On many clubs, the first-base coach is a former player who remains popular with the fans. It's almost an honourary position, with limited responsibilities. Not so with the Blue Jays, who want every coach to be an experienced teacher. John Gibbons, who has manned the post in Toronto since last summer, has paid his professional dues, and then some. Don't let the laid-back country-boy exterior fool you; a shrewd baseball mind lurks beneath.
As a minor-league manager in the Mets' system, Gibbons won championships in the Appalachian League and Florida State League, then guided AAA Norfolk to a division title in 2001. The 41-year old is also unbeaten as a bench boss in the majors -- when Carlos Tosca attended his daughter's graduation in early May, "Gibby" stepped in as interim skipper for two straight wins. After watching him hit ground balls during batting practice prior to a recent game, Batter's Box caught up with #58 in the Jays' dugout.
A first-round draft pick who spent most of his 11-year playing career as a Mets' organizational soldier, Gibbons felt ready to return to the Big Apple. Mentioned by many observers as a candidate to coach or manage in the majors, he was overlooked by ex-Mets GM Steve Phillips after three successful years at the helm of their top farm team. It was time for a change, but coming to Canada -- and leaving the dugout for the bullpen -- was a surprise. "I wasnít even the coach, I started last year as the catcher out there," he recalls, shaking his head slowly. "It wasnít the ideal spot, but when they made some changes last summer, they moved me over to first base. Itís worked out real nice."
Gibbons was a 19-year-old in his second pro season when he first met the man who would be instrumental in altering his career path two decades later. "I go way back with J.P. Ricciardi, who was an old A-ball roommate of mine," he drawled, smiling at the memory, "So I was happy when he called and brought me over here. There are some funny roads in this game."
The Jays and their fans have pinned the nickname ďCrashĒ on veteran catcher Greg Myers, but if anyone resembles the fictional "Crash" Davis of the movie Bull Durham, it's Gibbons. The native of Great Falls, Montana played 1,178 minor league games and socked 107 homers, 18 of them in 1983 with Jackson in the Texas League. Young John got his first taste of "the Show" at 22, making a strong impression in spring training and going north with the Mets. After just ten games, he went on the DL with an elbow injury, then was optioned to AAA Tidewater when he was ready to return. There wasn't much room on the big-league roster, even for an excellent defensive catcher and International League all-star, behind Hall-of-Famer Gary Carter.
"I had a very brief major league career, and it was kind of frustrating, but the Mets were just that strong in the 80ís, and it was tough to crack a team like that," says Gibbons with a shrug. The next call from New York came in the heat of the 1986 pennant race, and he was ready.
"I really canít describe it, it was such a thrill. Gary went down in August; I think he was playing first base and dove for a bunt or something, and dislocated his thumb. I got called up and stayed with the team right through the postseason. Back then, they could only carry 24 men, so I wasnít actually on the roster the whole time. I was more like the 25th man, in case anyone got hurt."
"Gibby" filled in more than capably, hitting .474 in eight games, but downplays his contribution. "I didnít play that often, but when I did, I got a few hits here and there, and hit my first home run, off Michael Jackson of the Phillies." He neglects to add that he went 4-for-4 that day, with two doubles, but does admit, "It was a dream come true. I wish it would have been longer and more successful, but I can say I made it. Plus I got a ring out of the deal, and was a small part of a team thatís been recognized as one of the best ever."
After returning to Tidewater in 1987, where he hit a couple of grand slams to become the franchise leader with five, "Crash" Gibbons was traded to the Dodgers, spending the 1988 season in Albuquerque. The next year, he joined Texas as a free agent and was assigned to Oklahoma City. With the writing on the wall, he gave it one more shot. "My last year of playing was 1990 with the Phillies AAA team, then after that season, the Metsí roving catching instructor job opened up, and I was fortunate enough to get it."
The personable Gibbons was glad to stay in the game he loves. "I always thought Iíd like to coach when my playing career was over. Whether it was high school, college, professional, it was something I wanted to do." After three years as a roving minor-league instructor, he became a manager at 32, and has been a winner at every level. "I thought I might get back to the big leagues in New York, but here I am. I love it in Toronto, and thereís some very good people here. Weíre going to ride this out as long as we can."
Hir responsibilities include much more than slapping hitters on the back and welcoming them to first base. "I oversee the catching, and during games I help position the outfielders." His role as catching instructor changes, according to the time of year. "We do most of our work in spring training, going over all parts of the game and getting the guys in shape. During the season, we might do a little throwing, fine-tune some things, whatever they might need. Itís such a gruelling position, and thereís only two of them, so a lot of what we do is just try to keep them sharp."
Asked whether Josh Phelps still works out behind the plate, Gibbons, looking fit enough to strap on the gear himself, grinned diplomatically. "He does some throwing to the bases to keep him sharp, and some day, maybe when weíve got Myers at DH and Wilson catching, if anything happens, Josh would be the guy."
The coach then raved about a couple of young prospects with bright futures. "From an organizational standpoint, youíve got to feel pretty good about our catching. When these guys move on, Kevin Cash and Guillermo Quiroz should be ready to step in. Theyíre both very talented catchers defensively, real mobile, with great arms. The big key is how they will hit. Especially in the American League, baseballís become so offensive-minded. Itís not like youíre ignoring defence, but youíre really looking for the bats. Quiroz is off to a great start in AA, and Cash is beginning to pick it up in AAA. Weíre in very good shape for the next few years."
On a team that eschews the stolen base, the first-base coach isn't required to spend hours poring over video tape of pitchers' pickoff moves. "Gibby" displays a sense of humour about his job. "Iíve been called a glorified bat boy. I hold the batting gloves, the wrist guards, that sort of thing."
With laughter from a few eavesdropping players still ringing in the background, he elaborated, "Itís not nearly as much responsibility or pressure as the third base job, but thereís some little things you can do. Iíll point out where an outfielderís playing, and remind the runner we can take an extra base, or tag on a fly ball to get into scoring position. I keep a close eye on Carlos Tosca on the bench; every so often he might flash me a sign to hold a guy, or turn him loose."
The respected Gibbons, who stepped into the third-base coaching box for a couple of games when Brian Butterfield was ill, was quick to deflect any credit for his role in the Blue Jays' turnaround. "Iím just playing a small part, doing what I can to help the club. Everyone around here is great to deal with. Itís a lot of fun coming to work right now."
Since last June, it's been plenty of fun just to watch John and his colleagues work. The team's steady improvement is no coincidence -- their contract extensions through next season are well-deserved. Success doesn't go unnoticed, so the coaches will inevitably be offered promotions elsewhere, but Toronto fans (and players) hope they stick around for a long time. The Jays couldn't be in better hands.
This is the second in an exclusive four-part series of interviews by Kent Williams with the Toronto Blue Jaysí coaching staff. The first, with Brian Butterfield, was posted last Tuesday. Installment three, a conversation with Gil Patterson, will run next Tuesday.