The return of GIBBY?!!
Nothing bad to say about this move — amazingly, I’m a big John Gibbons fan. You really have to learn to appreciate his hammy Texas drawl and ‘awhh shucks’ manner as performance art; I am reminded of the two American surfer dudes in Alex Garland’s “The Beach” who are actually quantum physicists adopting the guise out of convenience because it’s what everyone expects of them. Underneath Gibby’s ‘old salt’ media persona is a modern manager who doesn’t make bullpen mistakes, doesn’t over-manage when things are going bad, and is tactically astute. What more can you ask? Not that it would have made a difference, but I thought it was pretty embarrassing when Jim Leyland was bringing the infield in early and conceding the lead late during the World Series.
Oh, yeah — Gibby also knows when to throw down.
As the most memorable event of his first stint as manager, you’ll see this video replayed a lot this week as evidence that Gibbons is the tough guy that the Jays’ lax clubhouse needs — but with the caveat that he might be a bit of a hothead who instills discipline in his players through physical violence (he also reportedly challenged Shea Hillenbrand to a fight during the “this ship is sinking” debacle, although who knows how serious a comment it was and c’mon…who didn’t want to slap Shea silly at some point?). Even at the time, few people read between the lines to understand that assaulting Ted Lilly on his way back to the clubhouse was actually a pretty reasonable course of action under the circumstances. Let’s go back for some context:
It was a sad time during a pretty good season: the Jays were in the hunt through the first half and then lost 9 out of 10 to start July against terrible Oakland and Seattle squads and the need-to-beat Yankees. 9 games back with a month to go, the playoffs were realistically out of reach, but there was a lot to be said for finishing strong with a young, improving team in anticipation of an even better 2007 (which was a complete, unmitigated disaster — but that’s another story).
Lilly had been struggling along with the Jays’ bats, which exploded for a eight-run lead against pesky Oakland through two innings. And then Lilly responded by taking the mound in the third and fucking around. There is no other way to put it: he walked Erik Chavez to start the inning on a ‘aren’t-I-clever’ 3-2 curveball nowhere near the plate; then later dropped down and threw the first sidearm pitch of his career, which made Bobby Kielty do a triple take before he hammered it 422 feet. Sadly pitch f/x wasn’t recording details back then, but I remember hearing that he threw a knuckleball he had always tinkered with in the ‘pen and wanted to try out in a game. It was one of the most unprofessional, selfish, idiotic performances I have ever seen on the mound. (Bengie Molina might agree by the way he is glaring at Lilly in the video before things even get started).
Of course, none of this was touched with a ten-foot pole after the fact, but it’s clear as day that when Gibby got out there he was more than just frustrated at a pitcher having a bad day. Lilly can be seen aggressively repeating “I’m trying to win the game”, which is only a response to something along the lines of “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
And then, despite having allowed back to jacks and frittering away five out of the eight-run lead with two more on base and one out, Lilly had the gall not just to protest, but “say something he shouldn’t have said” to his manager on the mound. Again, I’ve never seen anything like it — guys are usually highly apologetic when they mutter under their breath and don’t make eye contact as they hand over the ball. Lilly looks at Gibbons with utter distain and then starts dressing him down on national TV.
I’ve always thought that Gibby understood the bigger picture — everyone knew that Lilly was on his way out of Toronto at the end of the year. He had mentally cashed out on the season and was acting like a primadonna despite not pitching like one, as if the team’s desperate need to re-sign him placed him above criticism. Faced with a ridiculous performance and then a intolerable undermining of his authority, Gibby decided to draw a line in the sand. Throwing a punch and risking injuring one of your stars would be insane. Eating one (yes, you can see his bloody nose if mlb.tv ever gets those games archived) shocked the hell out of everyone and showed how deadly serious he was beneath the southern charm.
Funny thing is it also set a fire under Lilly’s ass — he pitched like a man possessed in September and then completely predictably signed with the Cubs for less money that the Jays offered. Where he proceeded to do the second most unprofessional thing I have ever seen on a pitching mound the very next year as he imploded during a critical playoff start.
Update: Cathal Kelly also reports Gibbons once got into a legendary shouting match with Richard Griffin. I don’t care if he was dead wrong, the man is somewhere between action hero and modern saint.