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Cito Gaston Is Getting Job Done as Toronto Manager

June 18, 1989|TIM LAYDEN | Newsday

TORONTO — The first 45 years of Clarence (Cito) Gaston's life were conducted unobtrusively enough. It's a stretch to recall that he hit .318 for the San Diego Padres in 1970, with 29 home runs and 93 runs batted in, and that he made his only All-Star team that summer. It's a more distant reach to recollect that he played eight more National League seasons--earning a living and making a pension, but ultimately drifting off into the anonymity of baseball card collector's heaven and eight years as a hitting instructor. He came to like it that way.

Two springs ago, in the roiling wake of The Campanis Affair, Blue Jays General Manager Pat Gillick approached Gaston and asked if he would be interested in managing. Not the Blue Jays quite yet, but winter ball. It would be an apprenticeship, servicing both the Jays' belief that Gaston might make a useful manager someday and baseball's fresh demand for minority candidates. No matter, Cito Gaston wasn't hot on the idea. His father was ill, his second marriage (with two children added to his own two) was just getting its sea legs and life as a coach wasn't at all intolerable. So he said no.

"I think he wanted to manage," Gillick said, "but he just didn't know when the opportune time was for him to do it. From some of the discussions we had, I think Cito was worried about the life expectancy of managers. He knew the mortality rate could be pretty high."

Gaston said, "It wasn't something I wanted to try at the time. I didn't need it. I don't have that kind of ego."

Cut to 1989. Gaston has become the fourth black manager in baseball history, the second (after Frank Robinson) since Al Campanis awkwardly and accidentally thrust on baseball the issues of minority competence and opportunity. It is an ironic twist on progress, for in a time when others (Bill Robinson, Bobby Tolan) have voiced their aspirations and still others (Harry Edwards, chiefly) have policed the sport's hiring, the Blue Jays have chosen the most reluctant of symbols. A man who has always preferred to stand in the background now stands for something. Something alive and current and important.

To say nothing of handling the Blue Jays, who for all their latent talent, have at times in the past two seasons seemed dead and outdated and insignificant.

"Cito's in a tough situation," Jays veteran catcher Ernie Whitt said. "It's hard enough to come in and take a last-place club and turn it around. But he's a minority, too, and the microscope is always going to be on him, on every move he makes. It's unfortunate that's the case, but that's the way it is."

For instance: The announcement that Gaston, interim manager since Jimy Williams was fired on May 15, would be the permanent manager was made on May 31, when the Jays were in Toronto. They returned to Toronto last Monday, to a crush of 450 media members. They were there principally for the opening of the SkyDome, but as long as Gaston was there and he the fourth black manager in baseball history . . . So Gaston was inundated. "That part," he said, "has been a little more than I expected. That will calm down."

He is a pleasant man, with a deliberate, resonant voice, tinged with remnants of a twang from his native Texas. The uniform still fits him in most places (in many more than, say, Don Zimmer's does) and if the job isn't quite so snug, he'll give it time. Patience is one of his virtues, so he understands the madness of representing his race and saving his team all in the first two weeks.

"After the Campanis thing happened," Gaston said, "organizations--this one has always been good--started to go out and hire minorities. But nobody's going to force anybody to do something they don't want to do, because that's bad business and this is a business. I want to be judged as a manager." And if that opens more doors? "That's fine, too. But in the meantime, I'm just trying to give off positive vibes all the time, have a winning attitude every day at the ballpark. If we lose, we'll get them tomorrow."

Some of Gaston's humility could grow from the manner in which the Blue Jays conducted their search. After Williams was fired and Gaston was named interim manager, Gillick said it was "99% certain" Gaston's appointment would not be made permanent. When Bobby Cox left after the 1985 season, the Jays stayed within the system by hiring Williams, their third-base coach, to replace him. That decision had eventually produced a team in turmoil and in last place in the American League East.

"Not that it was Jimy's fault," center fielder Lloyd Moseby said. "We just didn't play for Jimy. We didn't make him a great manager."

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