If you want a window into what's at the core of John Gibbons, the somewhat surprising manager of the hottest team in baseball, it's written right there on the whiteboard in his office. No, it's not a nasty note about a boating experience gone bad. Rather, it's a supportive message from his family that gets at Gibbons' true heart, the guy he is when he's not in the dugout.
Gibbons, the down-home, self-deprecating skipper of the newly-crowned AL East champions, has done almost nothing to decorate his spacious digs just to the right of the clubhouse doors. There are more televisions (three) than personal touches. Even the whiteboard, on the wall behind his desk, is typically left largely bare.
Angled into the bottom corner, however, one brief message has remained for months. It's from his eldest child, daughter Jordan, who's currently training to become a teacher. Earlier this season, during a family visit to Toronto, she was at the ballpark with her father on an off day. While he was out of the room, she wrote a few words to leave as a surprise for him. "Good luck on the season," it reads. "We love you Dad."
"I wasn't going to erase that," a smiling Gibbons says, reclining in his desk chair hours before last month's regular season home finale, Jordan's words just over his shoulder. "They left town and then I walked in and saw that. She's a sweetheart, man."
Gibbons might well win a World Series within the next few weeks, maybe an AL manager of the year award, too. Either way, he already's the leader of the team that just ended a generation-long playoff drought, reawakening an entire country to the joys of meaningful baseball after August. But whatever happens next, those aren't the things Gibbons would like to be remembered for. Family, not baseball accomplishments, is what he wants as his legacy.
"I've got a wonderful wife and three kids," he says. "I want to be known as a good guy who cared about others, who was a good husband and father, a family man."
In that respect, he has proven to be a surefire Hall of Famer. Married for more than a quarter century, his children are growing up fast—the youngest, his second son, is now a high school sophomore.
As much as he loves and is loved at home, Gibbons is equally genial around the second family he cares for so much, his boys of summer. Even those who've known him just a few weeks already have a strong sense of their skipper's family-first focus.
"I haven't been with him for too long but from that short period, you can tell that he's a player's manager," shortstop Troy Tulowitzki says. "He's been great with my son. That's been cool for me. There's more to this game than just what's out there on the field. How people treat your family and how people treat you as a person goes a long way and he's definitely made me and my family feel welcome. You don't have to do that. You could just go out there and manage the ball club, but he knows there's a lot more to life than just wins and losses."
Chris Colabello, who has flourished in his first season with the Blue Jays, credits Gibbons' calming influence as a key factor in the team's success.
"A manager's most important job every day is not writing the lineup card or making in-game decisions, it's about managing personalities. Managing guys and the way they're feeling, their emotions, what they're going through on a day-to-day basis," Colabello says. "There are things going on every day that people outside this clubhouse don't know about. A great manager is a guy who's able to make you feel like this is a place where you can escape and it's more fun than it is work. It's still a game. You play ball, you don't work ball. That's a really cool trait about him."
That Gibbons is here at all, poised to lead a World Series favourite against the Rangers in the ALDS, still sometimes feels a bit implausible. Around this time three years ago, he'd just wrapped up his first season managing a team of Double-A hopefuls in the San Diego Padres system. Ten-hour bus trips and two-bit hotels in the Texas League don't excite many people who've spent years living the good life in The Show, but Gibby loved his job, largely because he was based in San Antonio. It's where he went to high school and is the city he still calls home, a place he's fiercely proud of. Best of all, it's where his family is.
"I'd get up in the morning and mow my own yard, have lunch, go to the ballpark, play the game and come home to my own bed," Gibbons reminisces. "I wasn't home all the time and it was still late hours, but just being there with them, you know? It had been 30 years since I'd spent a summer in my home, other than that summer I got fired here."
Throughout his time in the minors, Gibbons was occasionally in contact with Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, a friend from his first go-around with Toronto.
"He'd call and ask me about players," Gibbons says. "I mean, he's relentless. He's always checking on different players, I don't care where they're at, if he thinks it can help his team or the organization. He would call me out of the blue about somebody in the Texas League. You know, 'There's a guy on that Tulsa team, what have you got on him?' and I'd give him my opinion."
Still, in the winter of 2012, the idea of Gibbons returning for a second stint in Toronto, taking charge of a team that had just loaded up with a series of stunning deals, was hard to imagine, even within the team's executive offices. When Anthopoulos first presented the idea of re-hiring Gibby to president Paul Beeston, twice insisting he was being totally serious, his boss was still incredulous. "Are you shitting me?," Beeston replied, and nearly every Blue Jays fan might well have said the same.
As he sat at home in San Antonio watching the grass grow, even Gibbons never envisioned a second stint in the Blue Jays dugout. "No way in hell would I have ever thought I was going to come back here," he says.
Yet three short years later, here he is. Gibbons sees it as coming "full circle," but he's actually gone even further, given that he's about to helm the most important games the Blue Jays have played since the heady days of '92 and '93.
Nothing on the journey here, all the many ups and downs, has changed who Gibbons is at heart: an amiable, measured man driven to do right by both his family and his baseball brethren.
"First and foremost, being a good person is what he reflects," says Colabello. "It makes you want to hold yourself to that standard, too."