With Gibbons, what's old is new again for Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It is at once the spring’s strangest sight and its most comfortable. Yes, the Blue Jays have pulled off the impossible: John Gibbons back as manager.

“First day was a little weird,” Gibbons says. “After that, it was like I never left.”

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He is now deep into his sixth spring as skipper for the Jays.

But first since 2008.

He was fired in June '08, worked three seasons as bench coach for the Royals and then spent last summer managing the Padres’ Double-A affiliate at home in San Antonio.

Then things got really bizarre.

When John Farrell split on the Jays in October to manage Boston, Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos asked Gibbons to come north and interview for a potential coaching job on the new manager’s staff.

Next thing Gibbons knew, Anthopoulos told him he’d like to name Gibbons as the manager.

“I was shocked,” Gibbons says. “To be honest, I didn’t think he could pull it off.

“I told him that.”

Standing in the clubhouse of a turbocharged team that will enter the season as World Series contenders, Anthopoulos laughs.

Yes, Anthopoulos acknowledges, Gibbons did tell him he didn’t think the GM could sell it upstairs. And when Anthopoulos told club president Paul Beeston what he would like to do, Beeston’s response was:

“Are you serious?”

As a matter of fact, yes.

Why not? Gibbons remains the third-winningest manager in franchise history at 305-305.

“He always had the respect of the players, he never lost the clubhouse and he ran the bullpen as well as anyone, in my opinion,” says Anthopoulos, who was an assistant to GM J.P. Ricciardi back then.

The Jays won more games than anyone in the majors during May 2008, going 20-10.

But they stumbled in June to the point where the organization decided, as so often happens in baseball, that a change had to be made.

Thing was, there wasn’t really any one particular thing the Jays faulted Gibbons for at the time. It was just change for the change's sake.

“We always talked after he was gone about what a good manager he was,” Anthopoulos said.

So with a team that he felt was ready to win -- after the Marlins trade brought in Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes -- Anthopoulos made his decision.

Credit the fourth-year GM with loads of smarts and guts.

It was Gibbons who wound up cautioning the 35-year-old Anthopoulos: Are you sure you want to do this at this point in your career?

He did.

“There was some surprise, but not really,” said Padres GM Josh Byrnes, who had hired Gibbons to run his club’s Double-A team. “The reason we were excited to have him as our Double-A manager was that we felt he was the kind of guy who could be a major-league manager.

“That’s a big level for us. Oftentimes, players go straight from there to the big leagues.”

The few Jays players remaining from the previous Gibbons era couldn’t believe it when they heard the news.

“It was like, ‘All right’ … you know?” designated hitter Adam Lind said, his inflection at “all right” reaching the tone that, translated, means “Whaaaaat?”

“At first, I was a little shocked,” reliever Casey Janssen said. “The rumors -- we had not heard his name.

"But once you got to thinking, it was like, 'Man, this is good.' You remember the person, and that person would be a good fit for this team. You’re like, 'This is going to be a great fit.' "

Plus, Janssen says, "He runs a great bullpen. I'd say Gibby is the best at running a 'pen that I've seen."

Gibby's biggest task this spring is to become acquainted with these Jays, because Lind, Janssen and slugger Jose Bautista are the only holdovers from his first Toronto tour of duty.

Gibbons does not shy away from the altercations he had with a couple of players back in the day, most notably pitcher Ted Lilly. People who know him know that’s not the man he is, he says. And he said he has seen Lilly since, and all is good.

“But until we change that with a good, winning season, that’s probably what will stick with me,” he acknowledges.

That’s unfortunate, because Gibbons is so much more than that. The Royals under Trey Hillman were happy to have him. The Padres were sorry to lose him.

“We really hoped to find an experienced guy who could teach players, and Gibby’s strong in those areas,” Byrnes explained. “He’s a great guy to be around. He’s fun, he’s very knowledgeable and he’s tough when he needs to be tough.”

All of that stuck with Anthonpoulos, who has done a marvelous job so far in Toronto and who will (and should) be hailed as a genius if this move works and the Jays win this summer.

“We have a relationship,” the GM said. “We worked together for parts of five seasons. There’s a great dynamic there.

“I think it’s been seamless.”

For his part, Gibbons is not viewing this go-round as finishing his own unfinished business.

“It means a lot,” he says of this unexpected opportunity. “I want to help those guys fulfill what they’re going after.”

What that very well could be is some of the most memorable baseball in Toronto since the back-to-back World Series titles in 1992-93.

Gibbons surveys these Jays on the field, and he loves what he sees.

“There are no guarantees,” he says with his soft Texas twang. “But I’ll tell you what. I like the way things are stacking up.

“The tough part is, the season hasn’t started yet.”

Sunblock Day? Absolutely and positively. Finally. Temps zooming into mid-70s, and the sun is hot. Finally, after a couple of chillier-than-usual weeks this time of year in Florida.

Likes: Love the Jays’ little ballpark here in Dunedin. Facility is antiquated, and I’m sure Toronto will move toward getting new digs soon. But this tiny place in the middle of a neighborhood screams what spring training should be all about. … The optimism in this Blue Jays camp (and for good reason), and the professionalism. … Kicking off the sandals and driving barefoot across Florida on a warm day. … The orginal grouper sandwich at Frenchy’s Saltwater Café in Clearwater Beach, Fla. … Wall-to-wall college basketball this weekend. … The Kansas City sirloin at Okeechobee Steakhouse in West Palm Beach, Fla. … My Weber grill at home. Sure do miss it.

Dislikes: Whether you were rooting for or against Team USA, that was an awful third-strike call on outfielder Adam Jones to end the eighth inning of the loss to Puerto Rico on Friday night. Absolutely brutal from plate ump Mark Wegner. … Notre Dame’s hideous hoops uniforms. Even Ara Parseghian playing for the tie against Michigan State in 1966 wasn't that humiliating.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Day:

“Is it too much to demand

“I want a full house and a rock and roll band

“Pens that won't run out of ink

“And cool quiet, and time to think”

-- Lucinda Williams, Passionate Kisses

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