The on-field woes of the Toronto Blue Jays were plain to see this season, but what hasn't been obvious is a brewing controversy between the team's players and its iconic manager, Cito Gaston.
Sources from all areas of the organization have told The Canadian Press the dysfunction crippling the Toronto Blue Jays front office extends all the way down into the clubhouse, where there are major problems in the relationship between the players and Gaston.
Those who agreed to talk to The Canadian Press about the friction between the manager and his players would do so only if their names weren't used. Some players wanted to speak to senior team officials first — and to avoid the news leaking at home in front of a large media contingent — before putting their names to the complaints.
But a series of interviews with front office and players done over the last few weeks indicate the problems are widespread and beyond the normal tensions that often build up between players and a manager over a long, losing season.
One player said there was simply "constant negativity" coming from the manager's office, while another noted that Gaston once said "there aren't any good players in here." Also at issue is Gaston's hands-off, in-game decision-making — a criticism that dates back to his first tenure as manager from 1989-97.
The problems are so deep that when one player was asked how many others felt the same way, he replied: "Just about everyone."
The frustration has boiled over to the point that one group is going to meet Blue Jays president Paul Beeston with their complaints during the team's final road trip this week.
Prior to Friday's game against the Orioles, Jays veteran Vernon Wells addressed the problems with the media.
"Obviously there are issues," he said, adding that the problems in the clubhouse are the worst he's seen during his time in Toronto.
Teammate Lyle Overbay said it was crucial for the team to solve the problems.
"It's something that we go through and we've got to figure it out because we're not going to be a very good team if this is going to go on," he said. "We've got to get it straightened out, either way."
No regrets: Gaston
For his part, Gaston said he has no regrets about how he's treated his players this season when he was asked in a general sense if he has any fence-mending to do.
"If guys aren't happy with whatever happened here, then they're looking at the wrong person," Gaston said after the team's final home game last Sunday.
"If they're unhappy, they have to look at themselves, because I certainly treated everybody in a way that I'd like to be treated as a player and how I'd like my manager to treat me. If they're grumbling, they're grumbling because they didn't do their jobs. They had opportunities."
Gaston wasn't immediately available to respond to the specific complaints by his players. General manager J.P. Ricciardi and Paul Beeston didn't immediately return calls seeking comment.
News of the locker-room unrest comes ironically during a torrid run on the field. The Jays (75-84) had won six straight heading into Friday night's meeting with the Orioles.
The emergence of the clubhouse problems comes as the Blue Jays grapple with a series of other fundamental issues, including the search for a permanent president and CEO to replace the interim Beeston, the future of Ricciardi and the charting of a direction for a franchise unsure if it's rebuilding, retooling or bumping up payroll to load up for a run at the post-season in 2010.
None may be as touchy as dealing with the 65-year-old Gaston, an icon from the Jays' World Series years, who may be the most popular person on the team right now, and has largely escaped criticism while critics focused on the GM and players.
Few people have served the Blue Jays for as long and with as much passion as Gaston, although many around the team believe it is time for him to step into the advisory ambassador role envisioned for him once his contract expires after the 2010 season.
Fractured coaching staff
Gaston returned to manage the Blue Jays following the firing of John Gibbons in June 2008, inheriting a 35-39 team struggling to hit and leading them to a 51-37 mark. He also inherited bench coach Brian Butterfield, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and bullpen coach Bruce Walton, and there is a split between that group and Gaston's crew of hitting coach Gene Tenace, third base coach Nick Leyva and first base coach Dwayne Murphy, adding to the dysfunction.
There were points of friction at the beginning, as players chafed under regular heavy criticism, but the strong finish last season helped cover up some of the ill-feeling. Then things picked up where they left off this year, and the relationship between players and manager grew worse as the losing snowballed after a 27-14 start.