Forget computers, Gaston a winner

JOHN EISENBERG

October 22, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

TORONTO -- Sitting around one day during the National League playoffs, Pirates manager Jim Leyland offered this free lesson in baseball physics: "If a team wins, the players get the credit. If a team loses, the manager gets the blame."

But here's one to chew on: If a team wins, can the manager still get the blame?

We're going to find out if the Blue Jays win the World Series. Cito Gaston is the Jays' manager, and no one sits around listening to his baseball Zen. It's not a nice thing to say, but no one much cares what he thinks.

His orders are second-guessed and criticized so incessantly in this otherwise hyper-friendly city that he finally started closing his door after some games this season, preferring just not to deal with explaining himself. When the Jays finally won the American League pennant last week, he looked at a gathering of press and said in his weary Texas drawl, "This has been a real tough year."

All managers get second-guessed, but none has it as tough as Gaston these days. He's only the fourth black manager in major-league history, and the first to make it to a Series, but the heat on him isn't racially oriented. It's just timing.

See, we live in the La Russa age, when you're basically considered a dolt if you don't pray to the lefty-righty odds gods or don't make out your lineup without using pointillist matrices, computer legends and other assorted whistles and modems. And Gaston, 48, doesn't operate that way.

He's from the old school, which is ironic, considering he wouldn't have been allowed to manage when the old school was in session. But he uses the same lineup just about every day, regardless of who is slumping. He leaves his pitchers in for what often seems too long, because they'd all rather pitch out of trouble than get yanked.

The common thread is he generally does what makes his players happy. "Maybe sometimes you look bad," he said, "but my

theory is, if you show them trust, they're going to do the job for you in the end."

It's a player-friendly idea, which is not surprising considering Gaston played a decade of outfield for the Padres and Braves, hitting .256 and making the All-Star team once. He had grown up in segregated San Antonio and was driving a garbage truck in 1963 when a scout changed plans in a rainstorm and found him on a sandlot, a graceful, long-legged kid.

"He was treated a certain way as a player, and now he's determined not to treat other players that way," Jack Morris said.

The problem is he doesn't make nearly enough moves to satisfy the average talk-show caller. And sometimes those callers are right. Why was David Cone batting in the fifth inning of Game 2 when it was obvious he had no stuff? Why wasn't Duane Ward on the mound in the eighth inning of Game 3, when an obviously tiring Juan Guzman gave up what could have been the losing run?

But Cone did drive in a run in that at-bat, and the Jays did come back to win Game 3. And everyone thought Kelly Gruber should be benched after going hitless in a record 23 consecutive postseason at-bats, but Gaston left him out there and he hit a critical homer in Game 3. Vindication or luck? Anyone who thinks he knows the answer is just guessing.

Gaston certainly doesn't pretend to know. When he announced he would start his pitchers on three days' rest in the playoffs, he was asked if he thought the plan would work. It was a dumb question: He obviously thought it would work, or wouldn't have tried it. But his answer: "Who knows if it'll work? I guess we'll see."

(Footnote: After Morris and Cone pitched poorly on three days' rest and Gaston was booed, he changed his mind and scheduled them to pitch on four days' rest in the Series.)

The facts are that Gaston has won three division titles in four years, and Tony La Russa went out of his way to compliment the manager who beat him in this year's playoffs. "I've never seen a guy catching so much unjustified heat," La Russa said. Gaston clearly is tired of it, saying he plans to manage only a few more years.

Anyway, it does make you think. Hanging around Gaston in this big year for the Jays, you do start wondering whether this game is so predicated on luck and whim that maybe it just doesn't matter if the manager is frantically pushing buttons or sitting there letting everything play out.

The poets and the Rotisserians would scream sacrilege at the thought, but Gaston isn't the manager for them. And he just might win the World Series, so who can say he's wrong? Well, a lot of people can say he's wrong. But are they right?

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