Blue Jays glad to have Gibbons guiding new talent
Laid-back attitude to mesh well with veterans as manager gets second shot in Toronto
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- Following a dramatic offseason makeover, it seems rather appropriate that the Blue Jays have a fresh -- but familiar -- face in the dugout.
John Gibbons is set to reclaim his spot on Toronto's bench for the first time in almost five years. He brings a seasoned presence, but perhaps more importantly Gibbons creates a laid-back atmosphere that is built on a foundation of trust and understanding.
It's a seemingly natural fit for a ballclub that suddenly has a strong veteran presence and is about to embark on a season where the pressure and expectations have never been higher.
W: Masterson L: Dickey SV: Perez
"I think it can affect some teams," Gibbons recently said of being one of the perceived favorites. "You have to focus on what you're doing, you still have to go out and play the game.
"It's nice to have it, intentions are great, everybody thinks your team is pretty good, but ... there can be distractions and there can be added pressure because of it. You have to fight through it and take care of business every day."
Gibbons is the polar opposite of last year's manager, John Farrell, in just about every conceivable way. Farrell began his post-playing career in the front office as the scouting director for Cleveland.
At the time of Farrell's hiring in October 2010 that part of his resume was considered one of the things that interested Toronto the most. But once Farrell's tenure actually began, it became clear from the outset that he wasn't always on the same page as general manager Alex Anthopoulos.
First there was the open desire for Brett Lawrie to crack the 2011 Opening Day lineup despite the front office's belief he needed more seasoning at Triple-A. Then there was Farrell's publicly stated desire for veteran back-end starting pitchers to eat up innings, while Anthopoulos preferred to wait for top-tier talent to become available.
Farrell and Anthopoulos never publicly complained about each other, but there were enough conflicting messages to question their working relationship. It's likely one reason why Anthopoulos put a strong emphasis on finding a new manager he would work well with.
That's what led the Blue Jays to bring Gibbons back into the fold. The two previously worked together before Gibbons was fired midway through the 2008 campaign, and through a friendship that continued to grow over the years, their bond was never in doubt.
Gibbons wasn't even formally interviewed for the job. Instead he was invited to Toronto for what Anthopoulos has previously described as a conversation over dinner.
"We go way back," Gibbons said. "He was an assistant during my first go-around here. We knew each other pretty good and we've kept in touch over the years. It was still a shock that he brought me back, but it's not like I was an unknown. If he didn't know me really well, I definitely wouldn't be here.
"A lot of [the dinner conversation] was reminiscing about the times we had. I think that was the big part of it. The relationship we had was probably the selling point. I think that's what he was going for, and I think it made it a lot easier on him."
Gibbons now finds himself in charge of a team that is suddenly the talk of Major League Baseball. The clubhouse was continuously packed during Spring Training with reporters from all over Canada and the United States, and the spotlight will only grow once the regular season gets under way on April 2.
That's a welcome change for a team that has been an afterthought for the past two decades, but it also doesn't guarantee success on the field. The Angels and Red Sox were considered the winners of the past two offseasons and were picked by many critics to win the World Series, but both ended up missing the postseason.
The same could be said for last year's version of the Marlins. Miami had as much attention given to its ballclub last year than anyone else, but when the season came to an end, the Marlins found themselves with a bitterly disappointing 69-93 record.
"The fact everybody is expecting us to be automatic," Gibbons said when asked what his biggest concern was. "You look around the league and there are a lot of teams out there that can win this thing, and you know what, we haven't done it here before.
"It's a new group from the last time I was here, but teams that have been through it, they expect to win, they're used to winning, those guys have the advantage. We still haven't done it. With so many new guys, you hope it comes together, but you never really know for sure."
The long wait is just about over, and the Blue Jays are now a week from the start of their journey. It's one thing to think about the ways the likes of R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Melky Cabrera can help make the Blue Jays relevant again, but it's another thing completely to see it play out on the field.
That will happen Tuesday night when the Blue Jays take on the Indians in front of a sold-out crowd at Rogers Centre. For Gibbons, it marks a second chance after being unable to lead Toronto into the playoffs during his previous tenure from 2004-08.
Gibbons will be the first one to say he's the same guy he was back then. The difference this time should be the level of talent on the field is drastically different.
"You get to see them all together and you get to see them perform out there," Gibbons said. "On paper it looks great, but it seems even better when you see them out there.
"It's a special bunch, they are successful guys at the Major League level and are some of the better players in the game. I have a big responsibility, we have a good team and I have to get the most out of them. That's a huge responsibility, but there's no substitute for talent."