Jays make intriguing hire in Gibbons

John Gibbons described it as a “shock” that “came out of nowhere.” That sounds about right.

Meet the new Toronto Blue Jays manager, same as the old Blue Jays manager: Gibbons, cashiered midway through the 2008 season with a 305-305 career record, is back again. The Toronto vacancy had been the subject of intense speculation over the past several weeks. Almost none of it included Gibbons’ name.

But now that he’s returned to the big dome by the lake, the move makes sense.

Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said he wanted someone with major-league managerial experience. Gibbons, 50, has that. He maintained a .500 winning percentage with the Blue Jays from 2004 through 2008, during an era in which the Red Sox and Yankees were more formidable than they are today.

The Jays also needed a forceful personality to keep the clubhouse in order, particularly after the blockbuster trade with Miami and controversial signing of Melky Cabrera. Gibbons has that, too. He famously clashed with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly during his previous tenure with the club, but that’s not the worst reputation to carry around. The Blue Jays can afford to become a little brassier, to the extent that the new built-to-win mentality should be accompanied by a change in attitude.

“I actually looked at it as a strong point,” Anthopoulos said when the Hillenbrand and Lilly dustups were raised at the Tuesday news conference. “What happened with Shea Hillenbrand, he’d better be confronted. [He wrote, ‘The ship is sinking,’ on a locker room message board.] Sometimes it needs to be done in front of his teammates. I don’t know any other way to deal with that.

“It didn’t reflect who (Gibbons) was, but I think it’s a strong suit. We know he’s a great guy, easy to play for. But if you push, he will react.”

Let’s not forget the franchise whose recent success the Blue Jays want to mimic: The Baltimore Orioles transformed their culture and made the playoffs this past season, thanks to improved pitching, better athleticism, and a manager — Buck Showalter — who learned from his past shortcomings in relating to players. Showalter proved that managers can evolve. Gibbons is already known as a strong game manager, particularly when it comes to bullpen maneuvering. If he adjusts his handling of players — even only a little bit — the Blue Jays will have precisely the leader they need.

The Jays have a clear mandate to win now — something they have lacked for most of the last two decades — and Anthopoulos probably isn’t done making moves. He needs another starting pitcher, as well as a solution to the search for left-handed power at first base or designated hitter. Already, though, this team is good enough to contend in the American League East. Gibbons knows that. Even better, he seems at ease with the responsibility.

“I don’t know how it’ll be received,” Gibbons said of his hiring. “I’m sure there will be a lot of people out there who like this and some who think it’s the wrong move. Ultimately, what the team does on the field is going to determine my fate. That’s just the way it is. It’s always nice to step into a situation where you’ve got pretty good talent.

“Baseball is not all X’s and O’s. X’s and O’s are a must in football. In baseball, it’s getting the most out of what you’ve got. You look at what the front office has done lately, this gets everybody’s attention. This is serious stuff now. Who wouldn’t want to be here? It’s a pretty special time right now.”

What has Gibbons been up to since Cito Gaston replaced him as the Toronto manager more than four years ago? Well, he spent three seasons as bench coach of the Kansas City Royals — Cabrera was there for one of them — and managed his hometown San Antonio Missions of the Class AA Texas League, a San Diego Padres affiliate, in 2012.

The (second) courtship with the Jays was quick. Anthopoulos didn’t request permission from the Padres to speak with Gibbons until the end of last week, after the industry-rattling move that brought Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck to Toronto. Anthopoulos met with Gibbons over the weekend and formally decided on the hire Monday night.

To the extent that GM-manager synergy is more important than ever, this reunion is off to a splendid start. Anthopoulos and Gibbons spoke of the mutual admiration they have for one another, dating back to Gibbons’ time as a Toronto coach while Anthopoulos was a young executive in the organization. Anthopoulos praised Gibbons’ acumen in evaluating players while speaking genuinely about the confidence in his choice.

Ben Cherington and the forced-upon Bobby Valentine, they are not.

“I’ve got more conviction in this transaction, this hiring, than I’ve had in any (move as GM),” Anthopoulos said. “I can sleep like a baby at night. I know this was the right decision. It’s my decision. It’s what I want to do.”

For the third time in a week, Anthopoulos stunned the baseball world. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s going to work.