The BLUE JAYS are the ultimate October outliers, ending the longest postseason drought in pro sports with the best offense the game has seen in a decade. But in a field full of franchises and managers that have paid heavy dues in search of a title, Toronto's skipper is a perfect fit
This is an article from the Oct. 12, 2015 issue
UNTIL HIS team clinched the American League East last week, what stood between Blue Jays manager John Gibbons and postseason play were 35 years of pro ball, thousands of miles of asphalt beneath the wheels of minor league buses, and a horse's rear end.
Welcome to a postseason featuring some of the heaviest dues-payers in baseball. The oldest manager in baseball, Terry Collins, 66, of the Mets, will manage his first postseason game. He will be matched against Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, who has invested 29 years in uniform as a player, coach and manager without getting to the World Series. And the field is so chock full of championship-drought-stricken teams that the generational wait for Gibbons's Jays (22 years) trails those of seven others in the 10-team field: the Dodgers (27), Mets (29), Pirates (36), Royals (30), Astros (54), Rangers (55) and the great-great-granddaddy of the unfulfilled, the Cubs (107).
If you need a proxy for the elusiveness of titles—or even of just getting to the postseason—Gibbons, 53, is your man. He wound up not only with one of the hottest teams down the stretch (40--16 since Aug. 1) and the highest-scoring team, but also the most dominant team in 15 years as measured by run differential (+221). But to capture what it took Gibbons to get to his first true October, there are nearly as many stories as bus rides, including his early minor league housing arrangement (four men and one bed), the pet raccoon of Billy Beane, a roommate nicknamed Lucifer, the two times as major league manager he challenged one of his players to a fight and the time he gladly went back to manage Double A baseball after managing in the big leagues.
"The night we clinched, I celebrated for about 10 minutes and came back here," Gibbons said last week, sitting in the visiting manager's office at Oriole Park. "I felt relief. I thought about how it's been so long for me to get here.
"I've really been fortunate just to have the opportunity to coach or manage in the big leagues. But I never wanted to look back and just say I was glad to get a chance to coach or manage. I wanted to say that I won something in the big leagues. And I think there's more ahead than just the AL East."
ACTUALLY, THIS will be Gibbons's second trip to the postseason, but owing to the peripatetic and odd nature of his career, it is his first official appearance and the first, presumably, without the back end of a horse in his way.
Gibbons was one of three first-round picks by the Mets in the 1980 draft; the others were future star Darryl Strawberry and Beane, the future general manager of the Athletics. Four years later, at age 22, Gibbons was on the verge of winning the starting catcher job in spring training, only to lose it in the last week of camp when a runner threw an elbow at him, breaking his cheekbone. Gibbons returned to the job in April, only to lose it again with a 1-for-25 slump that ended with a torn ligament in his elbow.
Gibbons resurfaced briefly with the Mets in 1986 as an August call-up from the minors, but New York did not have a spot for him as a third catcher on its postseason roster. The Mets kept him around that fall as a bullpen catcher, which is how Gibbons came to be warming up Dwight Gooden in the pen as Mookie Wilson came to the plate against Boston pitcher Bob Stanley with the Red Sox leading by a run in the 10th inning of World Series Game 6.
"So I'm catching Doc, in case the game is tied," Gibbons says. "And the mounted police are lined up on their big old horses right there in the bullpen, looking out on the field. They're getting ready to keep people off the field if Boston wins.
"Well, every time Doc hits my mitt—and you know how hard he could throw; pow!—the horses would jump. They were right by me, no more than from here to that wall [about 10 feet away]. I've got one eye on Doc and one eye on the horses. They kept jumping every time he hit my mitt. It was a little scary. But you know what? It was a thrill to be a part of that."
The Mets rallied to win Game 6 and then Game 7, of course, and Gibbons was awarded a world championship ring. He had appeared in eight games in 1986, the last of an 18-game major league career in which he hit .220. His participation in this postseason will be far more significant. His Blue Jays feature a throwback offense, the likes of which we haven't seen since baseball instituted testing for PEDs in 2004. Thanks to the thunder of Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto joined the 1996 and '97 Rockies and the '73 Braves as the only teams with three players to hit at least 39 home runs.
