Current and former Toronto Blue Jays, as well as baseball legend Hank Aaron and commissioner Bud Selig, sent along messages of gratitude and congratulations to outgoing manager Cito Gaston on Wednesday night.
The Jays held a 35-minute ceremony prior to their game against the New York Yankees, the home finale as manager for Gaston, the first African-American to manage a World Series winner.
Just over 33,000 fans at Rogers Centre treated the 66-year-old to at least three separate ovations as he stood beside his wife Linda.
"I want to thank you fans for the memories, for without you, there would be no memories," said Gaston. "I want you to remember: We need you again. We need you to come out, support this team and put this team back where it used to be. We want to be in the dugout next year celebrating [a playoff berth]."
Joe Carter, Devon White, George Bell and Pat Hentgen were among the former Blue Jays on hand for the ceremony. Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Dave Winfield and Tony Fernandez sent their well wishes and thanks via pre-recorded messages.
Led Jays to 2 titles
Major League Baseball commissioner Selig also congratulated Gaston on his lengthy playing and managerial career.
"You've been a great credit from your playing days on," Selig said in a videotaped message. "You managed the Blue Jays to their two World championships. Your career from start to finish has been just extraordinary. Congratulations, Cito. I wish you the best in the future, and I look forward to our paths crossing in the near future."
Gaston spent over a decade in the National League beginning in 1967 with the Atlanta Braves, where, like many other young African-American players, he was mentored by future home run king Aaron.
"Congratulations to you in whatever you decide to do," Aaron said via video. "Just remember — don't forget about old friends, and I want to remain your friend."
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker and Atlanta skipper Bobby Cox also appeared in the video tribute. Baker was also a member of the Braves with Gaston and Aaron and played in the minors with Toronto's manager in the mid-1960s.
Cox managed the Jays for several years before taking over the Braves in 1990. He is also scheduled to leave the dugout at the end of this season, after over 2,500 career wins and a World Series title.
'Everything is good'
Current members of the Blue Jays took turns applying black marker to their upper lips, emulating Cito's ever-present mustache.
Team president Paul Beeston and Rogers Communications Inc. CEO Nadir Mohamed presented Gaston with four plane tickets anywhere in the world as well as a portrait by Vernon Wells Sr.
Toronto would go on to win the game 8-4.
Wednesday's farewell began with him arriving at the ballpark around 1:15 p.m., signing some autographs, meeting with well-wishers and chatting with his players.
The busy nature of his schedule kept things from really sinking in, he said during a 30-minute chat with media, during which he repeatedly thanked fans for their support and expressed his love for the city of Toronto and the Blue Jays organization.
"I'm cool, I'm OK. This is OK," he said. "It's not like I'm dead. It's just that I'm moving on to do something else. I'm fine; everything is good."
His retirement after the current season was announced last winter, and his team has far exceeded expectations, entering Wednesday's contest with an 81-76 record. Gaston took an all-time mark of 909-850 compiled in two stints as manager into the game.
The 66-year-old served as Blue Jays hitting coach from 1982 until he was promoted to manager after the firing of Jimy Williams in 1989.
Gaston was in charge until his dismissal late in the '97 season, returning in June 2008 when John Gibbons was fired.
The so-called Thank You, Cito night was like a parting gift, although he'll remain with the club as an adviser for the next four years.
"It's a lot different because I'm leaving on my own terms this time," he said. "It's not too often you get a chance to go out this way."With files from The Canadian Press