SARASOTA, Florida – On a pristine, cloudless Saturday morning before his Blue Jays took to the field to play the Orioles, manager John Gibbons assumed his familiar perch behind home plate to watch his charges take batting practice.
That time around, the cage is as much a part of baseball's daily routine as a beer and a hotdog is to a fan in the stands. Coaches, scouts, broadcasters and other media hover, tossing verbal barbs, telling stories and sharing laughs. Occasionally, especially in spring when the atmosphere is relatively laid back, the list of invited guests expands and on this day, Gibbons welcomed two men strongly influential in his life.
To his left stood his high school baseball coach, Syl Perez and on his right, Frank Arnold, Gibbons' high school football coach. The two are spending these early days of camp with the man they mentored. It's a chance for the men to catch up, reminisce about old times, and for Gibbons to share his pro experience with two people who've helped him along the way.
"Your high school years are very big years in forming who you're going to be," Gibbons told TSN.ca. "When you're in athletics, if you get the right guys, it can steer you the right direction, teach you discipline, the work ethic and all the right stuff that benefit you in life."
Arnold, 72, is a legend in Texas high school football, a state where "football is king," as Gibbons likes to remind the uninitiated.
Gibbons played but didn't start at MacArthur High School in San Antonio. He was a running back, although in hindsight, Arnold thinks Gibbons was better suited to play linebacker because he was athletically inclined and had good instincts. Arnold also took notice, almost immediately, of Gibbons' upbringing, especially his supportive parents, William and Sally.
"Great kid, great family, never had, you know you have some parents who are a little overbearing, his parents were right there to support him," said Arnold.
He had a knack for baseball, although Gibbons admits he was a late bloomer, especially offensively. A senior catcher graduated after Gibbons' sophomore season, a year in which Gibbons played the outfield, and Perez had someone else pegged as the team's next catcher. Gibbons was still an unknown commodity. The coaching staff tried him at third base. It wasn't the right fit.
"I don't care where I put John Gibbons, he was a catcher," said Perez. "I mean, it was in his DNA. He carries himself like a catcher."
Perez had Gibbons and the would-be catching successor get behind the plate and simulate throwing out base stealers.
"I timed him," said Perez. "From the time the sound hit the mitt to the time it hit the shortstop or second baseman at the bag. The other young man was very accurate but John was kind of like a Nolan Ryan. He was not very accurate, or not as accurate, but he would only average two seconds and sometimes slightly less than that. The other kid was 2.3, 2.4."
Funny thing, Gibbons ended up catching that year. The other kid played third base. Both were all district at the end of the season, Gibbons in spite of a batting average below .200. He was that good defensively.
His game rounded into form in his senior year, thanks to a scout named Buzzy Keller, who in advance of the baseball season, instructed Perez on a new hitting philosophy featuring a more compact swing. Perez coached up Gibbons and the results were immediate.
"John batted .500 in 19 games and he hit 10 home runs," said Perez. "It's not that he hit 10 home runs, it's how far he hit those 10 home runs that really got him to be a lot more noticed. A lot of our practices were very, very well attended and of course, he went 24th overall in the first round (1980) to the Mets."
A series of injuries derailed Gibbons' big league playing career, the nail in the coffin being the Mets acquisition of Gary Carter before the 1985 season. He stayed around the game, coached at various levels over a number of years, and by 2004, was into his first run as manager of the Blue Jays.
"He's old school and the old school way of thinking is, good catchers become good managers," said Perez. "They're the only ones looking the other way at the entire defence. Let's face it, he may have been not a starter in his major league life but when he's in the bullpen catching and working with folks like the Dwight Gooden's and such, I'm sure he's going to learn some things."
Gibbons credits Arnold and Perez with teaching him some of the tactics he employs to this day.
"You get to this level, it's a little different," said Gibbons. "Guys are very successful when they get to this level so they've got a good idea of what they do. There's not as much coaching, teaching and things like that and you give these guys a little more leeway because they're adults. But there's a lot of the same principles that work. I don't care if you're in high school or big league baseball, you have to have discipline. You still have to play the right way."
Gibbons' fair, jovial but stern-when-he-needs-to-be personality endears him to those who know him best and have known him the longest.
"Personally, I think he has the demeanour, the ability to work with people," said Arnold. "I hope he gets lucky this year because last year they had some bad luck, in my opinion, with injuries and other things. I follow him, I watch him all the time and I'm very proud to say that I was around him."
Arnold continued, "John is going to be the same on the docks with some dock workers as he is at some high class place with the boss. I just think he's a quality person. He's not flashy, he is what he is but he's always good to people."
Coming off a disappointing 74-88 season, a startling and uncomfortable thud after the offseason hype of a year ago, Gibbons knows there is pressure to rebound. His mentors know it, too.
"Nobody wants you unless you win," said Arnold. "I don't care what level, what league so I wish him well and hope he has some great luck this year. I hope some of the guys have some great years because I think he deserves it."
Gibbons is aware the fan base is angst-ridden, unsure of whether the Blue Jays can compete in the ultra-tough American League East. He knows about the Twitter faction that's popularized the "FireGibby" hashtag, understands and accepts it's a fan's right to be upset, but wants to be clear about something he says won't change, win or lose.
"I want people to know that I care about Toronto, I care about Canada, and nobody wants to win for the fan base more than I do because I know they deserve it."