At 33, Toronto blue jay centerfielder Mookie Wilson is still bottled lightning, with flashes of brilliance and exuberance that both dazzle and inspire. In contrast, Cito Gaston, the Jays' 45-year-old manager, is a relaxed, self-contained man who seems anything but electrifying. He is a disarming guy who subjects his life and job to a probing examination that might be unusual for a philosopher, let alone a baseball skipper. But of course Gaston was not a manager at the start of this season. Nor, for that matter, was Wilson Toronto's center-fielder. But together this disparate duo has led the Blue Jays from the depths to the heights.
This is an article from the Sept. 11, 1989 issue
When Gaston took over from Jimy Williams on May 15, the Jays were divided, demoralized and dead last. "Jimy wanted to win so bad that he was always tense," says Jay catcher Ernie Whitt. "And that tenseness transferred to the players." Gaston, who had been the Blue Jays' batting coach for nearly eight seasons, restored calm and stability to the clubhouse, and quietly of course, the Blue Jays began to move up in the standings. Finally, on Saturday, after winning 16 of 19 games (including sweeps of Chicago, Detroit and Boston), Toronto displaced Baltimore at the top of the AL East, a position the Orioles had held since May 26. Jimy's Jays hit .241; Cito's are batting .267. "Maybe it's because I don't have the time to mess with the hitters anymore," Gaston says. Under Gaston's leadership, the team is 62-38, a .620 winning percentage.
And Wilson's impact has been spectacular. Since Aug. 1, when the New York Mets sent their 1986 World Series hero to Toronto, the Jays have gone 22-9. That's no coincidence: Wilson has batted .341 and has stolen 10 bases in 10 attempts for the Jays. More important, he has injected a much-needed intensity into the team. "Mookie helps us every time he's up," says outfielder Lloyd Moseby. "He's always hustling, turning singles into doubles, doubles into triples, triples into whatever."
For all his enthusiasm on the field, Wilson is a reluctant role model. "The last thing this team needs is a self-appointed leader," Wilson says. "Leadership speaks for itself, or it doesn't speak at all." Wilson isn't a Kirk Gibson type who rattles the clubhouse. "He leads the way George Brett and Reggie Jackson lead," says Toronto executive vice-president Pat Gillick. "By example."
The thought that he might be the straw that stirs Toronto's drink makes Wilson cringe. "I'm not even the glue that makes things stick," he insists. "Anyway, too much has been happening to this club to lay the credit on me."
He's right, of course. George Bell, the leftfielder who's supposed to get big hits, has been getting them—his club-record 22-game hitting streak was halted last Friday. Tony Fernandez, who was out for almost a month early in the season with a fractured cheekbone, is back making flashy stops at short. First baseman Fred McGriff has hit 35 homers. Starter Dave Stieb has won 14 games and stopper Tom Henke hasn't lost since Gaston took over. Still, even Wilson finds the Toronto turnaround a little puzzling. "You have to wonder what kept the Blue Jays from winning," he says. "I mean, what was missing?"
Mookie isn't the first to ask the question. The Jays have been touted as the "most talented team in the division" every year since winning the AL East in 1985. And every year since, they've come up short. "Sometimes teams with the most talent don't win," says Gillick. "Sometimes players like ours take a while to learn how to win. Cito has tried to teach them that."
Gaston is sitting in the dugout with his fingers laced behind his head, eyes on the batting cage. The first impression is one of great concentration. It is not a false one. Even in conversation Gaston misses nothing, picking up not only the implications of what is said but also the nuances of what is unsaid. "If [former Dodger executive] Al Campanis hadn't said blacks lacked the necessities to manage, I might not even have been considered for this job," Gaston says in his soft but commanding voice. "I know I never asked for it. I didn't think I wanted it."
After firing Williams, Gillick asked Gaston if he would become the Jays" interim manager.
"No!" said Gaston. "Absolutely not."
"We'd appreciate it if you took the job," Gillick pleaded.
"I can't. I'm happy as batting coach. It's not every day you can go to work and be happy with what you're doing."
"It would be just for a little while."
"Four days. Ten days. Two weeks at most."
"O.K.," Gaston said finally. "But don't take too long."
So Gaston became the fourth black manager in major league history, although Gillick said he was 99% sure he wouldn't hire Gaston full time. He was worried that Gaston was too close to the players to be comfortable with the transition to manager. But a couple of weeks later, after being rebuffed in an effort to pry Lou Piniella from the Yankees, Gillick was persuading Gaston to stay. "O.K.," Gaston said again. "But just for the rest of the season."
The son of a San Antonio truck driver, Gaston was nicknamed Cito, the moniker of a Mexican wrestler, as a teenager. "I never knew anything about the guy," Gaston says. "But if your given name is Clarence, you take any nickname you can get." In a 10-year big league career as an outfielder with the Padres, Braves and Pirates, he was moderately renowned for his power at bat and the quiet leadership he exerted. "The idea that a team needs a leader in the locker room is bull," Gaston says. "In my day, I wouldn't have listened to players who constantly yapped and screamed. In fact, I never played on a team with a clubhouse cheerleader." The soft voice dissolves into a laugh. "Of course, I never played on a good club, either."
Gaston got his final release from the majors in 1979 and played out his career with two additional seasons in the Mexican League. He remembers one park in which the outfield was bisected by a railbed. "They'd stop the game to let the train pass through," he recalls. "It wasn't too bad, though. They were short trains."
His playing days over, Gaston returned to San Antonio, where he planned to open a day-care center. But his onetime roomie, Hank Aaron, kept calling from Atlanta, where he had become director of player development for the Braves. Aaron wanted Gaston to be a roving minor league batting instructor.
"He'd spend hours in the batting cage working over and over with kids in 100-degree heat," says Aaron. "I saw patience, which is what you need in the majors."
Braves manager Bobby Cox was also impressed, and when he took over as the Jays' skipper in 1982, he brought Gaston along. In Gaston's first season, the Jays' team batting average rose from .226 to .262. The next year it climbed to .277. "The main thing to impress on a struggling hitter is not to change anything," Gaston says. "Whatever you did must have worked, so stay with it."
Even now, as a manager, Gaston doesn't preach, he instructs. He doesn't demand, he suggests. "If you win, you win," he says. "If you don't, then come back tomorrow and get them."
Toronto seemed to be running out of tomorrows just when Wilson joined the Jays. "In Mookie, we got a switch-hitter who can bat leadoff and play all three outfield spots," says Gillick. "He was a veteran from a winning team. And his tools were pretty much intact."
The Mets didn't think so. Wilson's .205 batting average was down .084 from 1986, the year his 10th-inning bleeder squirted between the legs of Boston first baseman Bill Buckner and turned the Series around. "Best moment of my career," he says. "But it got old awful fast."
Wilson hasn't. "He's 33 going on 18," says Moseby. "He's a delight and an inspiration." For his part, Wilson is delighted when the sell-out SkyDome crowds greet him with a lowing "Moooookie" every time he goes to the plate. "I'm just keeping my ears and eyes open, trying to fit in," he says. "I'll do whatever it is these people have in mind for me, the best way I can."
Gaston is equally clear-eyed about his job. "I took over only because I was asked to take over," he says deliberately. But there are signs that the manager's job may be growing on him. "After three and a half months of this, it's not as bad as I thought it would be," he says.
Would Gaston consider managing the Jays again next year? "Ask me again in October," he hedges. "By then I may have an answer."