June 20, 2008

Blue Jays Fire Manager John Gibbons, Name Cito Gaston Replacement


PITTSBURGH - The reeling Toronto Blue Jays are hoping the man who led the team to a pair of World Series titles in the early '90s can save a season of high expectations from slipping away to disaster.

The Jays fired manager John Gibbons on Friday and, in a surprising move, replaced him with former manager Cito Gaston.

The move comes amid a spirit-breaking stretch of 13 losses in 17 games that has buried them in the AL East basement with a 35-39 record.

"We're going to see if we can't start the season over tonight," Gaston told a news conference. "I think we have the hitters to do that and give the pitching staff some breathing room."

Gibbons is the third manager fired this week, after Willie Randolph (Mets) and John McLaren (Seattle).

"You never really anticipate it, there's always that possibility," Gibbons said during a conference call. "We were struggling, there's no question about that. Hopefully change is good. I'm still a big fan of these guys and I want to see them succeed."

The Jays also fired coaches Marty Pevey, Ernie Whitt and Gary Denbo.

The 64-year-old Gaston becomes the Blue Jays' first two-time manager. He previously managed the team from 1989 to 1997, leading the team to World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.

"From our standpoint we've underachieved," said Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi. "We know we have a better team than this. Right now we want to see if we can spark this team and we think Cito is the guy to do it."

Gaston, who has been special assistant to the president and CEO, had a 681-635 record as manager during his earlier stint. Joining his staff will be first base coach Dwayne Murphy, third base coach Nick Leyva and hitting coach Gene Tenace.

This week's three-game sweep at the hands of the Milwaukee Brewers was the final straw, as it came on the heels of a devastating 3-6 homestand. Initially, according to a source, the team was inclined to give Gibbons through the end of the month before making a decision, but the continued losing forced their hand.

Gibbons entered the season on perilous ground, with his US$650,000, one-year contract due to expire at the end of the year. He found himself in hot water after an 11-17 April but the Blue Jays got back on track, and then some, during a 20-10 May.

Then three hard-to-swallow losses at the beginning of June - a 4-3 loss June 1 at Anaheim on a blown B.J. Ryan save; a 9-8 defeat June 5 at Yankee Stadium on Jason Giambi's walkoff homer off an 0-2 Ryan pitch; and a 6-5 loss June 6 at home to Baltimore when the bullpen blew a 4-0 lead in the eighth - killed their mojo and it's been a struggle for them ever since.

The main problem is that the team's offensive woes from 2007 have extended into this year and the burden of again carrying the team is beginning to cause fissures in the pitching staff.

The question now is whether the change can ignite the team, and if not, whether further changes are in the offing.

"If it just affects me, that's one thing," said Gibbons. "But when there's other coaches involved and that's their livelihoods, that's what really bothers me.

"Sometimes you bring a new guy in and you've got to give him a chance to bring his own guys in."

Ricciardi has repeatedly said Gibbons should not be a scapegoat for the team's troubles but ultimately had to make him one with his team unable to emerge from its slide.

The decision was not an easy one for Ricciardi, who called Gibbons in the morning and told him at a meeting. Ricciardi roomed with Gibbons when both were prospects in the New York Mets system during the early 1980s and have been friends since.

Gibbons certainly bears no fault for his lineup's inability to produce at the plate. He pushed the cause of some players to employ a more aggressive style of ball, giving more runners the green light to steal bases, sacrificing more runners over and using the hit and run more often.

But at the end of the day, a lineup featuring too many spare parts isn't delivering timely, big hits and the losses piled up because of it.

Gibbons, a laid-back, back-slapping Texan who could lay down the law when necessary, was a players' manager who mostly tried to stay out of his team's way.

He was routinely criticized by fans, who vented their frustration at an easy target. But he's an astute baseball man savvy enough to keep his clubhouse content and the executive staff above him placated.

"A lot of good things happened while I was in Toronto, but nothing really great and by great I mean post-season and that's what the organization was looking for," said Gibbons.

"You deal with that and life goes on, baseball goes on. I got a family, heck it isn't the worst thing to spend a couple of months with my kids."

Since taking over from the fired Carlos Tosca on an interim basis Aug. 8, 2004, Gibbons compiled a 305-305 record. Only his replacement Gaston (683-636) and Bobby Cox (355-292) have had longer tenures than him in franchise history.

Fans will most likely remember Gibbons for a pair of incidents with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly during the 2006 season.

Gibbons challenged Hillenbrand to a fight in the clubhouse after the disgruntled infielder left mutinous scribbles on a clubhouse whiteboard that July. In August, Gibbons and Lilly had a physical altercation in the dugout tunnel following an argument on the mound.

Neither incident seemed to harm him much in the eyes of his players, with both ace Roy Halladay and centre-fielder Vernon Wells offering crucial endorsements of him at the time.

The Blue Jays' best season under Gibbons was 2006, when they finished second in the AL East at 87-75.

They stumbled backwards last season, falling back to third at 83-79, amid a slew of injuries to Ryan, Wells, Troy Glaus, Halladay, A.J. Burnett, Reed Johnson and Gregg Zaun.

Gibbons never received deserved credit from keeping that team on the rails and above .500 despite the injuries, while incorporating youngsters Dustin McGowan, Shaun Marcum, Jeremy Accardo, Casey Janssen and Jesse Litsch to the team.

On May 29 he won his 300th career game as a manager, a 12-0 thumping of Oakland, and appeared headed to better things.

Now he's out of work.

Gaston becomes the fourth Blue Jays manager in seven years under Ricciardi. Tosca replaced the fired Buck Martinez, whom Ricciardi inherited from former GM Gord Ash, midway through the 2002 season.