Is it news if you can’t let any­one know?

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON smil­ton@thes­pec.com 905-526-3268 | @mil­to­natthes­pec

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 smil­ton@thes­pec.com. Chances are he was there.

FILE PHOTO, TORONTO STAR

Gen­eral­man­ager Pat Gil­lick talks with Cito Gas­ton on May 28, say­ing thatGas­ton is def­i­nitely out oftherun­ning forthe­m­an­ager’s job. The next day,Gas­ton got­the­job.

TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

Cito Gas­ton is pic­tured the day het­ook over as­the­full-time man­ager ofthe Toronto BlueJaysin 1989.

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