"They're clearly the team to beat in the American League," says Mets special assistant and former Toronto GM J.P. Ricciardi. "They have the best offense in the playoffs, hands down. But I've been there before. When I was in Oakland, we were in the same position in 1988, '89 and '90, and look what happened twice: Great pitching stops great hitting. I don't see anybody beating them in the AL unless you have someone like [Texas lefthander Cole] Hamels pitching two or three times against them, the way [Orel] Hershiser stopped us in '88."
Says Gibbons, "There's no question we go up there looking to hit home runs, so sometimes a softer-throwing lefty who turns the ball over can give us trouble. The kid from Philadelphia [Adam Morgan] beat us twice doing that." Lefthanded starters were 12--13 (.480) against Toronto this year while righthanders went 33--58 (.363).
If recent postseason form holds, however, the path to a championship is paved more by late-inning relief pitchers—and how a manager deploys his bullpen pieces. Bruce Bochy of San Francisco, whose relievers combined for a 13--2 record in the championship runs of 2010, '12 and '14, Tony La Russa of St. Louis, who made a postseason-record 75 pitching changes in '11, and John Farrell of Boston, whose relievers posted a 1.28 postseason ERA in '13, secured the past five World Series titles with deft bullpen usage.
Not only is Gibbons new to the strategic urgency of postseason baseball, but also the relievers he used most often in the eighth and ninth innings this year are rookies: Aaron Sanchez, 23, and Roberto Osuna, 20, respectively. "He'll be fine," Ricciardi says of Gibbons. "He's been managing a long time. He has a set lineup, so he doesn't have to pinch-hit much. And I don't think anyone runs a bullpen better than Gibby. He knows when to get guys up and who to match up against. There's never been a time where he didn't have the right guy ready or wasn't prepared for a spot. He doesn't get flustered and he doesn't panic."
Ricciardi has known Gibbons since they roomed together with the Class A Shelby (N.C.) Mets in 1981, the year after Ricciardi signed with the organization as an undrafted free-agent infielder. "Or as we called it, Hell-be," Gibbons says.
Gibbons and Ricciardi shared a small house with another player, Mike Hennessy, and a team official, John Alexander (then John Arezzi), a music aficionado who, to his roommates' amusement, often would boast that he found the next great singer at some backwoods North Carolina watering hole—until one day that year it actually happened: He discovered the singer Patty Loveless, quit the Mets and moved to Nashville to become a successful entertainment manager. The house they shared that summer had only one bed, so the four of them stuck to a nightly rotation: "Bed, couch, floor, floor," Gibbons says.
The next year at Shelby, Gibbons roomed with budding Mets prospects and bon vivants Lenny Dykstra and Roger McDowell. Earlier this year when a note came across the desk of Gibbons from someone looking for tickets, with only the name Lucifer attached to it, Gibbons smiled and knew who it was from: Dykstra.
Gibbons and Beane played together at Double A Jackson in 1982 and '83 and became fast friends. "One thing people don't know about Billy is that he always wanted a raccoon as a pet," Gibbons says. "I have no idea why. So one day in instructional league in Florida, we drove out to some Godforsaken place in a rural area and Billy buys this raccoon and brings it back with him in a cage. It must have been only four days later when he said, 'This is not going to work.' And that was the end of having a pet raccoon. Not one of his better ideas."
GIBBONS WOULD play 962 minor league games over 11 years, including one season, 1988, in the Dodgers organization playing at Triple A Albuquerque for Collins. "He stood out," Collins says, "because he ran every ball out and because of how hard he played."
Says Gibbons, "I can't say I've ever been around a more dedicated, diligent guy than Terry. I loved him."
Gibbons's modest playing career ended when he accepted an offer from the Mets in 1991 to be a minor league catching instructor. After 11 years coaching and managing in the New York farm system, and fed up with being passed over for openings on the major league staff, Gibbons quit after managing the 2001 season at Triple A Norfolk. He figured he could always land a job working for his old friend Beane in the Oakland system—except Beane had no openings. "That's how smart I am," Gibbons says. "I walked out of a job with three kids and a wife, and I had just bought a house."
Just then, however, another old friend, Ricciardi, was hired as general manager of the Blue Jays. Ricciardi had no openings, either, although he told Gibbons he could get him a job as a bullpen catcher, a clear demotion for someone who had just been a Triple A manager.
