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Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston laughs with former Blue Jay player George Bell prior to the start of their American League MLB baseball game against the New York Yankees in Toronto September 28, 2010. Gaston is retiring from managing the team at the end of this season. (FRED THORNHILL)
Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston laughs with former Blue Jay player George Bell prior to the start of their American League MLB baseball game against the New York Yankees in Toronto September 28, 2010. Gaston is retiring from managing the team at the end of this season. (FRED THORNHILL)

Blue Jays

Thanks for the memories, Cito Add to ...

What do we make of Cito Gaston?

The stoic 66-year-old face of the franchise manages his last home game at the Rogers Centre Wednesday night. Appropriately enough, the Blue Jays have dubbed it Thank You, Cito night - and the promise of a commemorative trinket for the first 35,000 fans suggests that, in the marketing department's view at least, there's enough love for the Toronto manager to pack the place.

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But when it comes to an assessment of Gaston's career and his legacy, the reception may be more mixed. The joyful World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 are increasingly distant accomplishments, a throwback that today's young players resist more than the gratefully nostalgic fans.

"A lot of players now are tired of hearing about the good old days," Blue Jays president Paul Beeston says. "They want to look to the present and the future. We want to create our own good old days, and I think Cito's been able to adapt to that."

So, thanks for the memories, but Gaston's achievements more recently have been harder to pin down: Is it a sign of greatness that he's kept the rebuilding Jays above .500 this season? Could he have got even more out of Toronto's confident offence and pitching staff by managing less passively (consider pitcher Shaun Marcum's recent suggestion that the team should hire a manager like Ozzie Guillen, Gaston's polar opposite)? Or should he have subordinated his Hall of Fame expectations to the organization's needs by losing with younger, developing players instead of winning with veterans?

Gaston isn't the type to go looking for love, but it's safe to say he's found it with many Blue Jays fans. Zach Feldberg, a 28-year-old digital-media producer for the Showcase network whose interest in baseball was kindled by Gaston's World Series teams,  remembers seeing the manager mingling with the adoring crowds one opening day.

 "People were excited to see him," Feldberg says. "He's such a presence, so imposing, a combination of father figure and folk hero. And there he is, hanging in the lobby and talking to the crowd."

Compare that kind of rapture with the inside-baseball mutterings of the anti-Gaston statheads, like the exchange in a recent ESPN chat hosted by former Blue Jay talent analyst Keith Law. Erich from Connecticut asks if it's time to "put Cito's head on a stick" for not giving enough playing time to recent call-up and Triple-A MVP J.P. Arencibia or the powerful but erratic young outfielder Travis Snider.

 "Yes, it's ridiculous," Law answers, "and I think it's the job of the GM, or perhaps the president in this case, to step in and say, 'You're playing Snider and Arencibia, period. We are here to develop players, not to meet some arbitrary win-loss goal.'" 

But that's the thing about a manager's legacy, at least the way it's measured in Cooperstown. Wins matter, perhaps even more than World Series rings. And the feeling now among Hall-watchers is that Gaston doesn't have nearly enough of them.

"I don't think Cito's going to be in the Hall of Fame," says Bloomberg Sports writer Jonah Keri, author of a forthcoming book about the Tampa Bay Rays titled The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took A Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First. "First of all, he didn't manage all that long. He won two World Series, had some mediocre years, went away, came back and nothing special happened. Forget about merit, I just don't think he has the longevity."

Gaston has 890 regular-season wins going into Tuesday night's game, according to Baseball-Reference.com (which doesn't count 19 victories credited to bench coach Gene Tenace, who filled in while Gaston was recuperating from back surgery in 1991). His winning percentage over his 12 seasons of managing is .516, which is almost identical to where his fourth-place Jays are this season. This is a typical Gaston year.

By comparison, Gaston's rival from his high-achieving years, Tony LaRussa, has won 2,633 games, albeit in 32 seasons. LaRussa's winning percentage stands at .535. After Bobby Cox, the intense, tactics-obsessed LaRussa is the closest thing to a Cooperstown shoo-in among modern-day managers.

Just don't tell that to Gaston himself.

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