Book Review: Gibby: Tales of A Baseball Lifer, by John Gibbons and Greg Oliver

May 23, 2023

By Kevin Glew

Cooperstowners in Canada

It seems like John Gibbons was destined to enjoy his greatest baseball success in Canada.

After all, it was in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, while his father, Bill, was working there, that Gibbons had his first at bat in a competitive baseball game.

And later when his family moved to Texas, the starting pitcher in the only live Texas Rangers game he saw during his youth was Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.). Jenkins threw a one-hit shutout.

These are just a couple of his Canadian connections and the wonderful stories Gibbons shares in his excellent new memoir, Gibby: Tales of a Baseball Lifer, which is co-written by veteran Canadian author Greg Oliver and released by ECW Press.

The book is an enjoyable, insightful and revealing read – one that perfectly captures Gibbons’ lovable southern charm. When I was reading it, I could hear the stories, sprinkled with Gibbons’ trademark self-deprecating humor, in the former manager’s distinct voice (And yes, there is reportedly an audiobook in the works).

A good example of this is the account he shares of the scene in his office in April 2008 when he had to tell future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas that the slumping slugger was no longer going to be the team’s full-time DH.

The conversation didn’t go smoothly and the 39-year-old Thomas was convinced that Gibbons and the Blue Jays were benching him to prevent him from getting the number of at bats that would trigger a $10-million bonus in his contract.

“I said, ‘Frank, I don’t have a contract for next year. I sure as hell ain’t worried about yours,’’’ replied Gibbons, in his account of conversation.

Thomas was released and finished up the season and his career with the Oakland A’s.

Fortunately for us, there are many more behind-the-scenes stories like this in the book. Gibbons offers candid reflections of many of the most memorable moments from his two tenures as Blue Jays manager, including his conflicts with infielder Shea Hillenbrand and left-hander Ted Lilly from his first term with the club.

On July 19, 2006, Hillenbrand, who had earned a reputation as a malcontent, had just returned from four days off after he and his wife adopted a child. The day he returned the Blue Jays were to face Texas Rangers right-hander Kevin Millwood, who Hillenbrand was 0-for-9 against. So Gibbons decided to sit him an extra day. Word got back to Gibbons that Hillenbrand was “pissing and moaning about not playing.”

Then someone wrote on the clubhouse chalkboard “the ship is sinking” and “play for yourself.”

The Blue Jays were a healthy 52-42 at the time and Gibbons was tired of being Mr. Nice Guy to Hillenbrand who he had went out of his way to satisfy during the season. So Gibbons called a team meeting.

“In front of the team, I challenged him (Hillenbrand), undressed him worse than I should have,” writes Gibbons. “It shocked everybody, I think. I basically told him, ‘Listen, if you don’t like it, take it to the front office. It’s either me or you because I ain’t going to put up with this shit. We bent over backwards for you.’”

Hillenbrand didn’t say a word, but he stormed out of the room and demanded a trade. Three days later, he was dealt to the San Francisco Giants with Vinnie Chulk for reliever Jeremy Accardo.

Gibbons later found out it was Gregg Zaun who had written the “ship is sinking” on the chalkboard.

“I never talked to Shea again after that,” writes Gibbons. “Somebody told me years later, he was trying to get a hold of me. I liked Shea, he had a good major league career, I hope he’s doing well.”

Long-time Blue Jays fans will also remember Gibbons’ confrontation with left-hander Ted Lilly on August 21, 2006. The Blue Jays had built up an 8-0 lead over the Oakland A’s heading into the third inning. At one point in that frame, Lilly dropped down and threw a sidearm pitch – one that Gibbons had never seen him throw before. He thought Lilly might have been “screwing around” with the big lead.

The A’s rallied for five runs on six hits – including two home runs – before Gibbons went out to the Rogers Centre mound to remove Lilly. Lilly argued with Gibbons and jabbed the ball into his manager’s stomach before finally departing. Gibbons followed the left-hander into the tunnel behind the Blue Jays’ dugout.

