TORONTO — A cold rain fell on the first World Series game ever held in Canada, the same rain that wet the U.S. earlier in the day. Funny how rain works that way. Goes where it wants. Pays no attention to borders.
Inside the spectacular SkyDome, two hours before the first pitch, a one-time truck driver named Cito Gaston, now the man in charge of the Toronto Blue Jays, wandered through the tunnels much like the weather, ignoring borders. He is an historic figure, a pioneer, the first black to manage in a World Series. Gaston, in his way, is as important as Jackie Robinson when he broke the color barrier for players — maybe more so, because managing means they want you for brains, not muscle.
Yet there were no crowds around Gaston. No banners. No supporters waving fists and yelling, “Let ’em have it, Cito.” Instead, the story of the day was an accidental upside-down Canadian flag-raising in Atlanta. The race issue? A black man breaking a 90-year-old World Series color line?
Nobody said a word.
All this was fine with Gaston, who wandered the tunnel like a guy whose only burden was who to pitch and who to hit. “I don’t see color,” he said, as he always does. “I’m just trying to win a game.”
He was stopped by a Mexican man in a suit, who spoke to him in Spanish as he pointed to a colleague.
“Manana, Cito, si?” he said.
“Si,” Cito said.
The Mexican shook his hand and walked on.
“His friend wanted to take a picture with me tomorrow.” Gaston explained.
“I said sure.”
Speaks Spanish. Has black skin. Comes from Texas. And manages in Canada.
Maybe there’s hope for the world after all.
Didn’t want the job
Gaston, a tall man with a gentle voice, is the soft glue that holds these Blue Jays together. A former major leaguer himself — he was an All-Star outfielder in 1970 — he initially balked at the idea of taking over this club. Liked his life as Jays’ hitting coach. Perhaps, like some previous black candidates, Gaston worried that being manager would be more pressure than pleasure.
In the end, he accepted. “But only for a short time,” he warned his bosses. That was three years ago. Gaston, 48, has the best winning percentage
of any full-time manager in Toronto history. Tuesday night, he managed the ninth inning beautifully, getting the matchups he wanted, telling Dave Winfield two batters before he ever got up, “You’ll bunt if we need it.” Winfield, a power guy, did what he was told. The runners advanced. And when Candy Maldonado whacked the ball to centerfield, the Jays were two wins from a World Series crown.
In short, Gaston is good. And his team loves him.
“As much as we want to win this for ourselves,” said Toronto relief pitcher Tom Henke before Tuesday’s Game 3, “we want to win it for Cito.”
A nice tribute. Of course, all this is a long way from the ’60s in the Carolina league, where Gaston would sometimes stay on the bus while white teammates brought food in for the black players, who weren’t allowed in the restaurants. Gaston can remember those days, just as he remembers the last nights of his playing career, when he bounced around dusty fields in the Mexican League. There was one ballpark where a railroad track crossed the outfield. When the whistle blew, the game would stop.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Gaston recalls. “They were short trains.”
‘First’ labels aren’t lasting
When Doug Williams went to the Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins, there was no end to the question, “How does it feel to be the first black quarterback in this game?” Why has there not been a similar fuss here over Gaston?
“I think it’s because Cito doesn’t look at it that way,” said Winfield, who once shared the outfield with Gaston (as a San Diego Padre) and now plays for him. “He just sees himself as another guy trying to manage a team. There’s no reason to care if he’s black or white. It’s not a big deal.”
If that is true, then it’s a big deal indeed. Maybe sports is finally getting to where we needn’t mark the color chart, “first black” or “first Latino.”
And if that is Gaston’s legacy, what could be finer? He has taken heat in Toronto — but Tuesday he commanded the first-ever Series win on foreign soil. He takes it all with the same quiet dignity.
In the hallway before the game, a TV crew from Japan stopped Gaston for an interview. He stood politely while the questions were translated.
“What is most important part of your job?”
Gaston said, “To get guys to play together.”
Isn’t it funny, the path life takes? Gaston — whose nickname comes from a Mexican wrestler he watched as a kid — was discovered by accident in an amateur league in Texas. He played 10 years in the majors, including a stint with the Atlanta Braves, the team he is now trying to beat. And the man who finally cut him is Bobby Cox.
It was also Cox, who — remembering how Gaston never complained about being cut — gave him his first coaching job.
So let’s see: His passport is U.S., but he manages in Canada. His rival is the guy who gave him his start. He is a black man, nicknamed for a Mexican, taking a place in history alongside a long list of whites — and being interviewed by a Japanese TV crew.
The rain falls. It washes away the borders. And we, at our best, follow its lead. r