Bob Elliott's Baseball: John Gibbons, Willie Nelson and me

The amiable and decent John Gibbons has left an indelible impression on Toronto after 11 seasons - in two stints - as manager of the Blue Jays.

The soon-to-be-former Blue Jays manager had a heart the size of Texas

John Gibbons salutes fans at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday following his final home game as manager of the Blue Jays. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Boston Red Sox were at the Rogers Centre in early August.

I left the batting cage area, heading for the first-base dugout and the elevator when I heard my name being called.

It was the Blue Jays' genial manager, John Gibbons, hooting at me as he has done before. We'd already spoken that day, so why did he want to speak again?

Gibbons wanted to know if I would join him to see Willie Nelson on Sept. 9 at Ontario Place. 

Me: "Sure, what time do you want to pick me up at the airport?

Gibbons: "The airport?

Me: "Yeah, you mentioned Air Canada now flies San Antonio-Toronto direct. I'll pick you up."

Gibbons: "Why would you pick me up at the airport?"

Me: "Because I read you were not making it out of this home stand."

Gibbons: "You know, even though you aren't here everyday, you are still a pain. I'm not going anywhere the rest of this season."

We both laughed.

There were lots of laughs when Gibbons was around whether it was Gibbons 1.0 — as he moved from bullpen catcher to first-base coach to manager under Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi. Or Gibbons 2.0 — when GM Alex Anthopoulos was spotted lunching in Yorkdale with Gibbons before hiring him.

John Gibbons receives a standing ovation:

After formally announcing he won't return to the Blue Jays in 2019, manager John Gibbons delivers his lineup card for the final time at Rogers Centre. 2:12

Gibbons made it through the rest of the home stand against the Red Sox, followed by a series against the Tampa Bay Rays. He survived the rest of August, the first September home stand which finished with a 6-2 win over the Cleveland Indians on a Sunday afternoon, and then that night the trip to see Willie Nelson. 

Gibbons survived the rest of the month until Wednesday's home finale when the Jays made it official. He would not be back for next season.

Great managerial stories

There are not a lot of great managerial stories nowadays. Like when manager Dick Williams of the Oakland A's headed to the mound as his reliever, Rollie Fingers, was getting ready to face Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench. 

With Bench at bat, Pete Rose on third, Bobby Tolan at first and the Reds leading 1-0, Tolan stole second. Out came Williams to speak to catcher Gene Tenace and Fingers. Williams pointed at Bench, then an empty first base and then the on-deck circle where Tony Perez stood. The count was 3-2.

Tenace returned behind home plate, put out his left arm to signal an intentional walk, and Fingers threw a slider for called strike three.

Believe it or not, today's manager does not do a lot when it comes to the lineup or deciding who pitches in the eighth with the lead. The manager's job is get his team to play hard, keep his clubhouse happy and run in-game decisions with the bullpen.

A World Series-winning manager told me 10 years ago: "I don't mind a guy who has never played coming down at 1:30 in the afternoon and giving me MY lineup, I don't mind a second guy coming down an hour later with MY lineup, but when the third guy comes down ... with a third version of MY lineup ... it really, really bothers me."

Instant respect

In Cathal Kelly's wonderful piece in The Globe and Mail, Gibbons named Scott Rolen as his all-time favourite player during his time with the Jays. That was a surprise since Gibbons only managed Rolen for 73 games in 2008. And on a June morning in Pittsburgh, Gibbons was fired by J.P. Ricciardi. He was replaced by Cito Gaston 2.0.

"I had goose bumps when George Poulis (former Blue Jays trainer, now with the Atlanta Braves) phoned and told me," said Rolen Wednesday, leaving an Indiana Hooisers practice where he is a volunteer coach.

"I don't have any brilliant words to explain why we clicked, but then Gibby doesn't have brilliant words either," Rolen said with a laugh. "We would sit in the dugout and talk about kids and about life.

John Gibbons on building a competitive team:

John Gibbons speaks with the Toronto media ahead of his final game managing the Blue Jays at home. 2:18

"We stayed in touch after he got fired, I ran into him when he was coaching the Kansas City Royals a few times. That's the one thing about John Gibbons: You know when he is pissed, you know where you stand and you know when he isn't. He has instant respect." 

Rolen described his manager as an "honest, humble guy," and Rolen played for a number of higher profile managers like Jim Fregosi, Terry Francona, Larry Bowa, Tony La Russa, Gaston and Dusty Baker. The Gold Glove third baseman said he and Gibbons spent a lot of time together in the spring of 2008.  

"I was at an age (33) where I wasn't trying to trick anyone and he certainly wasn't trying to trick anyone," Rolen said. "During spring games, our ideas pretty much lined up. We had a mutual respect for the game. I  had young kids, he has young kids.

"He knows there are human beings inside those the uniforms.""

Tire Tracks

I never really knew of Gibbons' nickname except for "Gibby."

In 2013 the Jays were pre-season picks after the trades that brought in Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson and R.A. Dickey.

But a few weeks into the season the Jays rolled into Yankee Stadium at 9-16, sitting in last, 8 1/2 games behind the Boston Red Sox heading into the final game of an April series. 

George King of the New York Post asked how Gibbons was holding up. Gibbons replied the newspapers at home weren't being too tough on him.

