NEW YORK — John Gibbons grew up in San Antonio, so his accent sounds as if the Texas winds are blowing straight from his mouth, and his bowlegged gait conjures images of horse-weary cowboys. Texas is embedded in his background and persona, but not in his blood.
Gibbons, the long-serving manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, is actually the scion of a family of Massachusetts optometrists, not Texas ranchers. While his formative years were spent in Texas, some of his earliest recollections are from the years when his family lived in Middleton, Mass., in a house with the Ipswich River running through the backyard.
“I’m really a New Englander,” Gibbons said in his signature Texas accent. “That’s where the jerk in me comes from.”
Gibbons, who rarely misses an opportunity for a self-deprecating joke, said the last line with a wink, knowing he was speaking to a New Englander. After all, few consider Gibbons the jerky type, even if he has unloaded on a few players and more than a few umpires over the years, sometimes in spectacular fashion.
But Gibbons is often overlooked in discussions about baseball’s best managers, perhaps because he is tucked away in Canada, or maybe because until 2015, the Blue Jays were rarely a factor in the American League pennant race.
To many who know him well, though, Gibbons is a passionate, straight-shooting, old-school baseball man whose folksy traits sometimes shroud the cerebral foundations of his success. He is equal parts regular guy, shrewd analyst and baseball lifer — characteristics that make him a bit of a dinosaur in today’s game, but also a leader many of his players adore.
“He’s like a second dad,” Russell Martin, Toronto’s veteran catcher, said. “You don’t want to disappoint him.”
In a sport in which the manager’s role is undergoing rapid change, and charismatic, independent personalities face extinction, Gibbons is an outlier, a Texas-reared son of a Massachusetts eye doctor who doesn’t fit easily into a typical category.
He is not a new-age, data-munching, former player without previous managerial experience, a list that includes roughly half of today’s managers, including Aaron Boone of the New York Yankees, whom the Blue Jays are playing this weekend. He is not a veteran running his third or fourth team, like Buck Showalter of the Baltimore Orioles or Clint Hurdle of the Pittsburgh Pirates. And unlike the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Scioscia, who has also managed only one major league team for at least 10 years, Gibbons is the only active manager to be Billy Martin-ized — that is, fired and rehired by the same team.
A former catcher with the Mets, Gibbons first managed the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008, a period in which they never finished higher than second in the American League East. Fired in the summer of 2008, then purified through stints as the Kansas City Royals’ bench coach and as a Class AA manager in San Antonio, his hometown, he was rehired by Toronto in 2013 by its former general manager Alex Anthopoulos and has held the job ever since. Gibbons led Toronto to the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, and before last season, he signed a two-year contract extension.
In effect, then, Gibbons has been hired, fired, rehired and then retained by three Blue Jays front offices. It was the current leadership team, led by Ross Atkins, the general manager, and Mark Shapiro, the team president, that rewarded him with a new contract last April after consecutive trips to the American League Championship Series.
“If it had been different, I’d probably be gone,” Gibbons said. “Any time a new front office comes in, they have the right to hire their own people. If I was doing it, I’d want my guy in there. It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit, and I would have totally agreed.”
But rather than move him out, Atkins, who has been with the Blue Jays since December 2015, lauded Gibbons as a complete package, noting the manager’s extensive experience, his baseball intellect, his handling of the players and his ability to keep them, rather than himself, at the forefront.
Atkins first witnessed Gibbons’ approach 20 years ago, when Gibbons managed the Binghamton Mets and Atkins was a pitcher in the Cleveland Indians organization. Atkins noticed from the mound and from the opposing dugout that whatever happened, Gibbons never projected himself into the proceedings.
“That attitude partly explains why he might fly under the radar now,” Atkins said. “His strength is that it’s never about him. It’s always about the players.”
Gibbons’ future could depend on the results of this year’s team, which is off to a 12-6 start after a 4-3 loss to the Yankees on Thursday. The Blue Jays lost their first two games of the year while Gibbons wore new glasses in the dugout for the first time. So he ditched them, regardless of what his father and grandfather, both optometrists, would have said. “I guess I didn’t like what I was seeing through them,” he joked.
But, as Russell Martin noted, Gibbons doesn’t panic. The catcher also said Gibbons would not inundate his players with an avalanche of data or overstrategize. More often, he will take a player aside and offer a useful nugget of information. “There’s no added stress from the manager,” Martin said, “and that helps a lot.”
But Gibbons also demands accountability and respect for the game, and a few of his players have felt the sting of his temper. In his first stint with the Blue Jays, Gibbons challenged Shea Hillenbrand, who reportedly wrote negative things about the team on a clubhouse message board, to a fight, and he got into a shoving match with pitcher Ted Lilly after Lilly argued with Gibbons on the mound when he was removed from a game.
Two seasons ago, Gibbons even chewed out Josh Donaldson, one of Toronto’s best players, after Donaldson threw his bat dangerously at the bat rack in a moment of frustration. The two had to be separated by players and coaches in the dugout.
Jose Reyes, the Mets shortstop, played for Gibbons in Toronto from 2013 until he was traded in 2015 and called him a terrific communicator. But Reyes said there was one thing Gibbons would not tolerate.
“If you don’t hustle, he will talk to you about it right away on the bench,” Reyes said. “I’ve seen it more than once. Oooh, he don’t accept that at all.”
But one of Gibbons’ most important qualities as a manager is his handling of the bullpen, something that is appreciated in Toronto more than it is on statistical data sheets that track managerial usage of the bullpen based on results. Gibbons has a knack, Atkins said, for keeping relievers strong and healthy, for knowing when to use them and when to rest them, and for preparing them to bounce back effectively from an earlier outing.
“On the publicly distributed lists he might not show up at the top,” Atkins said, “but I think he’s elite in that category.”
In baseball, the demarcation line between the old and new breed of managers is often measured by their adherence to analytical data. Gibbons said that he has long embraced certain numerical streams, but that he also relies heavily on his experience and a deep knowledge of his players.
“I don’t use it as much as the majority probably do, but I take what gives me value and I use that,” he said. “I have freedom to make my lineups and run the game accordingly. We talk all the time, me and Ross, about different players and things like that. But he understands I’ve got the final say on the field, and I’ve got to answer for it. If I’m going to answer for something, I’m going to do it my way.”
The list of managers who can say things like that, and really mean it, gets shorter every year.