Gibbons faces crucible of heightened expectations
Even with dramatically upgraded roster, manager faces biggest challenge of career
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Few big league managers will face the pressure the Toronto Blue Jays have bestowed on second-time-around John Gibbons for 2013.
Managing expectations is often more difficult than skippering Major League players.
But Gibbons finds himself in that difficult situation.
To onlookers, it appears treacherous. To Gibbons, it's a welcomed opportunity to prove his mettle as a big league manager.
The past is just that -- the past.
Gibbons had a rocky tenure managing the Blue Jays from 2004-08. He ended with a 305-305 record, but had to endure some distasteful moments with a few of his players.
Now, Gibbons is back with a team that has been fortified by a blockbuster trade that landed All-Star shortstop Jose Reyes, outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, and catcher John Buck from Miami.
Add to that a two-year, $16 million contract for free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera and Gibbons has a team that should be in the thick of the rugged American League East race.
"It's a tough grind, a tough division to play in, but we feel with these trades and signing Cabrera gives us a shot," Gibbons said Monday during a media session at the Winter Meetings. "You've got to go out and do it, but it gives us a lot of excitement."
To put it bluntly, Gibbons is expected to win.
And with that unwritten edict from above comes enormous pressure, not to mention the biggest challenge of his career.
"No doubt about it," Gibbons said. "A lot is expected in the baseball world, the country of Canada, and specifically Toronto. That's a good thing, because it means you have a good team."
Gibbons never thought he'd be back as Blue Jays manager. "I never guessed this could happen again," he said.
Gibbons takes over, of course, for John Farrell, who bolted for what he calls his dream job as Red Sox manager.
In 2006, Gibbons' best season in Toronto when the Blue Jays finished second in the East, he had altercations with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly. In fact, the incident with Lilly in the dugout when he was taken out of a game was seen on camera. Hillenbrand jotted on the clubhouse chalkboard, "This ship is sinking" and "Play for yourself."
Hillenbrand was sent packing within hours and later said he was at fault for the remarks.
Obviously, Gibbons has matured since he left in 2008. He knows now he must control his temper, especially with the veteran team general manager Alex Anthopoulos has given him. This will not be a shakedown cruise for a learning manager.
"This job came out of nowhere for me, and to sit there and look at some of the players they've acquired makes it that much nicer," Gibbons said. "I would have taken the job had the deal not been made, but it makes it a lot easier.
"This is an exciting time. You hear about the Toronto Blue Jays a lot and what the potential is here, but you gotta go out and do it. Come April, you have to perform."
And so does John Gibbons.
Often high-priced All-Stars and premier players don't mesh. It happened years ago when the late Gene Autry tried desperately to get his Angels to the postseason. The same was true in many of the Yankees years under free-spending George Steinbrenner.
Winter euphoria often turns into a summer of disappointment.
"With a lot of new faces, everybody has to be looking for the same goal," Gibbons said. "You'd like that to always be the case, but it's not always the case. We have to make sure we get that out of them, but there's no substitute for talent in this business.
"You have to find a way to get the most out of your players. That's what I think the successful managers do. And they're smart enough to get out of the way and let them play. Baseball is different from other sports, it's not all X's and O's."
When Anthopoulos put together this veteran club, he said it is time for the Blue Jays to return to the postseason for the first time since they won their second consecutive World Series in 1993.
And what the GM has done is completely change the landscape of the division and sent a message to the Yankees, Rays, Orioles and Red Sox: Watch out for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013.
We haven't accomplished anything during my three years on the job," Anthopoulos said. "We're trying to build a core and keep that in place. There's no question the city is starved for a playoff-caliber team and hopefully a World Series contender -- and things like that. There's definitely a healthy appetite for baseball across Canada right now."
Gibbons puts it this way: "It's a new start for them, a new start for me, but this team's got very good speed, we got power, we got the pitching and have to play smart baseball."
Or this: "Right now, I sit back, look at the team and kinda dream."
Which is what the long-starved baseball fans in Toronto are doing.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.