The respected John Gibbons, with his laid-back demeanour and Texas drawl, is leaving Toronto for a second and, likely, final time as Blue Jays manager.
The 56-year-old, who held court with reporters alongside general manager Ross Atkins for more than 25 minutes ahead of Wednesday afternoon’s final home game of the season against Houston, has mutually agreed with team management to part ways with the team he first joined in 2002 as a bullpen catcher.
“It’s probably time for change. We both agreed the time is right,” said Gibbons, adding he isn’t ready to retire as a major-league manager and would like to stay in the game, perhaps in a special assignment role.
Gibbons, who has a year remaining on his contract, considered himself fortunate to have remained in the job after Atkins replaced Alex Anthopoulos in December 2015.
“I can’t thank him enough for keeping me around,” he said of Atkins. “And he put a lot of money in my back pocket, so that’s not that bad, either.”
The 71-87 Blue Jays entered play Wednesday fourth in the American League East standings, 35.5 games behind first-place Boston.
I actually think I’m the perfect guy for a rebuild, but I don’t know if I have the energy.— Blue Jays manager John Gibbons
It’s believed Toronto management wants its own man, while Gibbons, who was hired for a second time as manager in 2012 by Anthopoulos, had hinted in August that he would prefer not to manage a team through a rebuild.
Atkins said it’s “time for a new approach, a new voice” but stopped short of addressing what else he is seeking in Gibbons’ successor.
“I actually think I’m the perfect guy for a rebuild, but I don’t know if I have the energy,” said Gibbons, a former major league catcher in the mid-1980s with the New York Mets.
‘We finally became relevant again’
Gibbons, who will finish the season this weekend at Tampa Bay, is second to Cito Gaston in franchise history in games (1,578) and wins (791) among managers. He also led Toronto to two of its seven trips to the post-season, memorable runs that ended in losses in the 2015 and 2016 AL Championship Series.
Watch Gibbons discuss Toronto’s rebuild:
“It all came together [in 2015] and we finally became relevant again. We got close to getting to the World Series,” Gibbons said of the team reaching the post-season for the first time since 1993. “To do that when you’re the manager, since that’s the ultimate goal, that’s what stands out.”
After taking the Jays to a pair of World Series championships in 1992 and 1993, Gaston took over from the fired Gibbons in June 2008 with the Jays in a 4-13 funk. But the latter returned a little more than four years later, replacing John Farrell, who left for his “dream job” of managing the Boston Red Sox.
If you can’t play baseball for John Gibbons, you can’t play for anyone.— Former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi
Before Wednesday, Gibbons had posted a 791-787 regular-season record in 11 years managing Toronto across two tenures.
In 2004, he was promoted to first-base coach when skipper Carlos Tosca took over from ex-Blue Jays backstop-turned broadcaster Buck Martinez. Gibbons was appointed interim manager when Tosca was let go that August and had that tag lifted two months later.
Run-ins with players
“If you can’t play baseball for John Gibbons, you can’t play for anyone,” J.P. Ricciardi, his former minor-league roommate and ex-Blue Jays GM, said at the time.
However, the man affectionately referred to as Gibby has had a few run-ins with his charges over the years.
In 2006, disgruntled designated hitter Shea Hillenbrand wrote, “The ship is sinking” and “Play for yourself” on a display board in the Blue Jays clubhouse. Gibbons confronted the player and reportedly challenged him to a fight, three days before Hillenbrand was traded to San Francisco.
Watch Gibbons get a standing ovation on Wednesday:
A month later, Toronto starting pitcher Ted Lilly was staked to an 8-0 lead, but was visited on the mound by Gibbons after allowing five runs in the third inning. Lilly initially didn’t give him the ball to the manager to signal his exit from the game and, after the left-hander begrudgingly walked off the field, Gibbons followed him into the clubhouse tunnel, where they engaged in a shoving match.
Gibbons said he doesn’t have any regrets from his time in Toronto.
“I’m sure there’s many things I could have done differently,” he said. “The only thing I can say is I’m a fair guy.”
Last month in New York, Blue Jays centre-fielder Kevin Pillar attempted to steal third base with his team trailing 6-2 to the Yankees and was thrown out. Gibbons screamed at him for about 30 seconds in the dugout before expressing how much he respects the defensive wizard as a player and person.
Gibbons ‘a dad away from home’ for Pillar
“He’s the only manager I’ve ever played for [in the big leagues],” Pillar, 29, told the Toronto Sun this week. “I feel like he’s always been in my corner, despite the mistakes I’ve made on and off the field.
“He believed in me, maybe when other people didn’t, and that’s something I’ll always respect him for. He’s kind of been a dad away from home.”
Watch Gibbons discuss the season:
Following his first stint in Toronto, Gibbons served as bench coach with the Kansas City Royals for three seasons and managed the San Diego Padres’ double-A affiliate in San Antonio, where he was raised.
Gibbons believes the Blue Jays could be a contender in the near future and suggested management take a conservative approach.
“You never know how long that’s going to take,” he said of a rebuild. “It’s always good to inject some youth and energy and there are some good-looking, young kids [in the Blue Jays’ system]. Only time will tell but it’s definitely not an easy division.”