Cito Gaston: A class act and quiet leader
Manager's 12 years in Blue Jays dugout filled with highs, lows
Scott Richmond wasn't like many 12-year-olds growing up in North Vancouver in 1991, playing minor hockey and cheering every move of top Canucks forwards Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure.
Instead, the play of Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter and John Olerud on the baseball field, along with the work of Toronto Blue Jays manager Clarence (Cito) Gaston, caught the aspiring pitcher's eye.
"I've been watching the Jays since I was a little kid, so when I was starting to learn to love baseball, he was the manager of my favourite team," Richmond, now 31, said of Gaston, who made Richmond's major league dream come true in 2009.
"The team looked like it had so much chemistry, and Cito let the guys play the way they could play."
Richmond planned to be in front of a television again Wednesday night for Thank You Cito night, when the Blue Jays recognize Gaston's illustrious career prior to his final home game as skipper.
Gaston, 66, has twice managed the Blue Jays covering 12 seasons, highlighted by four American League East division titles, two AL pennants and consecutive World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
This year, the native of San Antonio, Texas, watched a young starting pitching staff surprise many, oversaw an offence nearing the franchise mark in home runs and was partly responsible for helping outfielder Jose Bautista change his approach to hitting, resulting in a career season of 52 home runs and 119 runs batted in through Sept. 28.
The soft-spoken Gaston will leave the dugout for the final time Oct. 3 at Target Field in Minnesota, closing the book on a managerial career that includes more than 900 victories.
"To get an opportunity to play for the Jays and have [Gaston] as my manager was a dream come true because he was the first manager I saw manage in the big leagues [as a child]," Richmond, who broke into the majors with Toronto in 2008 and made five starts, said over the phone from Los Angeles.
Gaston rewarded the right-hander again the following season, naming Richmond the team's fifth starter out of spring training. After a respectable start to the 2009 campaign, he missed a month with shoulder problems and later returned, only to spend this season in the minors trying to bounce back.
As a rookie last season, Richmond appreciated Gaston letting him figure out situations for himself — thus improving his mental toughness — while others provided advice and instruction.
"He's a quiet leader," said Richmond, who hopes to compete for a spot in the Jays' starting rotation in 2011. "He's not big on the whole rah-rah kind of thing, but he'll let you know when you've done well."
While Gaston demanded a lot from his players over the years, many considered him a father figure who offered valuable advice.
"He's always preached family first," said Richmond, who had stints at A, AA and AAA this season. "He made sure we understood this is our job and this is a sport, and that someday you're going to have a tight family to go back to."
Considered a class act by many, Gaston also has his critics, was often second-guessed and received very little of the credit when the Blue Jays had success. The good times included:
- Joe Carter's famous walk-off home run off Philadelphia closer Mitch Williams in the ninth inning of Game 6 to win the 1993 World Series
- Dave Winfield's game-winning double in Game 6 of the 1992 World Series at Atlanta that scored Devon White and Alomar for a 4-3, 11-inning victory.
- Alomar's two-run home run off Oakland A's closer Dennis Eckersley in the top of the ninth to give Toronto a 4-3 lead it wouldn't relinquish to take a 3-1 series lead in the 1992 American League Championship Series.
- Taking over from the fired Jimy Williams in his first stint as Blue Jays manager in 1989 and catching Baltimore to win the AL East in the 161st game of the season.
Gaston stayed on as manager until 1997 when former groundskeeper-turned general manager Gord Ash fired him. He resurfaced in 2000 for two seasons as hitting coach — a position he first held in Toronto in the early 1980s — after serving as the team's club ambassador and special assistant to president and chief executive officer Paul Godfrey.
In 2008, Gaston returned to manage the Blue Jays following the firing of John Gibbons, inheriting a 35-39 team struggling to hit and leading them to a 51-37 mark.
"I think going with a guy with Cito's experience was important to this club," another former Blue Jays GM, J.P. Ricciardi, once said.
In the final weeks of last season, there were reportedly major problems in the relationship between the players and Gaston, with one player saying there was "constantly negativity" coming from the manager's office. Another noted that Gaston once said: "There aren't any good players in here."
Richmond recalled his Aug. 11, 2009, start at the new Yankee Stadium against the eventual World Series champions. He allowed three runs in six innings for a no-decision in a 7-5 Toronto loss, and wished Gaston had approached him after that game to offer some encouragement.
"You roll into Yankee Stadium for the first time in your career and … you're trying to do things the best you can," Richmond said. "If things don't go well the first time it's kind of nice to hear, 'Don't worry, we'll get 'em the next time [from the manager].'
"But my dad was tough on me [and] I've had tough coaches before and it always motivated me to work harder. That's the kind of attitude and mentality I've been used to my whole life, so it was no big change for me.
"A lot of guys really tried to step up their game and pitch really well for [Gaston]."
In other words, Thank You Cito.