Gaston ranks among the best

I walk past the photograph every time I cover a game at Rogers Centre. It’s near the main entrance to the press box, one reminder of an 18-year-old moment that was very relevant Wednesday night.

Cito Gaston and Bobby Cox are smiling, palms locked in a firm home-plate handshake on a singular night in baseball history. The photo was taken Oct. 20, 1992, before the first World Series game played outside the United States.

Cox managed Gaston in Atlanta in 1978 — and released him in 1979. But their relationship was (and is) such that, upon moving to Toronto in 1982, Cox wanted Gaston to be his hitting coach. Gaston accepted.

Ten years later, they were at the new and brilliant SkyDome, friends wishing one another well with Canadian and American flags hanging from the rafters. Gaston’s Blue Jays beat Cox’s Braves that night, on a “walk-off” single by Candy Maldonado — although sportscasters hadn’t yet discovered the term.

Toronto won the series in six, and Canada lorded over the baseball world. Twelve months later, thanks to Joe Carter, the Blue Jays won again.

Now, in retirement, Gaston and Cox are together once more. The Blue Jays honored Gaston, 66, on Wednesday with a heartfelt pregame ceremony. The Braves will do the same for Cox, 69, this weekend. The respected men are part of a profound managerial exodus that also includes 67-year-old Lou Piniella and (maybe, probably) 70-year-old Joe Torre.

Of that group, Gaston has won the fewest games. In fact, he’s almost 1,000 behind Piniella, the closest member of the foursome. That’s a difference of 10 terrific seasons. So if you think a manager should be judged on victories alone, then you probably see Gaston as the equivalent of Buck Showalter. Good, not great.

But if you believe, as I do, that such careers shouldn’t be reduced to a winning percentage, then you must recognize the rarefied place in baseball history that belongs to Clarence Edwin Gaston.

Both Cox and Gaston made clear their intent to retire before the season began. Accordingly, Cox has been celebrated publicly in one road city after another. But Gaston has not, and that is a shame. More fans in the U.S. would do well to learn and appreciate his story.

Gaston is the first – and still only – African-American manager to win a World Series. And he did it twice. Ask him about his legacy, and Gaston mentions the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award, saying, “I feel like I have three World Series."

He remained faithful to the Jays, even though they dismissed him twice. He served as their hitting coach (’82-’89), manager (’89-’97), hitting coach again (’00-’01), and manager again (’08-’10). He hasn’t drawn a paycheck from another major-league organization in 29 years.

He became the face of Canada’s lone surviving major-league franchise, despite never playing for the team. The crowd for Wednesday’s tribute was 15,000 larger than it had been the night before. Clearly, a large number of Canadians associate Gaston — a native Texan who plans to keep a home in Toronto — with their happiest baseball memories.

Gaston could write a book on what American sports figures ought to do if they wish to be popular in Canada. Work humbly. Appreciate the fans. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself. If you make a lot of money, try not to act like it. In this multicultural city, Gaston remains a man of the people.

He gave them two titles, and so they gave him this night, one that sent tears trickling down his famously stoic face. His players offered the best tribute of all, an 8-4 victory over the New York Yankees. Some of the Jays — including outfielder Travis Snider, who led off the game with a home run — used eye black to scrawl Gaston-esque mustaches beneath their noses.

“He rocks the mustache,” Vernon Wells said of his manager, “better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

The night ended with Toronto clinching a winning record and establishing a franchise record for home runs in a season. The roof was open, the air was just cool enough, and Gaston tried to think of a way it could have been any more perfect.

“What a way to go out,” Gaston said. “I was certainly trying to hold back (the tears), but I think of all the different things that were said. … When you find out you touched that many people’s life, and it’s all for the good, how can you hold back?”

The pregame lovefest had just the right amount of sentimentality, with tributes offered in person and on prerecorded videos. If Gaston cried a little, his wife, Lynda, cried a lot.

Former Toronto heroes Carter, Devon White, Pat Hentgen and George Bell were here. Hank Aaron, the home run king who was briefly a Gaston teammate, praised his friend in a scoreboard message. Cox did, too, calling Gaston “one of the best guys I’ve ever known” and “a personal friend of mine forever.”

Cox, of course, is on his way to the Hall of Fame. He won a record 14 consecutive division titles, in addition to the 1995 World Series and Manager of the Year awards in both leagues. He has more than 2,500 victories and ranks fourth on the all-time list.

By any objective measure, Bobby Cox is one of the greatest managers in baseball history. Yet, Gaston has one more ring.

Since 1963, only four managers have led their teams to consecutive world titles: Dick Williams, Sparky Anderson, Gaston and Torre. The first two are in Cooperstown. Torre will join them. What does that say about Gaston?

I don’t mean to suggest that Gaston should go into the Hall of Fame immediately, or that he deserves more recognition than Torre or Cox. But he does deserve recognition, period. I don’t think he’s getting that from the average American baseball fan.

Not that it bothers Cito. At least, not enough that Wednesday’s moment was diminished. Gaston knows he could have upped his career win total by pursuing more jobs during the past decade. He interviewed for openings with the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago White Sox.

“A couple times, I just felt like I was going to interviews so they could say they interviewed a minority,” Gaston said earlier this week. “So I just said to somebody else, ‘No, I’m not coming.’ I was certainly happy in what I was doing and had peace of mind, too. It’s not anything I look back on and wish I did differently. It’s what happened. I always try to look forward, not backward.”

Gaston, for better or worse, is known for his calm demeanor in the dugout. Some have interpreted that as a sign of in-game passivity. I never did. I saw a proud and often outspoken man who carried himself with dignity in a business that isn’t always fair.

Wednesday was his reward. He exited with a victory in his final home game, on his terms, while tipping his cap more times than anyone could count. When the game was over, he simply clapped his hands twice on his way to the third-base line and embraced his players as they walked off the field.

And as he waved to the crowd one last time, the song played:Thank you for let-tin’ me be myself again