By Bob Elliott
LAKELAND, Fla. _ Former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland walked through the Blue Jays clubhouse and into the manager’s office without saying a word.
As he eased himself into the couch he picked up the blue lineup card in front of John Gibbons, took a glance and loudly exclaimed:
“Holy cow! Look at this lineup! You guys might not lose a game all season.”
As he spoke his hand began to shake in mock fear.
What Leyland saw was a batting order of 1. Kevin Pillar, 2. Josh Donaldson, 3. Jose Bautista, 4. Troy Tulowitzki, 5. Chris Colabello, 6. Justin Smoak, 7. Russell Martin, 8. Michael Saunders and 9. Ryan Goins.
The bus from Dunedin had just arrived and almost everyone was wide awake from the trip along Highway 4. The clubhouse TV was bringing awful news from Brussels on CNN.
And 10 seconds after entering Leyland had coaches Luis Rivera, Sal Butera, chief director of security Ron Sandelli and Gibbons all howling.
Leyland is a man who knows how to enter a room.
Outside on at Joker Marchant Field Leyland spoke about Gibbons.
“He did a good job last year, a great job,” Leyland said. “He stayed the course. He’s like an old shoe -- he’s comfortable to be around every day. He’s a real good fit for this team.”
And Gibbons, the old shoe _ or roughed-up Dan Post cowboy boots _ will be paid to manage the Jays with a re-structured deal the next two years. Gibbons said Tuesday morn that he and former general manager Alex
Anthopoulos had discussed re-working his contract in September.
The new deal was finalized at the winter meetings in Nashville. Gibbons goes from having a continual rollover clause in his contract (if employed on New Year’s Day, another year is added) to being on a two-year deal with a pay increase.
“It gives me a little bump, not that I am revealing what it is,” Gibbons said before the Jays faced the Tigers. “There comes a time that there should be some finality one way or the other.
“Or, who knows? It could give me some leverage down the road. You never know when that (double-A) San Antonio job might open up again. That was my dream job.”
Gibbons, a San Antonio resident, deserved a raise after guiding the Jays to 93 wins and the American League East title.
Yet, as one scout said “he’ll be fine with the new regime ... as long as he is undefeated and untied. He’s in the same spot Buck Martinez was in entering 2002, but (Gibbons) has extra year of security.”
General manager Gord Ash hired Martinez to replace Jim Fregosi for 2001. The former Jays catcher won 80 games but at the end of the year Ash was fired and replaced by GM J.P. Ricciardi. Martinez lasted only 53 games in 2002 before Carlos Tosca replaced him.
Gibbons now has less security than he did a year ago. Should he enter next season as a manager will so with lame duck status.
“He stayed the course, I’m sure a lot of people were saying ‘oh anyone could have won managing that team,’” said Leyland, who retired after 22 seasons winning 1,769 games (a .506 winning mark).
“Managing isn’t that easy. He didn’t ride the emotional high. Players respect him. His team plays hard for him. That’s a credit to John.
As AL manager, Leyland selected Gibbons to his staff for the 2013 all-star game at Citi Field in New York. Leyland was impressed with the fact after being let go as a bench coach by the Kansas City Royals, Gibbons headed home to manage the San Antonio Missons.
The face of the Pittsburgh Pirates for 11 years, Leyland managed the Florida Marlins for two seasons winning the 1997 World Series, guided the Colorado Rockies for one and the Tigers for eight seasons, twice winning the AL title, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals (2006) and the San Francisco Giants (2012) in the World Series.
“He’s a baseball guy, who likes to talk baseball,” said Leyland. “I’ve learned from him. I hope he has learned from me. He is an excellent manager and has an excellent rapport with his club.”
Gibbons said Leyland told him it was time to “start work on the World Series championship rings with the red Canadian Maple Leaf.”
“Of course,” Gibbons dead panned, “he told me that the last three years.”
And then the game began ... with one out Donaldson blooped a single to right off ex-Jay Daniel Norris, who then walked Bautista. Tulowitzki then hit a three-run homer and Chris Colabello doubled.
Later Colabello tripled off Regina’s Dustin Molleken, who gave up his first runs of the spring. In all, the Jays had 23 hits, seven for extra bases.
Leyland is right ... it is an impressive lineup, one that will make opposing pitchers shake the way Leyland’s hand had inside Gibbons office.
We don’t see them going undefeated.