King, one of the quickest wits around the game, said, "Well, if you were in New York with that record, you might have tire tracks on your neck."

From that time on, King and I referred to Gibbons as "Tire Tracks."

John Gibbons on a rebuild:

John Gibbons speaks with the Toronto media ahead of his final game managing the Blue Jays at home. 0:57

Three years later, King and the Yankees were in town. I'd left the Toronto Sun, where I'd worked since 1985. Standing behind the batting cage were Jack Morris, Gibbons, King and myself.

King said to Gibbons: "It doesn't matter how many times you manage this team to the post-season, or how many games you win, you'll always be known as The Guy ... The Guy who ran Elliott off the baseball beat. Congratulations."

There was laughter all around.

Sense of humour

No matter how many lineups, no matter how big the analytic department grew, no matter how many losses were stacked on end, Gibbons had his sense of humour.

Even looking back on the most exciting inning in Blue Jays history — the 56-minute seventh of Game 5 of the 2015 American League Championship Series. That was where the Rangers went up a run when Russell Martin's toss back to Aaron Sanchez hit Shin-Soo Choo's bat, Rougned Odor scored from third, plate ump Dale Scott first said it was not a run and then the umps allowed it to score.

Jays fans did not handle it well, tossing beer cars from the 500 level, though most throws landed in the 100 level instead of the field. The game also included three Rangers errors, a bat-flip, in-your-face home run by Jose Bautista and twice the benches cleared as Sam Dyson admonished Edwin Encarnacion for trying to quiet the crowd and tapping Troy Tulowitzki on the rear when he popped up.

"I saw a beer can go by me on the way back to the dugout," Gibbons said the next spring. "I thought maybe Paul Beeston was throwing it at me. But then I saw that the can was full, so I knew it was not him."

Gets along with people

Gibbons gets along with people the way Charlie Manuel, late of the Philadelphia Phillies where he won a World Series, and Cleveland Indians, got along with people.

During the season Gibbons asked a Texas writer how his children were. The writer told him his sons were playing high school football and were considering universities.

When the Jays visited the Texas Rangers at Arlington he asked the same question. The writer rhymed off schools his son were considering, including a San Antonio school.

Once onto the field, hours from the start of a post-season game, Gibbons called the writer over and gave him his home and his cell numbers saying, "If your son goes comes to San Antonio give him my numbers. He can call me if he ever needs anything."

Complimentary comments

The most flack about Gibbons I ever received via email, text and phone came after the manager started off his post-game press conference on May 31, 2016 after a 4-1 win over the Yankees with news that I was leaving the Sun.

People knocked him for spilling the beans and scooping our paper. When I walked in at 3:30 p.m. that day, Bautista asked, "So what are you writing your final two days of work?"

Since everyone wanted to talk I was way behind and not in the room and never heard the nice things Gibbons said. The next night I was on Montreal radio and they played the clip. It shocked me how complimentary he was and it was tough not to get emotional. 

It was good I heard it first, so I was cool, calm and collected an hour later when Bob McCown played the same clip and then asked questions.

Willie Nelson - a common bond between Bob Elliott and John Gibbons. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

Off to see Willie

Blame Ottawa 67's coach Brian Kilrea for my love of country music. Before riding buses in 1976, I  liked The Stylistics, Gladys Knight & the Pips, James Brown and The Chi-Lites.

Kilrea had three albums he would take slide into his eight-track machine. One was Freddy Fender, or Freddy Bumper, as Kilrea called him and another was Annie Murray. The third was Willie Nelson's Red-Headed Stranger.

On a trip from Ottawa to London the hotel had a mix-up in rooms. So I shared a room with assistant coach Gord Hamilton who liked to sleep/snore to music. His choice? The Red-Headed Stranger. First thing I did after the trip was buy the album. 

So, yes I would go to see Willie Nelson. 

When we got to Ontario Place that night, Gibbons headed to the bar to buy a lemonade for him and a Diet Coke for me. 

We talked about Willie and I listed the numerous I had seen him. 

"This is my first," said Gibbons, who claims to be a Texan despite that.

During the intermission we spoke about the future.

"You know what they should do? They should hire Stubby Clapp," Gibbons said. Gibbons knew the Windsor, Ont.-born Clapp as a minor-league player and then coach at triple-A. 

Gibbons may not have heard Willie Nelson before, but he let out a Texas-sized yelp when the Texas flag was unfurled behind Nelson.

On a chilly night Willie showed in shirt sleeves and played for about an hour. He was the only one who sang. He is 86. Close ups of his fingers showed them moving on the cords like a 25-year-old.

After the concert we go in the taxi line when someone came over and introduced himself as Wayne:

Wayne: "You're John Gibbons? I would just like to thank you for all the wonderful memories and good times that you have brought to Toronto. You brought us back to where we where when Pat Gillick and Paul Beeston ran the team in the 1990s."

Gibbons: "Thanks."

Wayne: "I really hope you are back next year."

A few minutes later, as the cab line inched along, a woman cried out: "John Gibbons! John Gibbons!"

He turned slightly and said, "That bum."

No one was calling Gibbons a bum on John Gibbons day at the Rogers Centre Wednesday afternoon. 


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