Commentary

Newly hired Gaston could ultimately save or doom Ricciardi's job

Originally Published: July 1, 2008
By Sean McAdam | Special to ESPN.com

It has not, by any measure, been a fun month to be J.P. Ricciardi.

In the span of a few days, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays: (1) went against baseball protocol by publicly criticizing an opposing player (Cincinnati's Adam Dunn) on a Toronto radio show, angering ownership and resulting in a public apology; (2) fired his longtime friend -- and one-time roommate -- John Gibbons as his manager; and (3) heard and read widespread speculation that Gibbons' replacement, Cito Gaston, was not his choice but rather forced on him from above.

[+] EnlargeJ.P. Ricciardi
AP Photo/Mike CarlsonThe Blue Jays have failed to reach the postseason in the past six seasons under the direction of general manager J.P. Ricciardi.
All of which, in turn, led to talk that the next Toronto firing might be his own.

But Ricciardi is done apologizing. And if that means his job security is open to question, so be it.

"I'm not worried about getting fired," said Ricciardi. "I don't worry about that at all. If they want to make a change, that's up to ownership. If tomorrow they called and let me go, I'd be OK."

He bristles at the suggestion that he sacrificed Gibbons to protect himself.

"I don't want to do something to save my job," he said. "My job is to do what's best for the Blue Jays."

Almost two weeks ago, Ricciardi determined that the way things were going -- last place in the competitive American League East, with a moribund offense -- was most assuredly not what was best for the Blue Jays.

After a loss to the Brewers in Milwaukee, he thought for the first time that the team "looked flat."

"I thought to myself, 'I don't think we can let this go,'" said Ricciardi.

The next day, he phoned Gaston, still with the organization, to ask the former Blue Jays manager if he would like to become the present Blue Jays manager. Gaston, who managed the Jays to back-to-back World Series championships in 1992 and '93 -- the last postseason appearance for the franchise -- didn't hesitate to signal his willingness to return to the dugout.

When Ricciardi informed team president and CEO Paul Godfrey of his choice to replace Gibbons, there was surprise -- Gaston, after all, had not managed since 1997 -- but no lack of support.

OTHER GMS ON THE HOT SEAT

• Omar Minaya: Firing manager Willie Randolph temporarily shifted the focus from Minaya, but if the Mets don't reach the postseason with the game's second-highest payroll, he'll be back in the crosshairs.

Omar Minaya

Minaya

Increasingly, there's the perception that Minaya has constructed an ill-fitting roster with no regard for chemistry. Worse, the minor league system has been stripped bare. As the Mets get ready to move into a new ballpark, owner Fred Wilpon may opt for a thorough housecleaning to rid the franchise of last September's epic collapse -- once and for all.

• Ned Colletti: Expectations were high in Los Angeles, but the team has struggled through the first half, remaining on the periphery of the National League West race almost by default rather than their own virtues.

Ned Colletti

Colletti

Colletti is in just his third season, but owner Frank McCourt's patience may be wearing: Never mind the 50th anniversary move from Brooklyn; it's now been 20 years since the Dodgers have won a playoff series. A number of free-agent deals have backfired on Colletti (Jason Schmidt, Juan Pierre), but the signing of Andruw Jones may prove to be his undoing.

• Jim Bowden: The Nationals haven't made much headway under Bowden, and it doesn't help that the upstart Florida Marlins are flirting with the division lead despite a much smaller payroll.

Jim Bowden

Bowden

Some thought that Bowden and CEO Stan Kasten were an odd fit from the beginning. The Nats' new ballpark may help spike attendance, but soon the honeymoon will be over and fans will start expecting a better product on the field.

There were suggestions that Gaston's return was masterminded by Godfrey or some higher-ups at Rogers Communications to restore some good will with an alienated fan base which has never fully embraced the Jays since the strike of 1994-95. Gaston, it was thought, was a nostalgic and sentimental choice to distract from the disappointment of the 2008 Jays.

"I don't know what the perception was," said Ricciardi, "but this was totally my call. [Godfrey] was on board [with the choice of Gaston], but no one called to tell me to do this. I have complete autonomy. This was my call all the way."

Gaston has already rescued the Jays once, taking over for Jimy Williams in 1989 and guiding the Jays to the playoffs. Ricciardi isn't sure it can happen again, but he still thought the change was necessary.

"We've underachieved offensively," he said, noting that the Jays ranked near the bottom of the American League in virtually every significant category. "We had to change something -- change the mind-set, change the approach."

The Jays have been horrific in their situational hitting, particularly with runners in scoring position, and have 30 one-run losses to show for their futility. Gaston, once a respected hitting coach, may have the tonic.

"We needed someone who's been through it and had some success," Ricciardi said. "Cito is a solid offensive guy. Our whole mind-set has to change, from the manager on down. And it starts at the top."

Gaston has already held some meetings with hitters and offered some suggestions. His steady, quiet professionalism has had an impact in the clubhouse.

"He's old-school," Ricciardi said, "but in a good way. He's the perfect fit. And if we're going to salvage the season, we'd better start now."

For the Jays, this wasn't supposed to be a season to salvage, but rather one to savor.

Limited by injuries last season, the Jays boosted their payroll to nearly $100 million for this season, mixing veterans (Lyle Overbay, Roy Halladay and Vernon Wells) with younger, homegrown players (Aaron Hill, Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan).

Ricciardi also traded the placid Troy Glaus for the more fiery Scott Rolen, then added spark plug David Eckstein, remaking the left side of the Toronto infield, and not incidentally, the makeup of the team.

Rolen and Eckstein had won championships elsewhere and were known as high-energy players, a contrast to the more laid-back Wells and Alex Rios.

But right from the beginning, injuries intervened. Wells and Rolen missed extended time, and Rios, who was awarded a multiyear contract extension in early April, grossly underperformed.

Something had to be done.

"This is the best team we've had since I've been here," Ricciardi said, "but we've underperformed. I'm disappointed more than anything. We need to get back to .500 and see if we can put ourselves in position for the wild card."

I don't know what the perception was, but this was totally my call. [Team president and CEO Paul Godfrey] was on board [with the choice of Cito Gaston as the Blue Jays' new manager], but no one called to tell me to do this. I have complete autonomy. This was my call all the way.

--Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi

Failing that, Ricciardi's job could be in jeopardy, especially with industry sources reporting that Godfrey will soon leave his post as team president. Godfrey hired Ricciardi and has unfailingly backed him and hailed the franchise's improved financial picture and development system. But if Godfrey departs, the general manager's safety net could be removed.

Asked about Godfrey moving on, Ricciardi said: "I haven't been told anything about that."

Ricciardi is in his seventh season on the job in Toronto and the Blue Jays have been unable to break through the AL East glass ceiling, as they've been outspent and outperformed by the Goliath Red Sox and Yankees. Worse, the Tampa Bay Rays appear, for now, to have beaten them to the task.

Ricciardi hears criticism of his draft picks -- in particular, his passing on Troy Tulowitzki for pitching bust Ricky Romero in 2005 sets off many of the detractors -- but points to five past selections on the major league roster and a refurbished farm system that holds promising prospects like outfielder Travis Snider and left-handed pitcher Brett Cecil as recent draft successes.

"The system," said Ricciardi, "is in good shape."

Whether Ricciardi is, too, with his chief benefactor said to be gone soon, may well be dependent on how well Gaston does in his second act in the dugout.

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.

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