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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.

"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?

"Look at the 1970s Oakland As," Jonah Keri says. "All those guys hated each other and they were fantastic. With Cito, you can be sure everything's going to be okay, there won't be discord in the clubhouse. You don't hear too many stories that Adam Lind stabbed Aaron Hill with a fork at dinner last night, that just doesn't happen with the Jays. So I think Cito's fine, he's a good shepherd for a team that has pretty good talent."

At the same time, Keri understands the criticism that the self-contained Gaston isn't busy enough on the bench. "It's a valid point. People who watch the game closely want managers to be tacticians and you want them to give good quote. So Cito's boring in multiple ways, because he doesn't make a lot of moves and he's not that charismatic either. Which means there'll be a lot of backlash when the team's not going well."

But right now the team's going well, or well enough for Gaston's swan song to be a sweet one. "I think Cito got the best out of these players and became something of a statesman," Beeston says. "When he reflects back on his career, I think he'll reflect favourably on the way he left this team in a position to go forward."

The breathless message boards disagree. They want him to play J.P. Arencibia, giving him room to grow this season even at the cost of a few wins. But that's not Gaston's style. In his mind, he's playing the game the way it was meant to be played, putting the best team on the field to challenge the New York Yankees as they fight to win the division, supporting his young pitchers, "who've busted their ass all season to pitch the way they have."

The Hall of Fame can take care of itself.

"The only way I'm going into Cooperstown is after I'm dead," Gaston says with trademark stoicism. "That's okay, it's just one of those things. But somebody's going to wake up and realize that I was the first black manager ever to win the World Series." 

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