John Gibbons is gregarious, with a distinctive cackle and a self-deprecating sense of humour, and it is often standing room only when the self-described “dumb Texan” meets each day with the media in his Rogers Centre office.
The coming game is often the last subject to be discussed. The latest crisis in the Middle East, the war on terror, U.S. gun control, Hillary Clinton – these are all topics that the Toronto Blue Jays manager has been known to weigh in on. The son of a career military man, a fan of the John Wayne guts-and-glory flick The Green Berets, Gibbons is a staunch right-winger willing to take on all comers.
“I’m a very proud, patriotic guy,” the 52-year-old said in a recent interview. “It comes from watching my dad – very hard-working, very disciplined type of guy. The military brings a lot of that out of you. Sometimes, I guess when things are in your blood, it just kind of takes you that way.”
Gibbons is in his seventh campaign as a manager in Major League Baseball, all with the Blue Jays, a job for which he was hired on two separate occasions even though he never actively sought the post. His detractors – and there are many – continue to doubt that the man with the good-ol’-boy persona (and the mumbling drawl of Boomhauer from the King of the Hill cartoon) is the right guy to lead the Blue Jays into the gloryland of the postseason, a place they haven’t gone for 21 long years.
To others, Gibbons is the perfect fit for the tough job that lies ahead: a knowledgeable, personable baseball man beneath the often-taciturn exterior. Despite the Blue Jays’ Jekyll-and-Hyde on-field performance this season, their play alternating between inspiring and indifferent, the confounding outfit remains in the hunt for an American League wild-card spot. After dropping three games in Seattle, the Jays opened a weekend series against the Chicago White Sox on Friday night.
The final six weeks of the regular season will be the defining moment – not only for a franchise desperate to relive its 1992 and ’93 World Series days, but also for a baseball lifer trying to prove he has the guile to pull it all off. He and the man who hired him the second time, Jays’ general manager Alex Anthopoulos, are now inextricably linked, their jobs likely both on the line as the season speeds toward October. Gibbons deflects the pressure.
“Baseball’s not rocket science,” is his take on the game. “It’s not like football, where Xs and Os are everything. Baseball, basically everybody does the same thing. They just choose when they’re going to do it. It’s really pretty much a simple game.”
Gibbons was one of four managers whom Brian Butterfield worked for during his 10 years as a coach with the Blue Jays, and in his estimation you will not find a better baseball mind in the game.
“Everybody has their own distinct strengths, their own unique personalities,” said Butterfield, now third-base coach with the Boston Red Sox. “It was easy for me to draw close to Gibby just because of the type of man he is. I think one of the things he brings, other than great baseball knowledge, is a great way with people. He’s always got his players’ backs, he always has his coaches’ backs. He’s a man’s man. He’s one of my best friends in baseball.”
‘I’m not too fascinated by myself’
Talk to people who know Gibbons best and, in a profession where egos soar, they all describe a man singularly without one.
Certainly his playing days were a lesson in humility. Gibbons was a first-round draft choice of the New York Mets in 1980, a hot prospect, but his major-league career was a bust. A star catcher in high school, he played in only 18 games over two seasons with the Mets, in 1984 and ’86, batting just .220 and hitting one home run.