The departing manager

3 10 2010

Here’s something I wrote on another site about Cito Gaston, which I am reposting here. Enjoy!

One of Cito Gaston’s greatest gifts was his ability to project absolute composure. He gave the impression of being – and probably is – a person who knows exactly who he is, who is comfortable in his own shoes, and who is fazed by little or nothing that life can throw at him. Part of this has to be due to his history: Cito is one of the last of the African-American players who came of age in the 1960s who is still around. These men were only a generation or less younger than Jackie Robinson, and were the last players who had to deal with the sort of old-school racism that Jackie and his contemporaries had to face. (Note that Cito once roomed with Hank Aaron, who was one of the last players to play in the old Negro Leagues.) After having lived through that, anything else would have seemed like a piece of cake.

This composure, combined with his ability to read people well and treat them appropriately, made him the ideal manager for the sort of player who doesn’t need to be motivated but just needs the opportunity. Cito behaved like an adult, treated his players like adults, and demanded that they behave like adults in return. The only players that Cito had trouble with were players who didn’t behave like adults – many of these were abruptly shown the door, even if they had talent. (Though Cito, to his credit, never ripped a player in the press.) Fortunately, most major league baseball players are self-motivating – otherwise, they wouldn’t be major league baseball players – and these players appreciated Cito’s candour, his straightforwardness, his hands-off attitude, and his willingness not to worry about the small stuff. (Both at the beginning of his career and at the end, Cito was given a talented player who had been widely slagged for having a bad attitude, and got no trouble out of either of them. That would be George Bell and Yunel Escobar, for those of you keeping score at home.)

Cito also was good at handling pitchers. His starters didn’t get too tired, and his bullpen didn’t get overworked. His approach to building a bullpen was simple:

  • Find the best guy, and make him your closer.
  • Find the second-best guy, and get him to pitch the eighth.
  • Find one or two other guys who are pretty good, and get them to pitch the sixth and/or seventh. These guys also back up the other two guys.
  • Everybody else pitches in when needed.

It seems obvious when you write it out this way, but how many managers can’t do this? Carlos Tosca changed pitchers twice an inning. Jimy Williams tended to ride the hot hand. Jim Fregosi regularly overworked his bullpen. Tim Johnson burned out his starters. Cito got through 2010 with a healthy bullpen that pitched better than expected (recall that Kevin Gregg was widely condemned as a bad signing).

Cito also was a tremendously gifted hitting coach, especially if the goal was to improve performance in the short term. His philosophy was the same in the 1980s and when he was hitting coach for Jim Fregosi as it is now: make a plan, figure out what pitch you want to try to hit, and swing as hard as you can at it. The results, then and now, have been obvious: lots and lots and lots of home runs, and lots of unexpected improvements in performance from players who looked like they had maxed out their ability years before. Even John McDonald is starting to look like a hitter who can be useful in certain circumstances. I can only think of two other men, in all of baseball history, who made such an impact on the game as a hitting coach: Charlie Lau, and his disciple, Walt Hriniak.

(In the longer term, things get a little trickier, as pitchers figure out where a player wants to hit the ball, and stop pitching it there. Then, the adjustments have to begin. As an example, compare the 2009 Adam Lind with the 2010 Adam Lind: the skills are all still there, but the pitchers are behaving differently. But, in the longer term, we are all dead – and no one can take those home runs and wins away.)

Cito had noticeable weaknesses as a manager: he didn’t seem to have that extra level of tactical capability that Earl Weaver, Davey Johnson, Casey Stengel and Billy Martin had, which was the ability to steal an extra run here and there by coming up with some clever strategic move. (Actually, now that I think of it, Cito is almost the exact polar opposite, in every respect, of Billy Martin.) Cito preferred consistency and routine: for example, if a player was given a day off, his replacement usually inherited the incumbent’s slot in the batting order as well (which is how Kevin Millar, who was hitting slightly worse than Travis Snider’s grandmother, wound up batting cleanup). But, in my opinion, this was more than offset by his ability to relate to his players and get the most out of them. The 2010 Jays won about 15 games more than expected, were a lot of fun to watch, and seemed to be enjoying themselves tremendously. Cito did a great job managing them, and they allowed him to end his career on a high note, on his own terms. He will be missed.

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