. I want to win. But I think I've finally realized this is fun. I want to have fun winning. This is fun right here. It's fun to have so many of your guys around and especially to have Paul upstairs. It's like the old gang's back here again.
"I'm not sure if that guy over there in the other dugout is having fun. But I'm having fun."
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