John Gibbons is in his second go-round as the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. The 56-year-old former catcher skippered the A.L. East team from 2004 to -08, and he’s been back at the helm since the beginning of the 2013 season. There have been a pair of postseason berths along the way — in 2015 and 2016 — and he heads into the waning days of the current campaign with a managerial record, exclusively with Toronto, of 789 wins and 782 losses.
It’s no secret that this will be his last year on the job. While nothing has been made official, the Blue Jays are expected to replace Gibbons once the season concludes. He won’t be fading into the sunset, though — at least not right away. Gibbons hopes to stay in the game, in one capacity or another, for the foreseeable future. As for his pair of tenures in Toronto, and the roads he traveled to get there… it’s safe to say that he’s enjoyed the ride.
John Gibbons: “In 1990, I was in Triple-A with the Phillies and kind of at the end of my rope as a player. Being a catcher with a little big-league experience, you can always find a job, but I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted. My original organization, the New York Mets, called. They wanted to know if I was interested in being their roving catching instructor. I debated whether I wanted to keep playing a little longer or get into coaching. I decided to go into coaching.
“After I roved for a couple of years, the Mets gave me a managing opportunity in Kingsport, Tennessee, in the Appalachian League. That was actually the first league I’d played in, back in the day. Things just kind of took off from there.
“I ended up with the Toronto Blue Jays when J.P. Ricciardi was hired as the general manager. I was originally in the bullpen, but then they made a couple of changes and I was the first-base coach. A few years later they made more changes, and I was the manager. So it’s been a long, crazy career. It wasn’t a very good one as a player, and from there it’s been what it’s been.
“Darrell Johnson — he used to mange the Red Sox, and out in Seattle — was [an influence]. He was kind of the go-to guy for the Mets front office when I was in the minor leagues. He spent a lot of time in Triple-A and also bounced around to some of the other minor-league towns. He was there to help the coaches and managers. You’d ask him questions and get a different viewpoint on how to do some things.
“Chuck Hiller is another guy. Chuck played second base in the big leagues for a number of years. He was with the Giants, and if I’m not mistaken, he was the first National League hitter to hit a grand slam in the World Series. Chuck was my first manager as a player — again, that was in Kingsport, Tennessee — and then, when I got into coaching, he was kind of a consultant. He’d tour the minor leagues. We were roommates in instructional league, so I got a chance to spend a lot of time with him. He was always kind of Whitey Herzog’s right-hand man. Wherever Whitey went, Chuck was his first-base coach.
“I’ve picked up a lot of good things from a lot of people. And I can’t leave out Jimmy Leyland. He’s one of my all-time favorites. By the time he retired, I thought he was the best in the business. We still touch base every now and again, and I might bounce a few things off of him. While you have your own ideas of how to do things, there are times you might want to get some perspective from one of the all-time greats. He’s been through it. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve come across some really good baseball men.
“The only big-league manager I played for was Davey Johnson. I liked the way he did things. He was a very confident guy. Didn’t say a whole lot, but he was on the ball. Davey is actually from my hometown, San Antonio, Texas. He’s a very sharp, smart guy. I heard he was even into [analytics] as a player, back in his Baltimore days. He was kind of ahead of the game that way. And Davey managed crazy, wild teams in New York, too, and held it all together.
“In the game of baseball… I mean, probably your No. 1 job is to hold it all together. You do that every day. It’s not like some of the other sports, where you play a couple games a week, or football, where it’s just once a week. Baseball is volatile because it’s every day. There are the ups and downs, and the struggles and frustrations that players have. You have to stay on top of that.
“I have [had confrontations with players]. Sometimes you have to deal with things head on. Naturally, you look back and wonder if you could have handled a few things differently. Usually you could have, but sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.
“One thing that stands out when you first start managing in the big leagues is how fast things happen. If you get caught off guard, or if you hesitate, or are a little late on something — especially with the bullpen — the game can get out of hand real quick. You’re trying to watch everything that’s happening on the field all at once. That’s why you have such a big coaching staff in the big leagues. There’s a lot going on, and everybody has their own particular area. But the more you do it, the easier it gets. Actually, that’s probably not accurate. It doesn’t get any easier, you’re just a little better prepared.
“As a manager, you have to look at your personnel and adapt your game accordingly. I’ve only been in the American League East, and I’m well aware that any time you go up against the Red Sox, the Yankees, and in recent years the Baltimore Orioles, you’ve got to slug it out. You’re playing in great home-run-hitting parks. To keep pace and win, you’ve got to be able to score quick and score in bunches.
“In Tampa… for the longest time, Tampa was the one unique team in our division. Going back to Joe Maddon’s days there, they were more about speed. They’d hit some home runs, but they were speed, defense, and a lot of that. And even they evolved into a power-hitting team, although this year it’s been a little different. But if you’re going to be in the American League East — and really, you could say overall in the American League — it’s a slugging league.
“Different managers have different styles. They always have. I was a Sparky Anderson fan. Earl Weaver. Billy Martin. Back then, managers had big personalities and were a big part of the show. I loved watching the arguments they had. That’s all changed now, but those were the big guys back in that day.
“Which of those three [am I most similar to]? I wish I could say at least one. They’re some of the top managers in the history of the game, so I can’t really compare myself to any of them. But personality-wise… if I had to pick one of them, maybe Sparky? That’s a little bit of a reach, but he seemed like a fun-loving guy that seemed to get along with his players. Billy would fight you. He’d fight the umpires. Heck, he’d fight his own players. But again, things are different now. Back then, managers had a lot more control than they do nowadays. A lot of that is because of the money, probably.
“There are players who come along that you know could manage someday. Mark DeRosa could manage in the big leagues. J.P. Arencibia. Scotty Rolen. That wasn’t his desire, but I always thought he could do it. David Eckstein. There are a few guys. Here in this room… Russell Martin. If Russell ever had that desire, he’d be a helluva big-league manager.
“It’s not as long of a road to get there, to manage in the big leagues, as it used to be. But the guys I just mentioned had good playing careers. When their playing days are over, a lot of guys want to just kick back and enjoy their families for a change. I stayed in the game and coached, then managed. I really enjoy what I’m doing, but eventually I’ll be kicking back, too.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.