As the season began winding down, Cito Gaston continued to downplay the possibility of him crying during his farewell ceremony on Wednesday, September 28, 2010 as he manages the final home game of his career, as well as the final home game for the Jays this season.

“Hopefully, I can keep myself together. I think I can. I hope that I can.”

Cito Gaston, 66, was a native of Texas, and throughout his MLB career, was a National League player, and had never even been to Toronto before being hired as the Jays’ hitting coach in 1982.

During the “Thank You, Cito” appreciation night, many players were asked what it was like to play under Cito. The on-field ceremony was joined by some of Gaston’s former players in George Bell, Joe Carter, Pat Hentgen and Devon White. Management showed too, as president Paul Beeston, current GM Alex Anthopoulos and Rogers CEO Nadir Mohamed (who received an incredible chorus of boos—a little extra from yours truly).

Aside from the handful of players live at the ceremony, many weighed in during the opening video package highlighting Cito’s career. Gaston, on of the few ‘old-school’ managers left in the game, is often remembered as a motivator, trailblazer and a mentor. Pat Hentgen, for example, was under Gaston’s tutelage for two World Series rings and a 1996 AL Cy Young award, had this to say about Cito:

“If you can’t play for Cito, you just can’t play…Cito basically had two rules: you be on time and you play hard. If you can’t go by these rules, you have issues…sometimes less is more and you don’t realize that as a coach.”

Another prime example is Jays great George Bell. The slugger played nine seasons with the Jays, arriving one season before Cito came on as a hitting coach. After tweaking Bell’s batting stance to put extreme weight on his back leg, bell smashed 202 home runs for the Jays.

“You have to be a good coach to be a good manager, and he showed a lot of passion for the game. Cito gave me the opportunity to realize how important it is to learn how to be a hitter before (becoming) a home run hitter. We worked a lot on that.”

A tear now began to run down Cito’s face as he turned back to the crowd at the conclusion of the video package. And another one as he addressed the fans to conclude the ceremony.

Cito, alongside his wife Lynda, was presented with a first-class, two-week golf vacation to anywhere in the world for himself and three friends, a gold Rolex watch, as well as an incredible painting made by Vernon Wells’ father, a great painter. All of this as the crowd remained on their feet, nearing the 30-minute mark. Wells also weighed in though, finally saying what we were all thinking:

“On a personal note, he rocks a mustache better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Let’s run down Cito’s accomplishments as skipper of the Blue Birds:

Hitting coach: 1982-1989, 2000-2001
Manager: 1989-1997, 2008-2010
1989 – Baseball Man of the Year in Canada
1989 – AL East Division Champion
1991 – AL East Division Champion
1992 – AL East Division Champion
1992 – World Series Champion & first African-American manager to win a World Series
1993 – AL East Division Champion
1993 – World Series Champion
1993 – Sportsman of the Year
1993 – All-Star Game Manager
1994 – All-Star Game Manager
1999 – Blue Jays Level of Excellence
2002 – Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame
2008 – Negro League Hall of Fame Legacy Award
2009 – Received Jackie Robinson Award for career achievement from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Cito’s retirement was announced last winter, and this season, he has far-exceeded expectations for a now Roy Halladay-less team, guiding them to an 82-76 record, their highest win total since 2006. Though Cito is leaving the dugout, he will remain with the Blue Jays organization as an adviser for the next four years.

“It’s a lot different this time, I’m leaving on my own terms. It’s not too often you get a chance to go out this way. Usually they just tell you don’t let the door hit you in the butt on the way out…and I’m still not leaving, I’ll be around for another four years, so, it’s not like, hey, that’s it.”

It should be remembered, however, that Cito’s arrival was essentially an accident. Gaston was asked to take over the managerial position after the club had fired Jimmy Williams, who had led the team to a 12-24 record as the preseason World Series favourites in May of 1989. Gaston originally declined the offer, stating that he was happy as the hitting coach, but was eventually persuaded into accepting the role.

The team had stressed that Gaston would be the interim manager until the could find someone permanent for the role, and he was happy with that. The Jays were granted permission to speak with Lou Piniella, who then was doing TV work with the Yankees.

They were allowed to speak with Lovely Lou, but not to offer him a contract—if they were to hire him, George Steinbrenner wanted a package deal from the Jays—Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells and Duane Ward.

