The last cowboy: Old-school Gibbons a rare breed as 2nd Blue Jays stint ends
Brian Blanco / Getty Images Sport / Getty

TORONTO — The sun is setting for a second time on John Gibbons, the Blue Jays manager who is everything the Blue Jays aren't.

Gibbons' Toronto encore from 2013-18 has been one of baseball's unlikelier managerial stories - particularly since he survived a regime change that seemed like it would bring a logical end to his Blue Jays career three years ago.

Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins arrived from Cleveland preaching process and speaking at length of the many options and alternatives encountered at each decision-making juncture. In a post-Alex Anthopoulos era, it was like hearing a different language for the first time, and the shared vocabulary between Gibbons and the front office was non-existent.

But instead of bringing in their own guy from Day 1, as most new regimes in baseball do, Shapiro and Atkins stuck with the old guy.

And the Texan did what he always does: He endeared himself.

It's an odd-couple relationship that's worked, regardless of the on-field product. If this were a comedy, the front office has played the straight man while Gibbons has cracked jokes and winked at the camera.

Shapiro recently refused to speak in the past tense or address the obvious - that Gibbons is in his final days as the team's manager - but he didn't hesitate to express his feelings on a more personal level.

"What I will talk about is my impressions of him, which are marked more by him as a human being and his character," the Blue Jays president and CEO said. "I respect him, I like him, I enjoy spending time with him. He is tough. He is consistent. He is strong. He is humble. That's a rare combination to find in a human being. I feel better for having been around him and having spent time with him."

Gibbons stands as one of the final guardians of the old way, and one of the last managers following it in a manner that still functions in the contemporary game.

With most front offices taking a more sabermetrics-influenced approach by the day, managerial hires are trending in the same direction. Teams are going younger with managers like Gabe Kapler and Alex Cora, ex-players in their early 40s whose careers at least partially overlapped with the emergence of modern analytics.

Gibbons, 56, doesn't have much time for fancy stats, and he hasn't needed to - the Blue Jays have a beehive of analysts to handle that for him.

Earlier this season, when asked about a pitcher's home and road splits, Gibbons broke into his wheezing laugh and called the reporter "Statmaster," just one of many loving jabs he's produced at his postgame press conferences.

Instead of managing numbers, Gibbons has taken the rare approach of managing people. Step inside the office of John Gibbons, one of the league's most genuine and human characters, and you're in for an experience unlike any other in baseball.

__________

A few hours before each Blue Jays game, you'll find Gibbons with his feet up on his desk, leaned so far back in his chair that a hearty laugh could tip him over.

Gibbons is already in his cleats and baseball pants by then, and he's usually wearing one of a handful of T-shirts he keeps in rotation. Some days, it's a blue shirt with "Grandy Man" across the chest (even following outfielder Curtis Granderson's trade to Milwaukee). Other days, it's his white Taco Del Mar shirt with the sleeves ripped off.

Earlier this summer, when Gibbons was asked what his walk-up song would be if he were still playing, he took out his iPhone and played a Billy Ray Cyrus song for the writers in the room - all four minutes and four seconds of it.

At the lyric "some stood through for the red, white, and blue," Gibbons slowly pumped his fist in the air as if Billy Ray was in the room.

While some managers hold court with the media very briefly before games to distribute injury updates and boilerplate quotes, it's not uncommon to sink into one of the couches in Gibbons' office for 30 minutes or more. By the time the media walks out, nobody has laughed more than him.

That personality has endeared Gibbons to fans in a way that's difficult to explain to those outside of Toronto or Canada. The "Fire Gibby" cries have quieted in recent years, often supplanted by an understanding that Gibbons has done his best with whatever patchwork roster is handed to him.

In a season where the Blue Jays failed to meet even the lowest expectations and fell rapidly out of contention, the manager has somehow survived as one of the team's most beloved figures. In certain corners of the Blue Jays fan base, Gibbons is a cult hero: the one professional sports coach who walks and talks like they do.

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Ask some of the Blue Jays to describe Gibbons and you'll hear the words "player's manager" on a loop. It's a classic baseball term that doesn't usually mean much (a subcategory of the dialect that happens to be one of Gibbons' specialties), but Gibbons meaningfully embodies it.

He's had his dust-ups with players, from Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly during his 2004-08 managerial tenure to Kevin Pillar and Josh Donaldson during this one. But publicly and privately, Gibbons has come out on the right side of the story more often than not.

"If you can't play for John Gibbons, you can't play for anybody," then-GM J.P. Ricciardi said in 2006 following the Hillenbrand drama.

If one player in today's clubhouse could be confused for Gibbons' younger cousin, it's first baseman Justin Smoak. The slugger from South Carolina could pass as a Texan without much trouble, and has found himself playing for Gibbons in Toronto after struggling to meet sky-high expectations through his 20s.

"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," Smoak said. "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."

At points in the Blue Jays' 2015 and 2016 playoff runs, Gibbons managed a clubhouse with some combination of Donaldson, Pillar, Jose Bautista, Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Marcus Stroman, Edwin Encarnacion, and R.A. Dickey.

That's enough personality to fill a division, let alone a single locker room. Winning helped, of course, but Gibbons kept things steady by knowing when to stay out of the way. (Besides, that group contains a handful of future managers already.)

When he needed to insert himself and say something, that wasn't a problem. As Smoak said, Gibbons still "has that old school in him."

From Toronto's new wave of rookies to its veterans with uncertain futures, one thing ties them together when asked about Gibbons: They just plain care about him.

Though his approach might seem indirect and hands-off from a distance, Gibbons' trust and fondness for his players has been returned tenfold.

"I love Gibby," Tulowitzki said in a recent visit to Rogers Centre. "Without a doubt, I hope Gibby's back, but I also want Gibby to be happy, so whatever he wants to do, I stand by him. That's what friends do."

Keegan Matheson is the editor-in-chief of Baseball Toronto, which he founded in early 2018 after previously covering the Blue Jays for MLB.com. He appears regularly across sports radio and television networks in Canada as a Blue Jays and MLB analyst. Now living in Toronto, Keegan is originally from Nova Scotia. Find him on Twitter @KeeganMatheson.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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The last cowboy: Old-school Gibbons a rare breed as 2nd Blue Jays stint ends
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