Cito Gaston

Cito Gaston, who skipped the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series championships, entered the world on this day in 1944. So it’s as good a time as any to duct-tape a Blue Jays logo to one’s tinfoil hat and delve into a non-obvious reason for why the first Black manager to win the World Series, one of just two managers in the last century of Major League Baseball to take a team to consecutive Series wins, is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

As a bonus, this is topical with the entire baseball industry headed into a contract year. The collective agreement expires in December 2021, and “the chasm between the players’ union and (employers) is widening as they can’t agree on anything of note.” As the song goes, it is one, two, three strikes, you’re out at the old ballgame. And two of the strikes on Gaston’s legacy are obvious:

1. Major League Baseball has a long history of systemic racism, and place-ism, and he was only the fourth Black manager. The three who preceded him were each former MVPs or hall of famers. Gaston was the first to have the arc of journeyman player, coach, manager.

2. The second is a relatively short managerial career. Twelve seasons, 1,765 games. Barely a third as many as Tony La Russa.

3. The third never seems to come up. It might be some low-level retribution, and writing Gaston out of Baseball’s Official History Presented By Rocket Mortgage might just be an oversight. But a stray connection involves how the Blue Jays organization was not onside with the anti-labour tactics MLB used in an attempt to break the 1994-95 strike.

That is unprovable. And it could have been a brainstorm borne from isolated-and-weird lockdown thinking. But for non-olds, in 1994 baseball failed to play a World Series for the first time in 90 years. The players went on strike in mid-August, and the season was canceled on Sept. 14.

The grand chasm then was not between players and franchise governors; it was really between the big-spending franchises such as the Yankees, Atlanta, and the Blue Jays, and small-market franchises such as interim commissioner Bud Selig’s Milwaukee Brewers and the Kansas City Royals. The latter wanted a salary cap, and wanted the big teams to start sharing local revenues since baseball had completely collapsed as a national television property.

Remember, as Charles Pierce has said, “the entire history of baseball is a history of money.” Another Pierce-ism committed to memory is that there’s no big market or small market, just profitable and unprofitable. Or, highly profitable and harder-to-be-profitable.

(To this day, no one knows why baseball’s mass popularity has dropped off the table like Clayton Kershaw’s best curveball since the tailend of the ’80s. It could not possibly be since the industry’s consistent messaging was that the players were all greedy, overrated, and hooked on better drugs than you, Joe Fan, could afford.)

The Blue Jays were an Industry Problem in 1994. Selig literally did a media avail with a chart pointing out that Toronto had the highest payroll in the sport with the heading, “The Blue Jays Problem.” The Blue Jays had the best overall record in MLB across the 10 completed seasons (1984-93) before the ’94-95 strike. The best win percentage. The best run differential. The most division titles. They were the first team that drew 4 million fans in a season. They also had the highest payroll (source: Baseball Cube.)

Something peculiar to Toronto is that billionaires do not directly own sports teams. They sit on the board and hold a major stake in megacorporations that own the teams. For a Southern Ontario baseball fan, the vertical integration can cut both ways. The negatives are that the experiential part of baseball can be beholden to the bean-counters, as with Rogers’ recent decision to drop Blue Jays radio broadcasts for 2021. The positives are that every two decades or so, the chance to have the strong brand association that comes with having a popular winning team will supersede the boundless appetite for profits and dividends. That happened around 2013-16.

It also became the M.O. in the early 1990s, when the Blue Jays were primarily owned by the Labatt Brewing Company. That was a Canadian-owned brewer until 1995. The Jays were winning, most of Canada’s anglosphere was on the bandwagon, and the over age-30 talent on the roster was getting paid. And even though it was all commercial, it felt right when you watched a Sunday afternoon game on over-the-air TV and a parent came in with a cold Labatt’s to catch a few innings.

That seems like a solar system from MLB in 2021. It also flew in the face of many MLB franchise investors in 1993, ’94, and ’95. These goddamn Canadians were not treating their license to print money solely like a license to print money.

Background …the Selig faction, et al., claimed they could not compete. Were they right, or were they just crying poor? Comparing that 1984 to ’93 period against the 2010-19 period, the most recent one where the sport had a full schedule, there does seem to be more of a gap between the best, read-richest teams, and the teams that were under fifty feet of crap, to quote Billy Beane/Brad Pitt.

The Blue Jays from ’84 to ’93 had a .565 winning percentage in the regular season. They outscored their foes by 102.5 runs per season. Only two other teams, the New York Mets (.541) and Oakland Athletics (.534) played >.530 ball across those 10 seasons. The Mets (72.2) were the only other team with a per-season run differential over 50.

Only Cleveland (.443, -76 RD per season) and Seattle (.457, -59.2 RD per season) played sub-.470 ball and were also outscored by more than 50 runs a year. Of course, you know how that played out after the strike; Cleveland and Seattle got to slowly build, amassed Hall of Game talent through high draft choices and trades, and World Series titles surely rolled into both cities in the late ’90s and early aughts. Right?

Flipping to 2010-19, the Yankees have the best regular-season winning percentage at .569. The Los Angeles Dodgers (.567) are also a couple points above the ’84-93 Blue Jays. But six teams exceeded .530. The Yankees and Dodgers both outscored foes by more than 100 runs per season, and six teams are in the ‘at least 50 more’ club.

The other end of the spectrum is similar. The worst team from 2010-19, the Miami Marlins, at .437, is six points worse than ’84-93 Cleveland. But six of the 30 teams fell below a .470 winning percentage, and there are six — the same six, actually — who gave up 50 or more runs per year than they scored.

The kicker is that one of the Subpar Six is the Kansas City Royals, who won the World Series in 2015. As for kicking a team when it’s down, hello, Seattle, you’re listing. The Mariners were a .468 ballclub from 2010-19 and got outscored by 58.6 runs per season. They had laurels to rest on, clearly, after carrying Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki around the field following their season finale in 2009.

While that’s less parity than in the Jays’ salad days, it rates far better than the first decade of the 20th century. From 2000-09, the Yankees won in the regular season at a .597 clip, the Boston Red Sox won at a .568 clip, and eight teams overall played >.530 ball. Six outscored their opposition by at least 50 runs a season.

It’s the exact same story at the other end. Eight teams under .470, with Kansas City up the rear at .415. Nine teams were outscored by at least 50 runs per season, and four by an average of over 100, which no one did in 1984-93 or 2010-19. But did that come from imbalances in revenue, or was it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The baseball that Xennials were weaned on had relatively high competitive balance. That was clear as glass, and the Blue Jays seemingly were tuned in to knowing their public would not buy the arguments that the sport was headed for ruin. The nicest retrospective on the Selig faction is they might have been right about troubles to come if MLB did not develop new revenue streams, and no one in 1994 really knew how much money there was to be made from MLBAM or regional sports networks, which would help stabilize MLB by the 2010s. Of course, that also acted as a demotivational plaque for fixing structural issues — DON’T FORGET, REGIONAL TV MONEY IS GOING TO ROLL IN FOREVER.

That is possibly interesting, but what does it have to do with the third strike against Cito Gaston? As mentioned, baseball’s tactics in 1995 included using scab players at spring training, with a threat of doing so into the regular season. As Jeff Blair would later write, “the entire Blue Jays organization treated the whole episode as distasteful.” Team president Paul Beeston, per Blair’s 2013 book Full Count, is said to have felt “it was beneath the team to even try to sell the concept of ‘replacement players’ to loyal season ticketholders.” Another complication was that Ontario had anti-scab laws at that time.

Gaston and his coaching staff were excused from working with the scab players at spring training. Gaston was a player’s manager who got along better with more seasoned players, who at the time included active player’s association members such as Joe Carter and Paul Molitor. It would have been awkward AF to expect him to manage minor-league players.

However, the management mindset expects a united front, and “the sport’s hierarchy was angered” by the Blue Jays’ shocking use of common sense. It was the only common sense to be found in baseball, or in the province of Ontario, during the spring of 1995. And the teams that were ticked at the Blue Jays likely didn’t care that senior management excused Gaston and his coaches from a brutal situation.

It makes one wonder about retribution. Gaston was the Black field manager of a Canadian team that had a much more liberal attitude toward labor relations than 25 of the 26 U.S.-based franchises. That could have contributed to a bit of the ol’ persona non grata.

There’s semi-strong suspicion there was retribution against the only other manager who did not manage replacement players. The late Sparky Anderson famously refused to lead the faux Detroit Tigers in the spring of 1995. In an authorized biography, he called it the “proudest moment of my career” that he opted out “try(ing) to fool the fans who pay for the games.”

Remember, this is the manager who won three World Series titles. Anderson was only 61 years old in 1995, even though he looked 81. He was never offered another managerial position. But there was no keeping him out of the Hall of Fame, since he was an obvious candidate.

A manager needs to be a long-term stat compiler to burnish a Cooperstown application. There are a lot of circumstances with Cito Gaston, more that were out of his hands than in them, that kept him from doing so. For starters, the Blue Jays collapsed after the strike. Veterans left or aged out. Labatt’s was bought by a foreign brewer, Belgium-based Interbrew SA. The Blue Jays had only a .440 winning percentage across Gaston’s last three seasons from 1995-97.

That kind of stink always gets on a manager, even though it was circumstantial. As Beeston once put it to Stephen Brunt during that period: “The industry’s fucked up, we don’t know who owns us, and the team’s in last place. It’s a helluva time to be alive.”

A collapse under Gaston’s command was convenient for the id of baseball’s implicit racist bias. There have only been 11 first-time Black managers in MLB since the start of the 1993 season. And while an old joke in baseball is that a proven manager is one who has been fired twice, only four of those 11 got at least a second managerial gig.

When the Blue Jays were royalty, there was also a disturbing current of criticism directed at Gaston from the Boomer-era media and fans. And his in-game managerial moves could be idiosyncratic, and baseball interest in Southern Ontario was at an all-time high, which meant armchair-managing the Blue Jays was at an all-time high. So the great Canadian inferiority complex — don’t embarrass us when America’s actually noticing us, eh! — was projected on to the decisions of their BIPOC manager. Why did he leave this pitcher in so long, and so on?

To what extent did that affect Gaston reputationally? It likely did not help. Of course, the greater truth is that a manager’s in-game moves do not nudge the win-loss needle more than five games in either direction. Are the players buying in? Obviously the older players were all in under Gaston.

After parting from the Blue Jays position, Gaston came to suspect over time that he was “only called in as a token black candidate” to interview for jobs with other MLB teams. It’s not collusion, but there are certainly Strong Reasons why the first Black manager to win the World Series never got a shot to manage with another team. And his only other managerial post came from 2008-10 when the Blue Jays brought him back to lead an under-resourced team, in what was a clear attempt to pander to fans.

The foul year of 2020 marked a century of World Series play since the end of the Dead Ball era. Ten managers have guided teams to consecutive World Series titles over that span. Four came before 1947. Gaston and Ralph Houk are the only two of the six from the integration era who are not enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Houk was given the keys to the Yankees’ post-war juggernaut after Casey Stengel was pushed out at the start of the 1960s. Gaston led a franchise that was less than two decades old during a high-parity free-agent era. The Blue Jays and their manager faced a somewhat higher degree of difficulty than the Yankees ever have, or ever will. Simply put, Gaston is one of a kind in so many ways.

It’s really difficult to win back-to-back in baseball, due to the whole it’s-a-sport-of-failure deal. Teams led by two of the Hall of Fame managers from Gaston’s era, Bobby Cox and the aforementioned Tony La Russa, were unable to do it. Since 2001, baseball alone among the big North American pro leagues hasn’t had a repeat champion — even if one adds, as they should, the CFL, MLS, NWSL, and WNBA to the field.

Gaston achieved a rare feat that was also a historic first. It’s not on him that MLB was hostile to a racialized players’ manager, who believed he needed to speak Spanish to his Latinx players, almost a quarter-century before MLB thought to even required teams to hire translators for players who aren’t native English speakers. It’s also hardly on him that his best work came on a Canadian team. But MLB has never quite got that Canada isn’t the United States with colder weather and extra vowels.

(A hilarious passage in Blair’s book is that MLB was initially resistant to the Blue Jays’ last uniform redesign in 2012 because it felt having the Canadian maple leaf in the logo was “overtly political.” Right. Play God Bless America at the seventh-inning stretch, wear military-style uniforms on Independence Day, make fighter-jet flyovers so commonplace that even military veterans are like, ‘dude, enough,’ but a maple leaf on the hat of the only MLB team based in Canada is a bridge too far. But I digress.)

Putting Gaston in Cooperstown fits with the hard work MLB has to do with addressing why it has an under-representation of Black talent at all levels. That reconciliation also involves reaching back to recognize BIPOC contributors whose careers were affected and underappreciated in their time due to the industry’s systemic racism (as I’ve written in other posts). Recognizing those contributors while they’re around to receive the honor helps with saying, “Look, this fellow was an outsider who did it, and so can you.”

Make it happen, cap’n. Gaston is 77 years old. He will not live forever. (Although, come to think of it, he’s only just a few months older than active manager Tony La Russa.) But if it does not, I will have my suspicions why.

Neate Sager has written for Yahoo! Sports Canada and Sportsnet. He currently co-hosts the SportsLit Podcast, where he and co-host Neil Acharya discuss the latest sports books with authors and athletes.

[Photo from Alchetron]