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TORONTO — “You’ve never heard of a bad eulogy.”
That’s how John Gibbons explained the fact Blue Jays fans cheered for him every time he came to the mound on Tuesday night.
It’s was the kind of self-deprecating joke Gibbons makes all the time — the implication this time being that everything looks a little rosier at the end. The tough times are easily forgotten, especially if there are a few highlights to focus on — and Gibby certainly had some highlights.
Gibbons presided over two Blue Jays playoff runs, one of which broke a multi-decade streak of futility. Even though it was in doubt in the end, he had a winning record in parts of 11 seasons. The Gibbons years will be remembered as good years, even if there were some ugly years mixed in.
Honestly, we don’t know how good a manager John Gibbons was. In a sport where measurement is so precise some find it overwhelming and distasteful, we still don’t know how to judge a manager. Some are overt disasters like Bobby Valentine and some are so consistently successful that it seems obtuse to try and deny their prowess like Terry Francona. Gibbons falls in the middle with the vast majority of the men who’ve occupied his position in baseball history.
As a result, when we remember Gibbons, his actual day-in day-out managing will end up being something of an afterthought. Instead it will be his mannerisms that Blue Jays fans will talk about years from now, the way he walked on his balky catcher’s hip, his signature Texan accent and cadence, his liberal use of winks, and the way he leaned back in his chair.
“With the fans I’m always surprised because they’ve kind of taken to me,” he said on Wednesday in his farewell press conference.
In the days to come, you will hear kind media recounting of Gibbons’ tenure, because he was good to the media. He wouldn’t fill notebooks with erudite quotations, but he would entertain even the most ill-founded question in a respectful way, he would joke about world events and other Toronto sports to help break up the monotony, and he treated his pregame meetings as a part of his routine he enjoyed as opposed to a professional obligation.
“I’ve really enjoyed you guys’s company and we’ve had fun together,” he said. “We don’t always agree on things, but we weren’t supposed to. If we agree on things it’s not going to work.”
One day he would be commentating on the latest bobblehead, the next he would be trying to convert those assembled into country music aficionados by playing one of his favourites by Billy Ray Cyrus, the next there would be a spirited conversation about the political affiliations of the Toronto newspapers. At times there were lengthy pauses, but the silences were comfortable. Gibbons was just as happy to sit and chew gum while holding court as give his thoughts on Justin Smoak’s defence for the 37th time.
It’s possible that the myth of Gibbons, as told by the media, will exceed the manager, but there’s also no crime in reporting what you see. People will remark on how likable Gibbons was because he is truly likable. If it was all a facade, then it was a hell of a facade and he deserves credit for the acting.
It would be a mistake to spend too long dwelling on Gibbons the manager, anyway. He was probably fairly good at his job. He got one of only 30 such positions on the planet. He was well-liked by his players and he had some success at the highest level. It’s also possible he could have been an asset to this club going forward as a strong communicator on a young team that might need some guidance.
“I actually think I would have been the perfect guy for a rebuild because of the way I function with young kids,” he said, while acknowledging it was the right time to move on. “I’ve heard the argument against, but I don’t buy it.”
We know that he wasn’t a game-changer, though. His tactics were rather conventional and there isn’t going to be a John Gibbons coaching tree based on his unique philosophies on how to win a baseball game. He tried to win the way many others before him have, and more often than not — if barely — he did.
In his farewell press conference on Wednesday the choices he made on the field weren’t discussed. Instead questions about how we got here, what the next steps are, and his relationship with the fans and the city were discussed. That’s what fans are going to care about, because they are in invested in John Gibbons the man.
Fans will miss watching a man who seemed the most low-key human in the building on any given night get in the face of an umpire with enough fury — genuine or not — to get himself ejected, or just his chuckle after a particularly on-the-nose answer. They won’t be nostalgic for the abstract concept of above .500 baseball, or the way he was open-minded about putting his best hitter in the No. 2 spot before most other managers.
Gibby was more special for who he was than what he did. He was proud of the way he went about his work, more than what it amounted to.
“I look in the mirror a lot, and if there’s one thing I can say is since I’ve been doing this I’ve been a fair guy. I don’t think you’ll ever run across a player that’s played for me that’ll tell ya I wasn’t fair as I could be. Those are the important things to me.”
That’s the type of person you miss, long after the eulogy is over.
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