Jays fans reaction to Gibbons' hiring proves one thing: At this point, these people will talk themselves into anything.
Playoff baseball ratings were less than stellar this year. Game Four of the 2012 World Series, a series-clinching game that went to extra innings, was beaten by a somewhat insignificant Sunday Night Football matchup that night. Not only did football beat baseball, it beat it by over a million viewers in the United States. Reports afterward cited the aging demographic still watching America's favourite pastime. The over 50 crowd was still watching, but the under 50 crew, their attention spans shortened daily by social media and DVR's, were less willing to sit through three hours of dip chewing. It appeared to the outside observer that baseball was losing ground fast and in danger of aging as badly as Lindsay Lohan.
That's not the case in the TSN SportsCentre newsroom however. In our newsroom, one would swear that the grand ol' game is as popular as ever, and that's because our newsroom is largely populated by Greater Toronto Area-born and raised sports fans who have grown up loving the Toronto Blue Jays. Many of them, in fact most of them, are too young to remember the World Series victories of 1992 and 1993. Their love for the Jays endures however, and the fact that they are die-hard baseball fans obsessed with fantasy sports and sabermetrics makes them the kind of group that Bud Selig probably wishes he could kidnap, take to a lab, and replicate so he could fill all those empty seats at Rogers Centre.
So it was a fascinating social experiment to be among these rare young die-hards when highly-respected Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliott broke the news that John Gibbons would be returning as Blue Jays manager just minutes before we went live with SportsCentre at 1am et time Tuesday morning. Imagine a roomful of co-workers who had played the lottery together, only to find out they missed winning $50 million dollars by one number. That's the kind of deflated initial reaction that every single person in the room displayed. John Gibbons? Really?
There was no one, no one, calling for the return of John Gibbons to manage the Toronto Blue Jays. In fact, it's safe to say that had you suggested Gibbons as a candidate to this same group just days before the actual announcement on Tuesday morning, you would have been laughed out of the room. The Blue Jays had just acquired several big-time star players in a lopsided trade with the Miami Marlins, and signed 'almost' batting champ and recently suspended Melky Cabrera to a pretty sweet and fairly low-risk two-year deal that ESPN Senior Baseball writer David Shoenfield said could turn into "the best free agent signing this offseason".
The buzz around our newsroom, and more importantly, the entire city of Toronto, was palpable. The Blue Jays had a chance to really contend again, now they just needed a new manager to rally the troops. The possibilities were endless. Who wouldn't want to step in and manage this group of players? There was even talk of luring former Jays and Braves manager Bobby Cox out of retirement!
Then there was the requisite baggage that Gibbons came with: the confrontations with his own players and the fact that he had not actually won anything during his initial tenure with the team from 2004 to 2008. This was not Phil Jackson returning to the Lakers after bringing home multiple championships, this was another in a line of underwhelming Blue Jay managers of underwhelming Blue Jay teams from an underwhelming Blue Jay era that most of us would rather forget. There is something to be said of the phrase: "Your first instinct is your best instinct", and without question, every Jays fan's first instinct when they first heard the news about John Gibbons returning to manage this team was: You're joking, right?
Then the second part of the social experiment started to come to fruition: Denial and acceptance. Suddenly these die-hard Jays fans in the newsroom, who were initially shocked and disappointed by the move, started to rationalize it like a girl dating a guy she knows is probably not right for her but continues to see him anyway because she had no other potential suitors on the horizon. "After the initial shock, I'm starting to warm up to the Gibby hiring" said one of our editors and most die-hard of Jays fans. The reasons for Gibby's return were stacked up one after the other: he's a player's manager, he did a good job of managing the pitching staff throughout his time with the Jays, people around the team really liked him, especially Alex Anthopoulos, and he didn't necessarily get a 'fair shake' during his first tenure with the team because he didn't have the horses to win.
Toronto newspaper writers rhapsodized about how wonderful he was to them, warmer and less aloof than most Jays managers they'd dealt with in the past. Certainly easier to get close to than the 'distant-father' persona of the Jays' most recent manager John Farrell. Which led to the most incredulous argument for Gibbons return: that he actually wanted to be here. Jays fans had been so embarrassed by Farrell's spurning of their club months before in favour of his 'dream job' in Boston that they took it so personally. So personally they were treating the hiring of a big league manager, as coveted a job as there is in professional sports, like the Toronto Raptors repeated failed attempts to lure free agents north of the border. The psyche of the Toronto sports fan is so fragile at this point that everyone needs group therapy and maybe a hug.
Which brings me to my final point: In the end, these fans just want a winner. They want to buy tickets to a Wednesday afternoon game at the 'Dome and sit among 35,000 fans instead of 12,000. They want Jose Reyes to return to the form that made him the most exciting player in baseball; they want Mark Buehrle to find a nice kennel outside of Buffalo to keep his pit bulls that are not allowed in Ontario; they want Melky Cabrera to prove everyone wrong and hit as well without PED's as he did with them. In fact, when Melky was signed, that same 'first instinct' was overwhelmingly positive, almost no mention or concern about the PED suspension whatsoever. Jays fans just want everything to work out for once in a long time because cheering for a team that never has a chance to win is exhausting, and with the moves Alex Anthopoulous made last week, it appears their team finally has a chance to win.
So if Anthopoulos decided to hire his buddy instead of a fresh face that would have garnered the same type of initial reaction as the Marlins trade, then so be it. Jays fans know that even if he isn't their ideal choice, the product on the field will be significantly better than it has been in previous seasons, and that's enough for them. Who knows? Maybe John Gibbons will be manager of the year in 2013. He certainly didn't do a terrible job as Jays manager the first time. It's completely irrational to believe he will literally screw this whole thing up.
But the moves Anthopoulos made last week reminded us all of the moves Pat Gillick used to make back in the early nineties, back when the Jays mattered, not just to their own fan base but to all of Major League Baseball. Finally, Jays fans felt like their team was a contender again, and not an also-ran like they were in the Gibbons years. And that's the problem: the re-hiring of Gibbons felt like something that would have happened to a Jays team that hadn't made the big Marlins trade or signed Cabrera. Bringing back Gibbons feels like stepping back to a place Jays fans want to forget, just when everyone was looking forward to 2013. Instead Anthopoulos hit the brakes, threw it in reverse, and parked it squarely in 2008. Here's hoping it doesn't cost him his spot behind the wheel.
Jay Onrait's first book 'Anchorboy' will be out in November of 2013 from Wiley Publishing. He is as surprised as you are.
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