Skip to main content

Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is trying to figure out how long he's been half-Canadian.

"Is it 10 years?" Gibbons said Wednesday, on the eve of another baseball season. "I haven't done the math. Ten, right?"

It depends how you do the tally. Gibbons is entering the 11th year in which he has spent at least part of the season as Toronto's baseball skipper.

The first of those was a parachute job. The fifth ended in a human cannon shot halfway through. But 11 years is the generous count.

That puts Gibbons, 55, in Punch Imlach territory. Imlach stood behind the Maple Leafs' bench for 11 seasons, and then a small part of one more.

In a city with a proud history of welcoming new coaches as tactical messiahs, then chasing them out of town shortly thereafter in front of a hooting mob, that's the high-water mark for longevity.

So while you weren't looking, John Gibbons – failed major-leaguer, "Texas Forever" believer and Hopalong Cassidy impersonator – has become the most Torontonian Toronto sports figure of modern times.

In so doing, Gibbons has effected a remarkable transformation of his public perception.

At first, people resented him. Then they blamed him. Then they missed him.

And then finally, after years spent denying themselves the pleasure, they fell in love with him. He's one of a few major-league managers whose name can be spotted on the back of many jerseys in the stands at a game.

"Love?" Gibbons said, dubiously. "I ain't so sure about love. I mean … that sounds funny."

To us, too!

During his two stints in Toronto, Gibbons has lived a short distance from the Rogers Centre. He's a bit of a flâneur and enjoys his evening strolls. When his family isn't in town, he likes to go to the movies by himself on off-days.

He has the life of an especially rich college kid who's new in town, and is comfortable in his own company.

"I feel like a Torontonian," Gibbons said. "I've settled in over the years. And I think I'm a little more accepted than I once was. … Those things can change in a hurry."

That. That right there. That's why people in Toronto love John Gibbons.

It isn't the baseball acumen. Gibbons is no better or worse than any major-league manager (and the argument could be made that, strictly in terms of game play, no major-league manager is much better or worse than a very well-informed fan).

It isn't his cuddliness or paternalism. Gibbons does not run out on the field to embrace his players. He doesn't do Champagne showers. He doesn't give speeches. When you see him in the clubhouse, it's usually because he has to go through it to get to the postgame buffet.

And it most certainly isn't his warm embrace of Canadian values. Gibbons leans so far right, he's tipping back around to the left. His politics might best be described as both rootin' and tootin'.

What Gibbons has that Canadians recognize is a ruthless streak of self-effacement.

For instance, here's Gibbons on his reputation in San Antonio, where he lives: "I'm not really a public figure down there. Here I have to be."

That's where most people would end it. But Gibbons has an instinct for whenever he's said something that might be mistaken for egotistical. So he continues: "People who know me down there say, 'There's Gibbons. There's ol' dumbass Gibbons.'"

And then he laughs, hard. A lot of things are funny to Gibbons, and none moreso than himself.

There is a term of art for a player who's let it all go to his head – that he's become "big league." A few guys arrive that way. Most turn after a couple of years. The vast majority get there at some point. In a world where you're trained to drop your dirty underwear on the ground because someone will scuttle over to pick it up, it's almost inevitable.

But not Gibbons. After all this time, he remains the least big-league big-leaguer I've ever been around.

If he wasn't to be found sitting in the manager's office every day, you could be convinced he was the guy who drives the team bus.

And if you said that to him, he'd say something like, "Maybe I should try that."

The competence, the playoff appearances and the general air of calm he brings have helped Gibbons remain at the highest level, but it's the determination to remain invisible that has made him a Canadian cult hero.

He's risen to a level few great athletes ever get – where his every utterance is interpreted charitably. During a divisive time, Gibbons is the rare sports figure who gets the benefit of the doubt.

His team isn't getting that any longer. Gibbons knows that. When he speaks of the year to come, the little bit of politician he has in him begins to come out.

"I'm optimistic," he said. "I always am. There's something about this team I like."

Well, it can't be the roster. Because no one could honestly say that looks top-drawer.

There's the pro forma digression on staying healthy, riding the pitching and "slugging it out."

But maybe Gibbons knows something. Or maybe he knows that when he says it, people will want to believe it. That's the currency he's earned over a decade. He's the one honest man standing between a dubious fan base and open revolt.

He knows his own situation has also become precarious. At the Winter Meetings, when asked why people should buy tickets for this season, he blurted out, "Come watch Gibbons's last year managing the Blue Jays."

Come on. It is hard not to love a guy who'd say that. Did he believe it when he said it?

"Who knows?" Gibbons said Wednesday. "Ten years is a long time. I'd like to stretch it out more, but I get the realities. The game moves on."

It does. But no one up here has to want it to, or like it whenever it happens.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons says Toronto has “all the makings” to open the season strong in a four-game series at home against the Yankees. Pitchers Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ weigh in on the series, which kicks off Thursday.

The Canadian Press

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe