Profile: Cito Gaston (1944-)

Cito Gaston has spent more than forty years in professional baseball as a player, coach, and manager. Best known for leading the Toronto Blue Jays to back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1992 and 1993, he is widely respected for his quiet, unassuming demeanor and studious approach to the game. Only the fourth African-American manager in major-league history, he was the first to win a world title.

The son of a truck driver, Clarence Edwin Gaston was born March 17, 1944, in San Antonio, Texas. The nickname “Cito” was not acquired until his teens. Gaston attended local schools in San Antonio and Corpus Christi, Texas, receiving his high-school diploma in the latter city in 1962. After graduation, he played semi-professional baseball in local leagues for roughly two years. About 1964, however, a scout for the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Braves spotted him at a game and immediately signed him. After several years of playing outfield for Braves-affiliated teams in the minor leagues, he made his major league debut on September 14, 1967, close to the end of the season. He played eight more games for the Braves that year, then missed the following season (1968), when he was chosen by a new team, the San Diego Padres, in an expansion draft. The Padres’ preparations for entering the league were not complete until the start of the 1969 season, when Gaston returned to the field. In six seasons with the Padres (1969-74), he compiled an impressive record. His best year was in 1970, when he hit .310, had twenty-nine home runs, and made the National League All-Star team. After the 1974 season he was traded back to the Braves, for whom he played another four seasons (1975-78). In September of 1978 the Braves traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates. After playing only two games as a Pirate, Gaston’s playing career in the major leagues came to an end.

With the exception of the 1970 season, Gaston’s statistics were merely respectable, not outstanding. What most impressed his fellow players and coaches was not his performance on the field, but the quiet dedication with which he studied the finer points of technique, particularly with regard to batting. This studious approach would serve him well after the end of his playing career, when his reputation for understanding the mechanics and psychology of batting landed him a job in 1981 as a minor-league batting instructor for the Braves, one of his old teams. The following year he returned to the major leagues as the batting coach for the Toronto Blue Jays, a position he held for the next seven years. By his own account, Gaston would have been happy to remain a coach for the rest of his career. In May of 1989, however, the struggling Blue Jays fired manager Jimy Williams and asked Gaston to take his place on an interim basis. Though Gaston declined the position at first, he relented after several players asked him to reconsider. A quiet, private man, he had to adjust quickly to the intense media scrutiny under which managers must work. “The worst part” of his new job, Gaston told George Vescey in the New York Times in September of 1989, “is the questions from the press. When the games start, I relax.”

The Blue Jays thrived under Gaston’s direction, and the 1989 season that had started so poorly under Williams ended with a division title. They won three more (1991-93) over the course of the next four seasons. In 1992 the team went on to win the American League and World Series titles, the first Canadian team ever to do so. They then repeated that feat in 1993. By all accounts, much of the credit for the team’s remarkable success belonged to Gaston, whose calm demeanor reduced players’ anxiety and strengthened their confidence. Joe Carter, whose ninth-inning home run clinched the 1993 series, told Walter Leavy in Ebony, “Cito knows how to work with each individual, treating everyone like a human being…. When you have a manager like that, it makes you want to play for the guy. We’d go to war for him. What Cito has done for the Blue Jays can’t be taken lightly.”

The success of 1992-93 was followed by a series of disappointing seasons, with the Blue Jays finishing no better than third in their division between 1994 and 1997. Gaston, hitherto a favorite of the Toronto press, began facing harsh criticism. His defenders pointed out that the expectations created in the wake of the 1993 season were unrealistic, as only a handful of teams in the history of the game had ever won three World Series titles in a row. Many observers, and Gaston himself, detected a note of racism in some of the most strident criticism. The most notorious incident in this regard involved a cartoon that appeared in 1997 in the Toronto Star, one of the city’s leading papers. In the words of Peter Schmuck in the Sporting News, the cartoon “showed Gaston sleeping in the dugout with a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign around his neck, and what looked like a liquor bottle in the batting rack.” Though many players and fans rallied to Gaston’s defense, criticism mounted as the team continued to struggle, and he was fired in the final week of the 1997 season.

Gaston spent the next few years traveling and exploring his options. Though he interviewed several times for managing positions, he did not return to baseball until 2000, when he once again became the Blue Jays’ batting coach. He left that position at the end of the 2001 season, only to return to the team in 2005 for temporary assignments as a “guest coach.” In 2007 he became a good-will ambassador for the team and an assistant to its president, Paul Godfrey. He was serving in those capacities on June 20, 2008, when Godfrey asked him to take over managing duties from John Gibbons. This time, Gaston accepted the job without hesitation. “I didn’t have to think too long about it because of where it was going to be,” Gaston told Allan Ryan in the Toronto Star. “It’s Toronto, the city I love.”

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