Review by Budd Bailey
Baseball managers more or less come with an expiration date. It’s understood that at some point the organization that hires a manager probably is going to have to fire that manager at some point. It sort of goes with the territory. Teams go through cycles of winning and losing, and during the down parts someone has to be blamed. Usually, that means the skipper is the one to go, in part because it’s easier to do that than to fire 26 players.
There’s a corollary to that. Managers aren’t expected to be popular, at least once the honeymoon period of new employment is over. Everyone loves to second-guess a manager’s decisions, and once in a while a decision will be made that doesn’t work out quite properly. Do it a few times, and you stop getting the benefit of the doubt.
John Gibbons knew those were the rules we became the Blue Jays manager. Sure enough, he’s currently unemployed. But, he figured out a way to if not beat the system, to at least tame it for a while. Gibbons managed the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008, only to leave when times got tough. But they brought him back in 2013, which is rather unusual for most organizations except this one (Cito Gaston also got two chances to manage in Toronto.)
Gibbons also stayed popular. Shortly after leaving, the Mayor of Toronto proclaimed “John Gibbons Day” be noted soon after his departure. In addition, the Toronto media – not always the most polite group of individuals, particularly by Canadian standards – went out of its way to say what a good person Gibbons was.
When word came out that Gibbons had written an autobiography, in this case called “Gibby,” it instantly seemed like a good idea. After reading it, it seemed like an even better one.
Gibbons calls himself a baseball lifer, and it fits. He’s spent his adult life around the game in a variety of capacities. The story seemed rather unlikely at the start of high school, but he suddenly blossomed as a prospect as a senior year and became a first-round draft choice of the New York Mets. His stories about life in the minors are nicely done, but his own is as compelling as any of them. Gibbons worked his way up the ladder to reach the majors, jumping to the Mets in 1984. But a couple of injuries, including one to his throwing arm, slowed his progress. Then the Mets traded for Gary Carter, the best catcher in the business at the time and a future Hall of Famer. The door to starting for New York had just been slammed shut for good.
Gibbons hung around the Mets’ organization for a while, and even played a few games in 1985 for New York. That earned him a championship ring. From there John bounced to some minor league teams, but by 1990 it was pretty clear he was no longer a prospect. At least he’d been given an opportunity or two. Gibbons writes about some players he encountered in those days who should have been given a chance at bigger things but weren’t, sometimes because they weren’t top draft choices.
Gibbons stayed with the Mets after retiring as a player, working as an instructor before landing managerial positions. He jumped to the Blue Jays as a coach in 2002, and became manager in 2004. No matter what Toronto did on the field around then, they weren’t going to stay with teams like the Red Sox and Yankees. Gibbons paid the price with his job in 2008. But he had a comeback after the 2012 season, signing with the Blue Jays again after John Farrell left Toronto to manage in Boston.
The second time around proved fruitful. The Blue Jays made the playoffs a couple of times and might have been World Champions if a few things had gone differently. The good times didn’t last forever – they never do unless you are connected with the Dodgers or Yankees – and Gibbons was back to being unemployed after the 2018 season. He’s taken some other jobs in baseball since then. While it’s easy to be yesterday’s news in that business, you get the impression that he could be talked into one more go-around somewhere. In the meantime, he’s doing a baseball podcast and enjoying life by the looks of it.
Autobiographies can rise or fall by an opinion about the author, and Gibbons comes across really well here throughout the book. He seems to be a honest rational actor at all times, and his concern for his players, working associates and others is genuine. In other words, the first impression of him in the book is that he’s a likeable straight-shooter, and that never changes through page 240 or so. (Congrats go to co-author Greg Oliver for making it work so smoothly.)
Gibbons does write about a few confrontations that he’s had over the years with players, and his explanations hold up rather well. It’s to his credit that none of the “combatants” seem to think less of Gibbons now. One of those players, Josh Donaldson, even wrote the forward to the book.
Obviously a book like “Gibby” is directed at the large potential audience in Toronto, which got to know him best because he stayed there the longest. Still, any baseball fan will find this book time well spent.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)