3:40 PM Eastern
The main news conference stage here at The Dolphin has only been used once so far today, and it was for a ceremony celebrating the contributions of four managers who retired following the 2010 season. Bud Selig MC’d the appreciation of Cito Gaston, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella and Bobby Cox, who had to leave Orlando yesterday because of a family emergency.
Between them, the managers own eight World Series rings (four for Torre, two for Gaston, one each for Cox and Piniella), and the argument could be made that all four of them are Cooperstown-bound. I think Cox and Torre are shoo-ins, and Piniella probably is, too. Cito believes that his status as the first African-American to manage a World Series winner will get him into the Hall as well, albeit post-humously. (I shouldn’t have to do this, but please note that’s not a shot at Cito or a subtle way of saying he’s arrogant – he stated that with a laugh and a smile on his face, as opposed to some defiant stance. I don’t hate the guy.)
The news conference was swell, and showed what a small world baseball is. Cito was a minor-league teammate of Cox’s and a major-league teammate of Torre’s, and when Gaston took over the Blue Jays in 1989, he was thought to be keeping the seat warm for Piniella – the guy Pat Gillick really wanted, but George Steinbrenner wouldn’t let him go.
Everyone had lovely things to say about each other, their careers and the game – you can hear the full remarks of all three managers who were in attendance right here:
After the formal part of the ceremony, the assemblage got a chance for some relative alone time with Cito, and he opined on several subjects. The biggest surprise to me was that Cito thanked the recently-deceased Sparky Anderson for pushing him to take the Jays’ job full-time. It’s a famous story that Gaston was only hired to replace the fired Jimy Williams on an interim basis in 1989, and that he didn’t even want the job, but the 12-24 Blue Jays surged to six wins in their first eight games under Cito, and he took the full-time gig despite his initial misgivings. Today, Gaston said that Anderson, who had been his third-base coach for a year in San Diego, really twisted his arm to get him to take the job and see what he could do with it. What he did with it was become just the third manager in the post-expansion era to win four division titles in five seasons, joining Earl Weaver and Sparky himself.
Cito said that 1989 team was the most fun of all the clubs he managed, because he had a different relationship with the players since he’d moved into the big chair from having been a coach. He liked all the weapons they had, with great pitching from Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and John Cerutti (who led that team with a 3.07 ERA), power from league home run leader Fred McGriff, and speed from guys like Nelson Liriano, Tony Fernandez and the duo of Tom Lawless and Mookie Wilson, each of whom was 12-for-13 stealing bases that year. And of course, Duane Ward and Tom Henke were down in the bullpen to finish things up. Cito said that team had nothing left in the playoffs after recovering from that 12-24 start to win the division.
His biggest disappointment was the 1991 ALCS. Gaston was classy enough not to name names, and to say that he faults himself for the Jays not winning that series with Minnesota – a team they beat 8 out of 12 times in the regular season – but if you happen to see a bus today, take a look underneath it for Tom Candiotti. Gaston says he blames himself for the loss in ’91 because he “started the wrong guy.” That’s a direct reference to late-season pick-up and league ERA runner-up Candiotti getting the start in the opener of the series and, for some reason, refusing to rely on his knuckleball. Candiotti didn’t make it out of the third inning in Game 1 and got roughed up again in the Twins’ clinching Game 5. Jays fans still wonder why Candiotti basically abandoned the knuckleball and so, apparently, does Cito.
Gaston also talked about how much he loved Shaun Marcum, and that if he hadn’t been traded, he’d have been his choice to start Opening Day next season (not that that’s Cito’s choice anymore, but you get the point). He believes, though, that a healthy Jesse Litsch could go an awfully long way towards replacing Marcum’s production, reiterating the fact that Litsch was every bit as good as Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett down the stretch in 2008.
He says that the San Francisco Giants just proved that great pitching can shut down great hitting, and therefore the Blue Jays aren’t all that far away from being a great team, and laughed when he was asked how much “senior advising” he’s been doing in his new role. Evidently, Cito will be paid for the next four years to try to not get in the way too much.
Gaston welled up when he spoke about what he had to go through as a young player, working his way through the minor leagues in such places as Greenville, South Carolina, Shreveport, Louisiana and Richmond, Virginia in the 1960s, and said that winning the “Mr. Jackie Robinson Award” was every bit as fulfilling as winning the World Series.
He also welled up when he spoke about Tom Cheek – we find out tomorrow afternoon if Cheek won this year’s Ford C. Frick Award and will join Pat Gillick and (more than likely) Roberto Alomar in Cooperstown next summer, by the way. Unfortunately, it won’t be a clean sweep, as Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun was beaten out for the J.G. Taylor Spink Award despite being a finalist for the second straight year.
Cito and Cheek were great friends, and just this week Gaston was out golfing with longtime Blue Jays’ clubhouse manager Jeff Ross in Florida when they were reminded of Tom, who always used to warn them that even though it doesn’t look like there’s wind on the 185-yard par-3 eighth hole at East Lake Woodlands, there always is. He beamed when recalling the story and when he thought about what winning the Frick Award would do for Tom’s wife Shirley, the entire Cheek family and Toronto as a whole. Keep your fingers crossed!
I sent 20 or so Cito clips in to the radio station, you can listen to them all right here:
In about an hour, Alex Anthopoulos will meet with the assemblage to give his daily report and we’ll find out about all the things that he’s not able to comment on, and maybe some of the things that he is! I’ll sum it up for you all right here later this evening, make sure you check back!