Blue Jays' Top 5 managers: Matheson's take

June 15th, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favourite at this position.

Here is Keegan Matheson’s ranking of the Top 5 managers in Blue Jays history:

Blue Jays' Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF | DH | RH SP | LH SP | RP

1. Cito Gaston, 1989-97, 2008-10
Key fact: Leads all Blue Jays managers in games (1,731) and wins (894)

Gaston was at the helm for the franchise’s biggest moments, including back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and '93 that made the native of San Antonio, Texas, the first Black manager to lead his team to an MLB title.

With rosters that overflowed with talent in the early 1990s, Gaston’s greatest ability was the trust he showed his players. He didn’t mind losing a game if it meant winning two down the road, which gave his players a sense of security that they would be allowed to fail and still fight their own way back.

“It was a situation where you didn’t have to look over your shoulder and say, ‘Gosh, I gave up a hit, here comes so-and-so behind me,’” said Duane Ward, a back-end fixture in Gaston’s bullpen. “No. Not at all. He would let you battle out of it.”

Gaston was added to the Blue Jays’ Level of Excellence in 1999, the first and only manager to receive the club’s highest honor, but returned nine years later in 2008 to manage parts of three more seasons. Gaston was already cemented as a Blue Jays legend, but that return certainly refreshed the memory of a newer generation of Canadian fans. It could be a very long time until we see someone unseat Gaston and his two rings atop this list of Blue Jays managers.

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2. John Gibbons, 2004-08, '13-18
Key fact: Leads all Blue Jays managers in ejections, and it isn’t particularly close. He took an early trip to the clubhouse 52 times in his 11 seasons, a number that doubles Gaston’s 26.

Like Gaston, Gibbons enjoyed two stints managing the Blue Jays, but his greatest success came in his second tenure.

Gibbons’ transition from a divisive manager to “Gibby,” a beloved manager bordering on cult hero in Toronto, was fascinating. Known for his laid-back nature that could flip from a smile to an ejection in moments, and a sharp sense of humour that could land brilliant jabs, Gibbons was misunderstood as a skipper.

Gibbons didn’t speak the modern baseball language -- he once jokingly called a reporter “Statmaster” for referencing Sam Gaviglio's home-and-road splits -- but his feel for managing players and lineups was deeply underrated. A hands-off approach may look simple from a distance, but up close, you see the strategy at play.

Through the playoff runs of 2015 and '16, Gibbons looked out at a clubhouse with José Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Marcus Stroman, Troy Tulowitzki, R.A. Dickey, David Price and others. Those are some massive personalities, but Gibbons understood when to insert himself and when to let the leaders steer the ship. That’s a subtle art form, but an art nonetheless.

"I didn't really feel like there was that pressure. Other places I've been, I felt like there was that pressure to have success," said Justin Smoak, who went from a struggling former top prospect to an All-Star under Gibbons. "Here, when you have so many guys having success at one time, it was easy to fit right in. Gibby's a big part of that because he allows it to happen."

3. Bobby Cox, 1982-85
Key fact: Led the Blue Jays to their winningest season in club history in 1985 (99-62)

Cox will always be remembered in a Braves cap, as he should, but there was a four-year period in the middle of his 25 seasons with Atlanta where he led some of the best Blue Jays teams in club history.

Toronto had win totals of 89 (twice) and 99 from 1983-85, with that incredible outfield of George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby behind the great Dave Stieb. The 99-win club in '85 is remembered as the championship team that never was, after losing to the Royals in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Cox left the following season to rejoin the Braves.

Now 79, the Hall of Famer ranks fourth all time in managerial wins (2,504) behind only Tony La Russa, John McGraw and Connie Mack.

4. Jimy Williams, 1986-89
Key fact: Holds the second-best winning percentage (.538) among Blue Jays managers who worked more than one season.

Between Cox and Gaston, we find Williams, whose first managerial job came in Toronto at age 42 before he went on to lead the Red Sox (1997-2001) and Astros ('02-04).

The club’s best year came in 1987, with a 96-66 record that tied for the second best in Blue Jays history. Williams was later dismissed in favor of Gaston after a 12-24 start to the '89 season, but he was coming off a string of three winning seasons in three years prior to that.

5. Bobby Mattick, 1980-81
Key fact: Played in the Major Leagues from 1938-42, prior to his front office positions with the Blue Jays, Expos and many other organizations.

Mattick spent just two years managing the Blue Jays to a 104-164 record, but one of the early pillars of the franchise deserves to be listed here for his overall contributions to the organization. An early employee of the expansion Blue Jays, Mattick was first hired as a scouting supervisor before moving into the role of director of player development and, eventually, manager.

In 2003, the Blue Jays named their training complex in Dunedin, Fla., the Bobby Mattick Training Center to honor his career.

Honorable mentions
Charlie Montoyo is only one season in, so he can’t be ranked just yet, but you can expect to see Montoyo begin his climb up the board as he and this young Toronto core move forward. … Buck Martinez has done it all for the Blue Jays as a player, manager and now broadcaster. … Jim Fregosi earned a 167-157 record over two seasons. … The first manager in Blue Jays history? Roy Hartsfield, who went 166-318 over the club’s first three seasons. … The most unique manager in club history? When Gibbons let Russell Martin (unofficially) manage the final game of the 2018 season, media obligations and all.