"How many World Series has LaRussa won?" he asks with his calm, deep-voiced self-confidence. "He won two. How many have I won? I won two."
Gaston prefers his own benchmark of success, which, after all, is baseball's as well. Sitting in his sparely decorated Rogers Centre office, he fends off the naysayers' unending doubts with patient ease.
Gaston's critics have always found him too passive in his approach to a game's twists and turns compared with more involved managers like LaRussa, whose moment-to-moment managerial strategies were the subject of a book by the political writer George Will. Gaston has sometimes seen a racial divide at work in this assessment.
But now he simply responds: "I think those guys are just a little busy. You can only play this game so many kinds of ways. [LaRussa]stands at the top of the dugout, he walks and walks. But a lot of things I see from coaches and managers are just busy. And you know, I don't think he played in the big leagues. [LaRussa, in fact, played for parts of six seasons, hitting .199 in 176 at-bats] I'm not getting on him, but I think people who played at this level are a little calmer when they're coaching and managing than people who haven't played at this level."
It's an interesting shift in the argument about legacy, from stats to temperament. Yet it's true that a certain kind of attention-getting behaviour, whether it's LaRussa's apparent cerebral pacing or Lou Piniella's flamboyant outbursts, often gets equated with managerial skill. Gaston's resolute calm, on the other hand, is marked down as aloof disengagement; on his teams, it's the players who more often end up with the credit.
"I get emotional, but I don't show it out there," Gaston insists. "Being an ex-player - people forget I played in the big leagues for 10 years - I try to be the manager I wanted to play for. I played for Preston Gomez, and he taught me, if you panic, your team's going to panic. So try not to panic. It's not the end of the world, you're going to play another one tomorrow."
That approach resonated with former Blue Jay pitcher Pat Hentgen, who won the 1996 American League Cy Young award under Gaston's stewardship.
"I've played for some pretty good managers, including Tony LaRussa and Mike Hargrove," Hentgen says. "And as far as I'm concerned, Cito is up there with all of them as far as managing the game and earning the respect of the players."
If the Hall of Fame were about earning the players' respect, Gaston would stand supreme. The detached professional manner that he learned from rooming with Hank Aaron when an Atlanta Braves rookie has served him well as a quiet authority figure over seemingly endless 162-game seasons. Asked about his managerial legacy, he pulls out a photo album and turns to a group picture taken during last year's World Series reunion at the Rogers Centre. It's a circular group hug, with Gaston at the centre, something you couldn't imagine with Tony LaRussa.
"All those guys I managed before, they came back," Gaston says. "And take a look at that picture. Every one of them is looking at me. I think when my players look back, they'll say, 'Cito was fair, he never lied to us, he was honest with us.'"
Well, how do you put those enduring feel-good moments into baseball's historical context? The statheads don't yet have precise tools that measure the value of sincerity and integrity on a team's standing or a manager's performance. So what they say instead is, prove it to me, what difference does it make if the manager crafts a clubhouse that's filled with mutual respect?
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