Legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher once growled, “Show me a good loser and I‘ll show you a loser.”
Soon-to-be ex-Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is certainly not a loser. Trips to the post-season in 2015 and 2016 showed him at his best. But for his 10 seasons during two stints in Toronto, his record was five games over .500. That would be closer to Mr. Average or, to be cruel, Mr. Mediocre.
Judging by the Toronto media in the last week, however, Gibbons was somewhere between Casey Stengel and God. The superlatives flowed like wine from the people who’d covered Gibbons on the beat in Toronto. His homespun humour, his traditionalist approach to managing. His legendary spats with umpires.
All were extolled by the people of the press – ironically, many of whom just happen to work for the same company, Rogers Communications.
Gibbons had his strengths in dealing with people, calming fragile egos, keeping a level head. But like most coaches and managers, he was dependent on the talent provide to him by upper management. When that talent collapsed, his record collapsed, too.
There’s no doubt that Gibbons is an affable, genuine guy. A baseball guy, in the best sense of the expression. In the times I dealt with him, he was never less than professional. He learned how to handle the vanity of the Toronto media, stroking the princes of the press with insider stories, knowing laughs and a great deal of forbearance when the questioning got to be tedious.
None of this is a character fault, by the way. I have long advised management types in sport that the media corps is prone to flattery and the more flattery, the better your chances of getting a break in the post-game stories. After a rough start in his first time with the Jays, Gibbons soon developed a rapport with the people who could write it his way.
(In an almost-parody radio hit, writer Steve Simmons claimed that this Kumbaya relationship between manager and reporters spoke to the diligence and integrity of the Toronto press corps. Not for Hogtown the vicious journalism of Boston and New York. No, Toronto’s media had a heart.)
And that’s why Gibbon’s most significant accomplishment is not the two Blue Jays teams that almost got to the World Series – although they were riveting teams. No, Gibbons’ signature achievement is that he leaves the job with the Toronto public and media believing that whatever failings the Jays have – and they had a bushel of them in the last two years – it was the fault of upper management, not him, that they skidded to a halt in 2017-18.
Legions of professional managers and coaches pray every night for this sort of forgiveness of their sins – and end up having the home fans burn them in effigy or curse them under their breath for having the intelligence of a potted palm. Botched strategies, players fragile egos and, yes, injuries are laid at their doors, not management’s.
But ‘Gibby’ – and his scribblers— put the blame for disaster squarely on the unloved duo of president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins. Gibbons’ farewell game at the Rogers Centre was the vindication of an innocent man. Players poured Gatorade on him while the press sang hosannas to the aw-shucks manager, whose team lost 86 and 89 games the past two seasons.
Instead of questioning Gibbons’ role in the last two years, the media instead snarled about the insensitivity and tone deafness of the “Cleveland Kids,” the management duo that was transported from the Indians to the Jays in 2016-17. Shapiro, arguably the architect of the new regime in Toronto, was nowhere to be seen or heard. Atkins handled the management side.
That leads to rumours Shapiro might alight to New York or another big-city market. Nonetheless, Shapiro and Atkins will bear the brunt of the Jays’ struggles the next few years. The same press people lauding Gibbons will damn them as parvenus with soulless policies that irk the good people of Toronto.
All the while Gibbons waltzes off to another job with a team that needs a veteran, irascible guy to push them over the top. And that would be the best revenge any manager could ever get.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin’s career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.