The right man at the right time

There’s a “For Sale” sign on franchise cornerstone Roy Halladay, the optimism sparked by the Toronto Blue Jays’ torrid start to the season has been replaced by harsh reality in recent weeks, and the future points more to rebuilding than contending.

Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston watches from the dugout during the third inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles. Gaston may very well be the right man at the right time for an organization trying to chart it's future.

TORONTO — There’s a “For Sale” sign on franchise cornerstone Roy Halladay, the optimism sparked by the Toronto Blue Jays’ torrid start to the season has been replaced by harsh reality in recent weeks, and the future points more to rebuilding than contending.

Tumultuous times at the Rogers Centre? You bet.

But as the Blue Jays appear destined for a 16th straight year out of the post-season and attendance shrinks, manager Cito Gaston is the calm at the centre of the storm.

The team that was 27-14 on May 18, leading the American League East by 31/2 games, is long gone, now closer to last-place Baltimore than first-place Boston.

With no payroll increase in the cards for 2010, and perhaps facing another spending cut this winter, there’s a possibility the club will be stripped down for a major retooling, if not a total rebuild.

And if that does indeed happen it will be Gaston, in his second stint as Blue Jays manager, who lays the new foundation. Once knocked for his handling of young players, he deserves credit for allowing Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Ricky Romero, among others, to blossom under his watch.

He’s also got far more out of the current roster than anyone expected, and will remain an icon in the city, even if he can’t lead the Jays out of the wilderness, let alone to a World Series championship for the third time.

So Gaston may very well be the right man at the right time for an organization trying to chart its future. At 65, he’s got a life full of experiences in the game to draw on as he faces what could be his greatest and — with a contract that ends after 2010 — perhaps final challenge as a big-league manager.

Dusty Baker thought he was ready for anything when he started playing pro ball in 1967. But when the 18-year-old from Riverside, Calif., arrived at camp with the double-A Austin Braves, he quickly found himself over his head.

It wasn’t the baseball — it was the racism. And he might not have lasted without Gaston’s guidance.

“He was a new signing like me but I’d never been to the South and Cito was from Texas, so he knew how things were,” Baker, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, explained recently. “I played my first game in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1967, at a time when civil rights, racial unrest, Lester Maddox and George Wallace, Vietnam were all big.

“They had a mental institution right next to the stadium and once a week they would bring all the people from the hospital and sit them in right field, and I was playing right field. I dropped the first ball hit to me and they called me some names I ain’t never heard before. I started crying. I wanted to go home back to California. I called my mama and said, ‘I’m going to quit, I don’t like this.’ Then Cito came over and told me, ‘Come hang with me kid,’ and he took care of me and Ralph Garr from that point on every day.

“His demeanour, his baseball intellect, his outlook on things — he’s helped me a lot.”

When Gaston speaks, you really have to pay attention. Sometimes his voice is hardly more audible than a whisper, and while it’s not exactly by design, it serves him well.

“I guess I must have gotten it from my mom,” Gaston said. “I know when someone’s screaming, no one listens. But if you talk soft, people lean forward to hear what you have to say and they have more patience to hear what you have to say. Why do people listen to me? I don’t know. I’m consistent, though. I’ll stay after a guy if I see something that’s not right, to the point sometimes where he probably gets upset with me. But I’ll say, ‘I don’t care, all I care about is you getting better.’

“I live my life to treat people the way you like to be treated, and it’s very easy to do. I really don’t understand people who can’t do that because if you want to be treated poorly, then treat people poorly. If he thinks I’m a jerk, he’s not going to listen to a word I say.

“To me it’s very simple.”

Any discussion with Gaston about hitting starts with “having a plan.” He adamantly believes batters should go up to the plate intent on hitting a specific pitch, look for it, and never guess about what’s going to come out of a pitcher’s hand. He often laments that he didn’t “learn how to hit” until late in his playing career.

The approach comes from a rant by his general manager in 1975.

“Eddie Robinson,” Gaston said, smiling at the memory. “It was in my first year back with the Braves and we came off a bad West Coast trip, and Eddie had a meeting. He was the GM so it was a little unusual.

“During the meeting he says, and I’ll be nice — he used the F-word, ‘Do you guys ever look for a pitch to hit?’ And it just kind of opened my eyes.

“So I was thinking, man, what did he mean by that? Most of the time you’re taught to look fastball and adjust to breaking ball. You find out real quick in the big leagues you can’t hit like that. So I asked him what he meant by that and he said, ‘You walk up to the plate and if you want to hit the fastball, hit the fastball, and anything else you take.”’

Gaston has been preaching that approach ever since.

Gaston’s first stint as Blue Jays manager ended with his firing late in the 1997 season. Incredibly, a man who had led his team to four division crowns and consecutive World Series championships in ’92 and ’93 didn’t manage another game until he replaced the fired John Gibbons on June 20, 2008.

Why? Some believe Gaston never got the credit he deserved because those teams were supposed to win, that anything less would have been a failure. Others criticized his game management skills. Some wondered if race had something to do with it.

There were lots of job interviews, and he decided to stop going to them several years back so he wouldn’t feel like he was a token minority candidate. He decided he wouldn’t take another job unless it was flat out given to him, which is what happened when general manager J.P. Ricciardi called him last summer.

It wasn’t long before he was given an extension through 2010. It might be his last contract. Then again, it might not.

“Trust me, before J.P. called me up and asked me to come back I was pretty happy at home doing the things I want to do, travelling, playing golf and spending time with my grandkids,” said Gaston. “I think about how many more years do I want to do this. I’m 65 and I’m enjoying it, I’m not exhausted from doing this stuff. I’m up every day and have a lot of energy in what I’m doing, so I guess it depends on what they want to do after next year, too.

“To come back and do this for 2 1-2 years, if it is the last year next year, it’s fine, but if they ask me to stay around another year or two I might consider doing that. If they don’t, I won’t be hurt by it at all. I’ll just go and probably do something else in the organization. This city is always going to be my home, I’m always going to come here in the summertime.”

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