There have only been only two managers who really mattered in the 34-year history of the Toronto Blue Jays, and by coincidence both were scheduled to bow out Sunday from active roles in the game.
As it turned out, only Cito Gaston's managerial career drew to a close, which is par for the course: Bobby Cox's teams usually keep playing come October, and after some nervous moments over the weekend his Atlanta Braves will indeed move on as the National League's wildcard team. (That's 16 postseason appearances in 29 years, for those keeping score at home.)
The local fanfare for Gaston was absolutely appropriate given his contribution to the franchise. Whether he got too little credit, as he always maintained, whether he caught too much of the blame at the end of his first tenure and during the more depressing parts of his second, whether he made decisions in terms of tactics and lineups which weren't always for the best, he will forever have a place in the Blue Jays' pantheon.
The Toronto portion of Cox's career is ancient history now, and is being treated as a footnote if mentioned at all in the tributes that have flowed during the final days of this, his final season as a big-league manager. But in the retelling of the story of the Jays' history to 1993 - the near-perfect arc from expansion team to double champion - Cox is a significant figure, and could have been much more than that.
Peter Bavasi, the Jays' first president, brought in Roy Hartsfield to manage the team out of the gate because he was an amiable guy who could spin a good story, because he had a southern accent that sounded suitably baseballish (a help in selling of the game in a foreign locale), because he was a minor-league lifer who would be forever grateful for the opportunity, and who could be easily discarded when the time came.
Bobby Mattick followed Hartsfield, a scout by vocation who initially didn't even want to wear a uniform in the dugout. He was a space-holder, with everyone understanding that the team would be awful, and that some of the early excitement would have worn off. When things started looking up, when some of the pieces of a future contender were ready to make their way to the majors, Mattick would dutifully step aside.
The volatile Bavasi was still around in 1982 when the time came to hire the first Blue Jays manager expected to win. He had other ideas, but Pat Gillick, who knew Cox from their days in the Yankees organization, prevailed. Cox had just been fired during one of Ted Turner's wackier moments ("The best guy to manage this team is Bobby Cox," he said at the news conference announcing the firing. "But we can't have Cox because I just fired him.").
The Jays offered him a one-year contract - just like Walter Alston had been offered for all of those seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers - and Cox immediately proved to be just the kind of clubhouse leader they desired. His players loved him, and they were also a little bit afraid of him, since Cox was and is no softie. "Those guys never knew whether he liked them or didn't like them," Paul Beeston said once. "But they all thought he liked them."
Cox didn't have an obvious ego, didn't want to be the star, relied heavily on his coaches (including one he inherited, Jimy Williams, and one he hired, Gaston, who he knew from the Braves) and created a winning culture.
It looked like the beginning of a beautiful relationship. How long might that have lasted? How might history have changed? In 1985, with the Jays headed for the first postseason play in their history, it wasn't hard to imagine Cox sticking around, like Alston, just about forever.
But that summer, even as the Blue Jays closed in on their first postseason berth, the whispers began that he was headed back to Atlanta. Cox denied the stories outright. On Oct. 1, an Atlanta newspaper reported again that Turner wanted him back, as both his field and general manager. Again Cox denied it. "I haven't heard anything about it," he said. "I'm happy where I am."
Then one more time, on the day after the regular season ended, and just before the Blue Jays' first playoff would begin. Would Cox be managing in Toronto in 1986? "Yessir," he said.
A couple of days after the Jays' season ended with the heart-breaking loss to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series, Beeston noticed that Cox had cleaned out his office - not like someone who would be returning the following spring, but like someone who wasn't coming back. At the World Series, Cox's appointment in Atlanta was announced.
He left for personal reasons (his wife wanted to be closer to home) and he left for financial reasons (Turner offered him $500,000 a year for five years). And he left behind bad blood. Beeston and Gillick felt betrayed, and it took some years before those wounds healed.
Williams followed in Toronto, and then Gaston, a kind of Cox managerial tree, and in the end it worked out just fine.
Atlanta eventually proved to be a perfect baseball home for Cox the second time around, especially after John Schuerholz joined him at the helm.
There is only one World Series to show for all of those playoff years, and the team he left behind beat him for the championship in 1992. But the Cox managerial method, which begins and ends with respect, is hard to argue. It worked there, surely it would have continued to work here, and it will take him, certainly, to Cooperstown.
Truth is, both the Braves and the Blue Jays got that hiring right.
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