He is still the same self-described “Fox News kind of guy” that he was during his first stint as manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, but when John Gibbons saw Ricky Romero being optioned to Triple-A Buffalo last week, he realized that something had changed.
Understand that Gibbons had been humbled by the game long before his minor-league roommate, J.P. Ricciardi, fired him as Blue Jays manager in 2008. As a young catcher, Gibbons’s path to the major leagues was derailed by a broken jaw in a spring-training collision. The New York Mets’ acquisition of Gary Carter kept his career off the tracks. So Gibbons knows it can be a mercurial thing, this big-league playing or managing gig. Romero drove home the point.
“Yeah, you’re sitting there and you kind of realize that you’ve been kicked in the teeth yourself,” Gibbons said. “The difference, I guess, is Ricky has a bright future ahead of him. Myself … I didn’t know what was in store for me the last time. I really didn’t.”
Nobody did, not even his peers, who understand now the profundity of Gibbons’s decision to take a seat in steerage and manage in the minors in 2012 after a steady diet of chartered flights and first-class hotels as a manager and coach; who greeted him this spring with warm handshakes, back slaps and hugs before each game. They didn’t expect to see him where he will be on Tuesday, once again managing the Blue Jays on opening day.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos says Gibbons’s strength is his ability to handle a bullpen. That sentiment is echoed by almost everybody in the business. What is unknown is how Gibbons will manage this lineup in the poststeroid reality of Major League Baseball. The game has changed since he last filled out a lineup card.
Gibbons will give a green light on the basepaths to Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and Rajai Davis. Brett Lawrie and Maicer Izturis have what amounts to amber lights that will more often than not turn red early in the season. But Gibbons said he won’t likely hit and run as much as some people think, and refers to how hitters such as Jose Bautista took it upon themselves in the spring to take a strike for the base stealers.
Gibbons sees more and knows more than he lets on, but in his perfect world, the Blue Jays will undergo an almost organic change in approach. He said he was no more or less a delegator this spring than in previous springs as a manager, but admitted he stood back even more to let this largely veteran collection of sensibilities and pedigrees feel out each other. Expect the same on the field.
“You could see in spring training, when we got them all together, what a weapon the speed was,” Gibbons said. “It sure was fun some of the time … but you still got to hit to win. The key to the success of this team will be getting big hits from Jose Bautista and Edwin [Encarnacion].”
Do not think that Gibbons is merely happy to be here. He does not want to simply survive any more than he wants this team to simply survive; he wants to thrive. That, too, is different than the first time, he admits. That’s how he will make the most of this unforeseen second chance, the second chance he never had as a player.
The good news is that Gibbons hasn’t bought in to the smugness afoot that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees seem to be also-rans. The better news is that he is equally aware that in the American League East, the road to the postseason goes through Tampa, and that road has been a dead end in recent seasons for the Blue Jays.
The Rays owned the Blue Jays in the final year of Gibbons’s tenure. They owned the Blue Jays during Cito Gaston’s two-year victory lap, and they bossed them during John Farrell’s two-year tune-up for his dream job as Red Sox manager. Since going 9-9 in 2007, the Blue Jays have a .322 winning percentage (29-61) against the Rays and have a run differential of minus 142. The Blue Jays were 4-18 against Tampa last season and were outscored 105-54.
True, the dynamic has changed slightly. The Rays traded away pitcher James Shields and all his innings while the Blue Jays spent to add better pitching and more speed than they’ve had in recent seasons. It may be that the Rays are the only other team that plays on artificial turf, but they consistently pose questions the Jays haven’t been able to answer.
The last time Gibbons managed a regular-season game, the Rays were on the verge of a splendid run to their first World Series. It was no fluke, and now their manager, Joe Maddon, is the standard against which the division’s skippers are measured.
Those who don’t know Gibbons will wonder if the “Fox News kind of guy” can be fair and balanced with a clubhouse bought and traded for in the span of a few weeks this winter, a clubhouse fleet of foot that moves to a Latino beat instead of the languid, 1980s power ballad he managed the first time around.
The bigger concern ought to be whether he can get the power and speed balance right, especially against the Rays. Changing times, and all that.