Is it news if you can’t let anyone know?
Lou Piniella had a pretty good managerial career, but Cito Gaston won twice as many World Series and had a higher career winning percentage.
So let’s call it one of those ‘happy accidents’ that the Toronto Blue Jays were unable to hire Sweet Lou to be their manager in 1989 and had to “settle” for their interim manager, who insisted he’d never manage full time. And that notion had been seconded by the Jays’ upper management about every three minutes.
This Monday I realized it was May 15, a date that always rattles my cerebellum. That was the Monday in 1989 when we showed up at Exhibition Stadium for the start of a series against the Cleveland Indians to find out that the Blue Jays had fired field manager Jimy Williams and promoted his hitting coach, Cito Gaston.
It’s kind of apropos to talk about this now, really, as the Jays were languishing at 12-24 on that day, and were facing the same kind of well-this-year’s-toast pessimism that has surrounded the current Jays.
Gaston had originally declined the offer to be interim manager, preferring to keep working with a talented group of hitters. Plus, knowing Cito well at the time, I’m sure he didn’t want to feel he was betraying Williams. He did mention that he didn’t see what he could do that his predecessor hadn’t tried.
When Gaston did take one for the team, he made it clear it was for the short-term and it became a mantra from top Jays’ execs Paul Beeston and Pat Gillick, that “Cito is not a candidate.”
Gillick, reared in the Yankee system, badly wanted the fiery Piniella, who was still under contract to New York where he’d managed through 1988. He thought the dramatically hotheaded Piniella could light a fire under the underachieving Jays. Gaston, who’s as laid-back as a reclining chair, was quite the opposite. He was hands-off, which was misread by so many as too laissez-faire, with not enough ‘game-tinkering’ DNA.
I got along with Lou, but I really got along with Cito. We talked a lot about life and kids, and he taught me the most important lesson in baseball: it’s every day and no moment means too much, but every moment means something.
We’d usually have a drink or two on the road, often with the Toronto Sun’s Ken Fidlin. It was Fids who got me into shagging fly balls during the Jays’ extra batting practice on the road. He’d done it for a while and got permission from Cito in my first year on the road for me to come out early too, just to keep in shape. Eventually, many years later, Cito decided to save my life and finally banned me from any more shagging when he saw an infield line drive pass between my head and my hat.
Because I was out at early batting practice, two weeks to the day after Williams was fired, I was at the old ball park in Cleveland long before game time and about four hours before the other writers would get there (Fidlin, I don’t think, was on that trip). Gaston standing at the door in the visiting club’s manager’s office, motioned me in, then closed the door.
Just two days earlier, the Jays had found out that they couldn’t make a deal with the Yankees for Piniella and even then Beeston had insisted, “Cito never was a candidate and he remains a noncandidate.”
But as he closed the door, Gaston turned to me and said, “In a couple of hours, they’re naming me full time manager. And I’m taking it.”
My jaw dropped. And inside I was going nuts because this was huge — and as it turned out franchise-changing — news and there was nothing I could do with this scoop. We didn’t have a paper until the next afternoon. All I could do was build a complete story well in advance and have him and his thoughts completely to myself for a while, which I did and with which he graciously co-operated. But it wasn’t the same as breaking the story alone.
I confided to Gaston that a couple of the other regular beat writers and I had begun noticing he was taking to the job a lot more than he admitted publicly and he smiled wryly. We had been bang on. Hard to hide things in a 24-hour travelling caravan.
Under Gaston’s calm guidance and growing confidence, the Jays steadied — although they didn’t reach .500 for good until July 25 — and went on to win the eastern division, but lost the ALCS to the Steroid A’s. Three years later, he became the first African American manager to win the World Series.
One of the oddest sensations I had that day in late May 1989 was wishing strongly that there could be some kind of instantnews medium where I could write and publish a Spectator scoop as soon as it happened, instead of waiting. Unwittingly, I was longing for the dawn of the Internet, which as we all know, hasn’t proven too healthy for the newspaper industry.
Veteran Spectator columnist Steve Milton has pretty much seen it all in his 40 years covering sports around the world and, in Being There, he will relive special moments of those stories from the inside out, every Friday. If there’s a memorable sporting event you want Steve to write about, let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chances are he was there.
Generalmanager Pat Gillick talks with Cito Gaston on May 28, saying thatGaston is definitely out oftherunning forthemanager’s job. The next day,Gaston gotthejob.
Cito Gaston is pictured the day hetook over asthefull-time manager ofthe Toronto BlueJaysin 1989.