"I thought, What the heck. I've been a bullpen catcher my whole life, basically," Gibbons says. "So I go to spring training. I haven't squatted in 10 years. The first day catching bullpens my knee just blows up. Now I'm the only bullpen catcher in baseball who can't catch.
"We didn't have a very good team that year. The starters were getting knocked out early all the time. The bullpen was very busy. My knee got worse. By June, I said, 'That's it. I don't think I can make it through the season.' And right about then, J.P. made a [managerial] change. He replaced Buck Martinez with Carlos Tosca, one of the coaches. And he moved me to first base coach."
Two years later Ricciardi hired Gibbons without warning to run the team. After a loss at Yankee Stadium one night in August 2004, he told Gibbons, "Don't go anywhere," walked into Tosca's office and fired him, walked out and told Gibbons the job was his. Gibbons's tenure was punctuated by two 2006 incidents in which he confronted players he saw as insubordinate, Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly. He lasted until '08, when Ricciardi fired his friend after a 35--39 start and a 305--305 overall record.
"The picture people had of Gibby from those two incidents couldn't be further from the truth of who he is," Ricciardi says. "When I fired him, my wife was crying, my kids were crying and Alex [Anthopoulos], my assistant GM, was crying. That's how much people think of Gibby. Meanwhile, Gibby is thanking me, and he's saying, 'I'm sorry I let you down.'"
Four years later, after a coaching stint with the Royals, Gibbons returned home to manage the Double A San Antonio Missions, a job that required bus rides as long as 12 hours. He turned 50 that summer. He was miles off the major league grid. "It didn't matter to me," Gibbons says. "It was the first time I was home in the summer in 30 years. I loved it. There's something to be said for waking up, cutting your own grass, going to the ballpark and coming back home to your own bed. If I never got another [major league] call, I was satisfied. I caught more breaks than a lot of guys."
One more break came after that 2012 season: His phone rang while he was lifting weights in his garage. It was Anthopoulos, who had replaced Ricciardi as the Jays' GM. He wanted Gibbons to fly to Toronto. He wanted to talk to him about the direction of the team. He might even have a job on the staff for him. After a day of chatting, Anthopoulos made Gibbons an offer he never saw coming for a second time in eight years: the Jays' managing job.
As he did in his first tenure, Gibbons steadily improved the club: Toronto climbed from 73 wins under Farrell in 2012 to 74 in '13 under Gibbons to 83 in '14 and, this year, to 93, the franchise's highest total since the 1993 championship team.
"The last couple of years we had a fractured clubhouse, no doubt," Gibbons says. "But this year there was something different when they showed up in spring training. There was a different intensity. It really started with Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin. Alex brought in the right guys—the right guys with talent. And then you saw guys like Encarnacion and Bautista respond to the personalities of those two."
Still, it took Anthopoulos's infusion of talent at the trade deadline for the Blue Jays to take off. He added shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, outfielder Ben Revere and pitchers David Price, Mark Lowe and LaTroy Hawkins. Toronto was the best of the five clubs who played .600 baseball after July 31, followed by the Cubs, Pirates, Mets and Rangers—none of whom have won a World Series in the wild-card era and whose managers (Gibbons, Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle, Collins and Jeff Banister) have never won a World Series in 45 combined years of managing.
If this is the year dues are rewarded, Gibbons has as good a chance as anyone, which leads to one more story. One day in 2011, while Gibbons was coaching with the Royals, Ricciardi's cellphone buzzed with a text from his friend. It was the day Gibbons achieved 10 years of major league service as a player, coach and manager, fully vesting him in the players' association pension plan. "Today is my 10th year in the majors," Gibbons wrote. "Thank you. Because I wouldn't have been able to do it without you."
Four years later, with another trip to the minors thrown in, Gibbons is still at it, only this time in a place farther from Shelby, N.C., and San Antonio than he's ever been: October, officially. Says Ricciardi, "I can't tell you how happy I am for him. He's a baseball lifer, a guy who was a high school draft pick who devoted his life to baseball with little else to fall back on. He kept at it, and now the country gets the chance to see all the great things about Gibby that all of us who know him have seen for years."