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Baseball Jays' Gibbons: A keen mind behind a good-ol'-boy exterior

Manager John Gibbons, whose Toronto Blue Jays are fighting for a playoff position says, ‘If you ever get used to losing, it’s time to move on.’

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

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."

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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'

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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.

He doesn't have the home-run ball as a memento. Nor did he keep any of his baseball cards, either from MLB or the minor leagues, where he slogged through 10 years, from 1980 through 1990, before deciding coaching might be a better option.

"I've never been one of those guys – nostalgic, keeps a lot of stuff," Gibbons said. "At my house, there's a couple of baseball things sitting around. I'm just a normal guy. I'm not too fascinated by myself."

One thing he managed to hang on to was the 1986 World Series ring he earned with the Mets, even though he was not on the active playoff roster. The Mets kept him around to catch the odd bullpen session, and for that he got the treasured trinket. It sits in a safe-deposit box in a bank in San Antonio, Tex., where Gibbons and his wife, Julie, raised their three children and where they still live.

Today, working in Toronto, Gibbons carries a cellphone that shows the San Antonio weather on the main display. He was a two-sport high-school star in Texas, baseball and football, and even then his tastes ran simple. The purchase of a Datsun 280Z, the classic Japanese sports car of the day, was one of the lone early extravagances he allowed himself after signing with the Mets.

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"He was a big REO Speedwagon fan, I remember that," said Mike Hennessy, a former Mets minor-league player who roomed with Gibbons in the early 1980s. "Johnny just loved them and he turned me onto them. Then he had that beautiful 280Z. To this day, it remains my all-time favourite car."

Back then, Gibbons was a well-put-together, 5-foot-11, 190-pound athlete, lantern-jawed with bright blue eyes. Blue jeans and cowboy boots were his clothing of choice – still are. "He always reminded me of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars," Hennessy said. "He wasn't a ladies man but he easily could have been. He was always focused on his career."

After retiring as a player, Gibbons started working in the Mets organization as a roving minor-league instructor. In 1995, he landed his first minor-league managing job in Kingsport, Tenn., a rookie-level Mets affiliate, and led them to the Appalachian League championship in his first season.

Managing gigs followed in Port St. Lucie, Fla., Binghamton, N.Y., and Norfolk, Va., before J.P. Ricciardi gave him his big break in 2002. Another former minor-league roommate, Ricciardi had risen to become the Blue Jays GM and was in the market for a bullpen catcher. Gibbons took the job.

Before the summer was over, the Texan was promoted to first-base coach and then, in August, 2004, was appointed interim manager after Carlos Tosca was fired. The team was 47-64 at the time.

"We got pounded that day [8-2 by the New York Yankees]," Gibbons said. "I was just walking through the clubhouse and was about to get into the shower and J.P. said, 'Don't go anywhere, I need to talk to you.' So I hung around and he cut Tosca loose and then told me I was the new interim manager."

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The placement was made permanent once the season ended. But the transition to the major leagues was not seamless for Gibbons, who can be a demanding taskmaster if he does not believe his players are performing to his standards.

His temper got the best of him on two celebrated occasions in 2006. Gibbons challenged infielder Shea Hillenbrand to a fight during a team meeting after the infielder wrote the "ship is sinking" on the clubhouse bulletin board. About a month later, Gibbons got into skirmish with pitcher Ted Lilly, who became upset after getting removed from a game. Gibbons was embarrassed by the publicity and subsequently made a conscious effort to handle contentious matters behind closed doors.

Butterfield, who was on the Blue Jays coaching staff during both the altercations, said Gibbons's actions were justified.

"Every one of those run-ins that he had with every player that I know of, he was 100 per cent in the right," Butterfield said. "And if any of those guys that he had run-ins with that everybody knew about, they were 100-per-cent wrong. That needs to be out there."

Nonetheless, after a mostly undistinguished five-year run with the Blue Jays where the team's best finish was second place in 2006 with an 87-75 record, Gibbons was fired during the 2008 campaign. His big-league managing career, it seemed, was over.

Gibbons has shown his steely side

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For Gibbons, though, it turned out there was a second act. Following a tempestuous 2012 season, when Blue Jays manager John Farrell decided he wanted to manage his former team in Boston, new Toronto GM Anthopoulos went searching for a replacement. He yearned to hire a manager not only with major-league experience but also someone he would feel comfortable working alongside, and his thoughts kept drifting back to Gibbons, whom he'd known during the Texan's first stint in Toronto.

When Anthopoulos contacted Gibbons, who was managing his hometown team, the Double-A San Antonio Missions, he assumed he was going to be offered a coaching position with the big-league outfit. He admits he was dumbfounded when Anthopoulos offered him the managing job – but not enough to turn down a second opportunity to run the show in Toronto.

His return season in 2013 was a disaster, despite being handed a seemingly gilt-edged roster, the result of a massive off-season makeover by Anthopoulos. Such high-pedigree stars as R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes were brought on board, but a team many predicted had World Series potential instead fell flat, finishing last in the division.

This season has offered more promise, the written-off team beating expectations in a weakened division. But while keeping his temper in check, Gibbons has shown his steely side. In June, Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar threw a tantrum, heaving his bat in frustration in the dugout after Gibbons dared to pinch-hit for the .225 hitter. After the game, Pillar was quickly exiled back to the minors – no fuss, no muss.

"He has a certain expectation level that he demands out of everyone, about how you handle yourself as a professional," said closer Casey Janssen, one of Toronto's longest-serving players. "He gives you just a long-enough leash until you burn him and then he tightens it up a little bit."

Nonetheless, the rumblings have returned about the Blue Jays' leadership, and Gibbons himself allows that, whatever happens in Toronto, he is unlikely to manage anywhere else in the majors.

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"I don't even know that I'd want to do it somewhere else," he said. "I'm not old by any standards. I've got kids; they're all grown up. My wife has been tugging my family along. I love baseball and would want to stay in it in some capacity. But I'm not one of those guys that has to have this in his life. I'm not obsessed with it."

For now, he is just focused on the next game, realizing that the only way to silence the critics is winning. Losing, he says, takes a toll.

"The lows from the losses last a lot longer than the highs from the wins," Gibbons said. "They just do more to you, they wear on you. You know what? If you ever get used to losing, it's time to move on."

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