When they approached Cito, Piniella simply said, “You have the right guy there now,” and as the team started to win, everyone asked Cito to stay, who decided to continue managing.

The last thing Cito wanted was a Jays win to conclude their home schedule—and they got it. Many of the Jays sported eye black mustaches for the game, and it seemed to work.

Travis Snider hit a solo shot to lead off the game—his 13th and second in two nights, as well as the club’s 245th home run this season, breaking a club record held since 2000. John Buck smashed his 20th homer in the second inning. Finally, Aaron Hill hit his 26th home run, a three-run shot, into the second deck in left field as the Jays won 8-4.

The debate begins as to whether Cito Gaston is Hall of Fame worthy. I personally believe that he is, but let’s break it down. He’s the first black manager to win a World Series—which, by itself, is almost reason enough. But what qualifies one as a Hall of Famer? His reputation and legacy?

We know what’s he’s done and what people think of him. Is it World Series rings? He has two, which is the same number as Tony LaRussa—a Hall of Fame lock at the end of his career.

What goes against Gaston, though, is that many Cooperstown ballots are built between early-April and late-September with regular-season victories, division titles and consistency over a long period of time. Back to LaRussa, he has 2,633 wins, 12 division titles and five pennants over 32 seasons.Gaston has 890 wins over a 12-season career that didn’t see him hold a managing job from 1997-2008.

Finally, Cito was a man of class. On Wednesday, the day of his final home game as a manager (and of the Jays’ season), he took out a portion of the front page of the Toronto Star—the largest circulated newspaper in Toronto—and thanked the fans for all they had done:

Dear Jays Fans,

Before I leave the dugout for the last time as Jays manager, I wanted to tell you how I feel about you as Blue Jays fans and the city of Toronto. You have been great to me here and I will always appreciate your support and will always thank you. Without the fans we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did. Many of you have become my friends.

I call Toronto a second home only because I was born in the States. Deep down I will always consider this city a first home. I lived here for 20 years and I could live here forever. It’s a great city. There are very wonderful people that have treated me very well. I love the city. It’s the best kept secret in North America, from the theatres to restaurants. Some of the best food I’ve ever had I’ve had in this city. Golf courses, the whole works. It’s just a great place to live.

I really got to know and appreciate the fans here after I got fired. I always came back to spend the summers here. My wife and I, we walk a lot. So on our walks we ran into a lot of you on the street. Even the police officers and the firemen, even the mounted police riding their horses would stop and say, “Thanks for the memories. Thanks for the good years we had around here.”

That first World Series will always be special. We won the second one in such dramatic fashion. But the first one’s always going to be the one. When Winfield hit the ball down the line and Robby scored from first base—I can still see that ball. Both series were great, because the way the second one ended, what a fairytale that is. I know Joe Carter must still think of that every day.

Before the World Series years I don’t know how many times I was on caravans with Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth and we’d show videos of our past season. I got to see a lot of this country on those caravans and that was good. The saddest thing about it is that we always ended at a loss. Those were sad times, so close and yet so far away. We had a lot of years like that. That finally changed.

When I came back as manager in 2008 what a welcome I got. There were all kinds of signs in the stands saying “Welcome back”—even one lady had a sign up asking me to marry her. I guess she didn’t know I was already married. I still can’t go out to the mound, taking a pitcher out or leaving him in unless people are yelling their support at me. Sometimes games aren’t going too good and I still have to wave at them, even though it’s probably not the right time to do it.

I remember your reactions at the ballpark all the times as guest instructor at spring training before I came back to manage. It was very special. Sometimes, the players who weren’t here to experience those winning years, once in a while used to look at me a little funny, like “How does this guy get all this kind of applause every time he walks up and down the field?” You were the people that had been fans a long time and supported this team. I didn’t do this by myself. We had great support from the front office, all the way from the players and the fans. It’s a great feeling.

I miss Tom and I miss Stan—Walter Stancheson—who took care of the umpires. We called him Stash. He and Tom would be thrilled to even think that I was back here again managing. I certainly miss those guys. Memories of John Cerutti come across my mind a lot too. And memories of the fans.

Thank you for your support and thank you for your love,

Best Wishes,

Cito Gaston

So long, Cito. Thanks for the memories.

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