Gaston was racial crusader in time as skipper
Former player was first African-American manager to win title
TORONTO -- Cito Gaston broke down a lot of barriers during his illustrious 21-year career in the Blue Jays' dugout.
The former Major Leaguer helped put Toronto on the map with a pair of World Series championships and four American League East titles in the late 1980s and early '90s. But often overlooked is that Gaston also was a crusader for racial issues during those times, and became just the fourth African-American manager in baseball history when he was promoted by the Blue Jays in 1989.
Later that year, Gaston further cemented his place in the game's history by being matched up against Baltimore's Frank Robinson in the first meeting of two black managers in Major League Baseball. It was a special moment for the game, but one that Gaston has tried to downplay over the years.
"To be honest, I never even thought of it that way," Gaston said when reflecting back on his matchup against Robinson. "I just knew we wanted to go over there and play as well as we could, because they certainly were the team that we had to beat that year to win our division.
"I didn't think of it being the first time two black managers faced each other until the media brought it up. But I guess now you look back at it and it's something that will go down in history."
The three-game series, which took place on June 27-29, was the start of a heated rivalry between the two sides. Toronto began that season with lofty expectations, but a slow start and a 12-24 record prompted a change in the dugout.
Manager Jimy Williams was let go, and Gaston moved up from hitting coach to try and put things back on the right track. He was in the middle of doing just that when the Blue Jays traveled to Baltimore to face one of their top competitors in the AL East.
It wasn't until Gaston landed in Baltimore that he realized history was about to be made. The media put a lot of emphasis on the cultural significance of two African-American managers facing off against each other in a Major League game for the first time, even though the racial divide had long since disappeared.
"I was surprised that it took that long, but I guess I never really thought of it like that," Gaston said. "My mindset was just to try and win as many games as you can, no matter who you're against. I'm glad I was a part of it though. Things turned out pretty good for us that year, but it didn't turn out as well for Frank, even though he got [the AL] Manager of the Year [Award].
"The way I view that series still hasn't changed, but it's nice to be part of history."
The three-game series set the stage for what would become a battle of wills for the rest of the year. Gaston successfully turned the Blue Jays around, and the postseason was within reach as the 162-game schedule neared its conclusion.
Baltimore also had playoff aspirations, and fittingly enough, the two sides were set to square off during the final weekend of the year. The Blue Jays would go on to win two of three and secure their second division title in franchise history, edging out Robinson's squad by two games.
"We had gotten to a point in that season where we couldn't afford to lose a ballgame," Gaston said. "I had a lot of fun that year, probably as much fun managing that season as I had in all the other years where we won championships and World Series.
"We had a great ballclub because we had some guys who could manufacture runs. We certainly had guys who could hit the long ball, had some great kids who played hard for me. But going into that last weekend, if we lose two of those games, we're out of it."
Gaston went on to become the first African-American manager to win a World Series when he led the Blue Jays to the championship in 1992. Those were the so-called glory years in Toronto, but without that 1989 season, it might never have happened.
Gaston had to be talked into accepting the manager's role that year. He was more than happy as a hitting coach and hadn't put much thought into moving up the ranks until long conversations with president Paul Beeston and Tigers manager Sparky Anderson convinced him to give it a shot.
But more than anything, it was the reaction from Gaston's players that led to the long-term career change and prompted him to embrace the role by the time the 1989 season was over.
"The players were the ones that pushed me towards taking that job, because we started to play well and they wanted me to stay on," said Gaston, who continued to serve as hitting coach while also managing in 1989. "Once I got used to what a manager goes through, I started to enjoy it. And trust me, every day you walk into that ballpark, you might have a problem. You just learn how to deal with it.
"I remember the first month or so, I probably lost 10 pounds. It wasn't so much about worrying as it was that I didn't have time to eat at times, because I had so many things to do."
Gaston and Robinson still talk about those years whenever the two cross paths. The two have never been close friends, but there always was an element of respect and admiration for what each accomplished during his career.
"It was always a good rivalry," Gaston said. "Frank's a Hall of Fame player, and that's the way he played the game. I certainly wasn't a Hall of Fame player, but my heart is like that. Every day, I went out there to win, no matter what kind of club I had. Frank and I were very similar that way.
"We're two people that have put something that will go down in history, and we're both proud of that."