“I don’t remember if I said something to him first or he said something, but we grabbed each other and the cage match was on,” writes Gibbons. “The other players came down and broke it up. I had him in a headlock, but man, Teddy’s strong.”

But unlike the Hillenbrand situation, Lilly and Gibbons talked this one out.

“I handled it the wrong way, obviously,” writes Gibbons. “Someone brought Teddy over, and we talked it out. I told him I overreacted. He said his piece like that too. It was over. We didn’t have a problem after that.”

Gibbons also describes the most notable events in his second tenure with the Blue Jays, including Jose Bautista’s bat flip home run, Rougned Odor’s punch of Bautista on May 15, 2016 and Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the 2016 American League Wild Card Game against the Baltimore Orioles.

He also discusses the relationships he had with some of his players. For example, though he often clashed with third baseman Josh Donaldson, the two ultimately respected each other and Donaldson is one of his favourite players – in fact, Donaldson wrote the foreword for the book.

On the flip side, no matter how hard he tried, he never really got on the same page as R.A. Dickey. Gibbons admits he could never really tell when the knuckleballer was out of gas, so he relied on Dickey to let him know.

“R.A. and I never really meshed over our years together. We had some talks, but it never seemed like legit communication. And I don’t think he was real fond of me either. It’s no secret,” writes Gibbons. “He’d tell us it was time to come out, and then the media would talk to him after the game and he would say he was fine. That bothered me.”

And yes, Gibbons writes about his final season as the Blue Jays’ manager. In 2018, with the team out of contention, rumors were being circulated in early August that Gibbons was about to be fired. He figures it was the Blue Jays’ front office that floated the rumor out to the media as a “trial balloon.”

“That chapped me, nobody knew for sure who said it,” writes Gibbons. “Obviously, it’s somebody in the front office putting it out there, seeing the response they’d get from it.”

This strained his relationship with general manager Ross Atkins.

“Things got tense between me and Ross,” writes Gibbons. “I knew I was done after the season. I was ready, but if we’re going to do this before the season’s over, how about a little respect?”

On top of the interesting behind-the-scenes recollections from his days as Blue Jays manager, Gibbons also discusses his youth and his early years as a first-round draft pick of the New York Mets in 1980.

Some of his roommates over the years included Darryl Strawberry, Billy Beane and J.P. Ricciardi. He was also part of the wild 1986 Mets team that won the World Series.

Gibbons also shares plenty of great stories from his playing days. My favourite is the story about his experiences with Texas Rangers knuckleballer Charlie Hough when Gibbons was a catcher in Rangers’ spring training in 1989.

“I only caught him in the bullpen, and thought, Shit, I don’t want any part of that in a game!” Gibbons said of Hough’s knuckler.

He would see Hough around the Rangers’ training facilities.

“I saw him riding an exercise bike in spring training with a cigarette in his mouth – now that’s baseball,” writes Gibbons.

There’s also a fascinating final chapter about what has happened since his last managerial gig with the Blue Jays.

He passed on an opportunity to manage in Korea and was interviewed for managerial positions with the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros prior to the 2020 season after both teams were penalized for their involvement in sign-stealing scandals.

“I flew to Houston to meet with Jim [Crane, Astros chairman],” writes Gibbons. “They didn’t have a GM either since he was dismissed as well, so I sat there with Jim for about four hours and talked about everything. I was impressed, apparently more than he was . . .”

Gibbons landed a scouting job with the Atlanta Braves and earned a World Series ring with the club in 2021.

And now he is a bestselling author, a favourite on social media and the co-host of a popular podcast. Despite his newfound media success, Gibbons is still hoping to manage again.

“The only paths I ever saw were basepaths,” writes Gibbons. “I’m a baseball lifer. I love the game, and I want to be part of it. But I don’t want to overdo it. I love the managing aspect of it. I would like to have one more shot.”

Here’s hoping he gets that shot.

I would love to read about it in an updated version of his memoir.


You can purchase a copy of Gibby: Tales of a Baseball Lifer at the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame or here.

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