John Gibbons’ resume looks a lot better now than it did after his first stint with the Blue Jays. He won an American League East division title, made back-to-back appearances in the AL Championship Series and even picked up some manager of the year votes along the way.
Despite the success, finding another opportunity has proven just as challenging as it was back in 2008 when Gibbons was fired by then Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi. The Texan feels like his career is far from over, he would relish another opportunity to manage, but he also has no idea when, or if, the phone will ever ring.
Gibbons’ best shot at getting back in the saddle might have been this off-season. The Angels, Cubs, Giants, Mets, Pirates, Phillies, Padres and Royals had openings and Gibbons had varying degrees of interest in each one. Like anyone looking for work, the baseball lifer updated his resume and started sending off emails.
All Gibbons wanted was an opportunity to sit down with a front office and talk baseball. Once there, the former big-league catcher felt like he would be able to sell himself while also addressing previous stereotypes, which suggested he was anti-analytics and didn’t enjoy working with rookies, claims he vehemently denies.
Gibbons’ calls went mostly unanswered. He was unable to secure an in-person interview for any of the openings and instead he turned to an old friend and former boss, Alex Anthopoulos, who found a scouting job in Atlanta to keep him busy. Gibbons had just about given up hope on securing another manager’s job when the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal broke in early January.
In the ensuing fallout, Astros manager A.J. Hinch was relieved of his duties. Gibbons reached out to Hinch for no other reason than to offer support to someone he considered a friend.
It quickly turned into something else.
“We got in touch and he said, ‘Maybe you’ll have a shot at managing the Astros,’” said Gibbons, who parted ways with the Blue Jays organization after the 2018 season. “He was the one who threw my name into the hat. I said ‘I don’t feel great about doing that. That was your job’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry about that, it’s part of baseball.’
“I’m sitting in these scouting meetings and then the Astros owner, Jim Crane, called me. I went down there, interviewed and it went great. It didn’t work out obviously, but I felt really good leaving there. Before, I couldn’t even get an interview. I was disappointed, I figured I’ve at least been around the game long enough that I could get a sit-down. Houston gave me a chance so I’m grateful for that.”
Shortly after the Astros interview, Gibbons had a similar opportunity with the Red Sox, who parted ways with their manager Alex Cora because of his ties to the Astros’ cheating. Gibbons didn’t get that job either, but he scored another in-person meeting, which allowed him to come away from the process feeling a lot more positive about the situation than he had a few months prior.
Unlike the first round of hires, Boston and Houston each went with veterans on the bench. Dusty Baker was brought on by the Astros, which marked his fifth organization as manager. The Red Sox went with Ron Roenicke, a logical choice considering he was the bench coach the year before and had five years’ experience managing the Brewers.
The latest trend at least offers a glimmer of hope for Gibbons at a time when most teams are opting for placeholders. Front offices have started prioritizing managers who are essentially an extension of the front office, someone who bases their decisions on the data provided by the organization. Managing personalities and running a clubhouse is still important, but the game itself is often left to spreadsheets.
Gibbons is not that type of manager. He’s someone who relies on his gut. He knows a lot of starting pitchers struggle a third time through an order, but he also realizes not every game is created equal. Some nights when a pitcher was rolling, Gibbons would push the scouting reports aside. In his mind, not everything needs to be so black and white, 100 per cent of the time.
This approach, combined with Gibbons’ strategy of dealing with the media, which often involved playing up simple southerner stereotypes, helped create a narrative that he was just an old-school manager, a dying breed in a sport looking to evolve. It’s a reputation he takes issue with.
“It’s obvious what’s going on, teams going with more youth,” said Gibbons, who trails only Cito Gaston for most games (1,582) and wins (793) as a Blue Jays manager. “But I think I’ve gotten a bad rap. I’m not anti-analytics. Think about all the stuff we did. We hit Jose Bautista first, we did all the shifts like everybody else, I played Troy Glaus at shortstop when we had fly-ball pitchers going.
“I’ve made some comments along the way, that probably didn’t help, but that’s because I question, and I debate to find out the best way to do things. If I’m the one who has to answer for something, I also have to call my own shots. Every manager should.”
If there’s one regret Gibbons has from his time in Toronto, outside of not winning the World Series in either 2015 or 2016, it likely came toward the end of his second tenure. By August 2018 his fate was all but sealed. It had been obvious for months his time with the Blue Jays was coming to an end, but he was at least expecting to finish the season.
Then came media reports the Blue Jays were thinking about making a change before the end of the year. Gibbons didn’t begrudge the front office for wanting to bring in their own guy, but the timing appeared to bother him. He was visibly frustrated and in a momentary lapse of judgment said: “I’m not so sure I want to go through one of those things. A total rebuild.”
The quote helped fuel the narrative that Gibbons was a manager who could deal with veterans but was ill-equipped to handle the next generation. The reality was much different, and Gibbons embraced his role with a rookie-laden team by the end of 2018, even though the organization was on the verge of kicking him to the curb.
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“I can get along with any player, inexperienced or veteran,” Gibbons said. “I was a young guy at one time, I know how difficult that can be. I feel like one of my greatest traits is being able to get along with anybody. That’s never been an issue for me. I think the comments I made probably stuck and made it seem like I don’t want to work with young guys. Not true. But ask any manager and they would prefer a veteran team that is established. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Nor should he. Gibbons might enjoy a good debate and he’s often willing to compromise but the one thing he won’t do is sell out his principles for the sake of his bosses. He remains an individual in a game that has become all about assimilation. That might stop him from getting another job but at least two teams expressed interest this winter and Gibbons remains optimistic that more will follow in the future.
Until then, he waits.