TORONTO - In one of the most hectic 24-hour periods in team history, the Toronto Blue Jays saved the biggest surprise for last.
Hot on the heels of having their mammoth 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins approved by Major League Baseball and finalizing a contract with controversial free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera, the Blue Jays unexpectedly named John Gibbons as their new manager Tuesday.
Gibbons returns to the Toronto dugout after managing the Blue Jays from 2004 to 2008.
"This came as a big surprise to me," Gibbons said at a Rogers Centre press conference. "It's really a thrill and an honour to be back. I never would have guessed that this could happen."
Gibbons, who had a 305-305 record in his first stint with the Blue Jays, says he has some unfinished business to take care of in a city starved for a winner.
"We did a lot of good things while I was here, but nothing great," he said. "I think something good is going to happen here."
Gibbons, 50, became manager of the Blue Jays in 2004 when then-general manager J.P. Ricciardi fired Carlos Tosca.
He was eventually fired in June 2008 and replaced by former Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, who had led the team to World Series championships in 1992 and 1993.
"It has happened fast," Gibbons said of being hired for a second stint. "I am thrilled to be back. It's always good to see some old friendly faces."
And with the player moves the team made in the last week, he's excited to get a second chance.
"There are too many good baseball people who are running things and putting it together," Gibbons said. "It's going to happen, so why not be there when it does?"
Those people are led by general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who stunned the baseball world last week when word leaked that the Blue Jays and Marlins had agreed to a trade that saw Toronto acquire all-star shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle.
He followed that up by signing Cabrera to a two-year deal worth US$16 million.
"The front office has put together a legitimate, contending-type team," said Gibbons, who ranks third all-time in victories with Toronto. "Now it's the manager's job and the coaching staff's job to pull it together as a team and get the most out of these guys. That's our No. 1 job."
Gibbons' name hadn't been mentioned as a possibility to replace John Farrell, who jumped ship to the Boston Red Sox last month, but Anthopoulos said he was confident he had hired the right man for the job.
"I don't know that there was anybody better in terms of managing a bullpen, connecting with the players, connecting with the front office, holding players accountable," Anthopoulos said. "Really everything you want in a manager. From my standpoint, I don't have any stronger belief that this is the right guy to lead this team."
Anthopoulos adds that he didn't weigh any factors like the public perception of bringing back a manager who had already been in Toronto.
"I've got more conviction in this transaction and this hiring than I've had in any," Anthopoulos said. "I can sleep like a baby at night because I know it's the right decision. It's my decision. It's what I wanted to do."
Gibbons' best season with Toronto came in 2006, when the club went 87-75 to finish second in American League East — the same season he had a well-publicized blowup with players Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly. Gibbons said he regrets the physical altercation with Hillenbrand, but Anthopoulos defended him and said if you can't play for Gibbons then you can't play for too many guys.
"I've always rooted for this organization. They gave me my first shot to be a big league coach and a big league manager," Gibbons said. "I've been following the manager search when I wasn't even involved in it."
In the deal with the Marlins that was agreed to last week but only finalized Monday when commissioner Bud Selig let the trade go through, Toronto acquired Reyes, Buehrle and Johnson, along with catcher John Buck and infielder/outfielder Emilio Bonifacio.
In return, Miami got infielders Yunel Escobar and Adeiny Hechavarria, pitchers Henderson Alvarez, Anthony DeSclafani and Justin Nicolino, catcher Jeff Mathis and outfielder Jake Marisnick. The Marlins also are sending cash to Toronto as part of their payroll purge.
Gibbons says he's honoured that Blue Jays' management put faith in him to lead a club that is clearly designed to win now.
"They invested a lot in this ballclub, especially these last couple weeks with what they've put together, so it's really important they get the right guy," he said. " And to go out on a limb and bring back an individual who was here just a few years ago is a big thing for them. It's not easy to do. I know it wasn't an easy decision for Alex.
"But when it was all said and done I think I fit the characteristics he was looking for."
Anthopoulos has said in the past the Blue Jays are willing to give second chances. That now applies to Gibbons and the 28-year-old Cabrera, who was leading the National League in hitting with a .346 average for the San Francisco Giants when he was suspended Aug. 15 for a positive testosterone test.
"Obviously, he made a terrible mistake," Anthopoulos said. "We heard he's a great teammate.
"I think he's going to be a tremendous addition to the lineup."
Anthopoulos had said after Toronto's disappointing campaign in 2012 — one that saw the club go 73-89 and finish fourth in the AL East — that he wanted to improve the team's starting pitching.
He did so in dramatic fashion, pulling off one of the biggest deals in franchise history that changes the look of the team and immediately puts the Blue Jays in the conversation for the division crown.
"Buerhle's career speaks for itself, what he does year after year, " Gibbons said. "Josh Johnson, arguably, the last few years has been the most sought after young pitchers out there."
Toronto, which has not made the playoffs since the '93 World Series victory, acquired combined guaranteed salaries of US$163.75 million through 2018 in the deal with Miami, including $96 million due Reyes.
Anthopoulos says the trade came about after initially inquiring about Johnson. After the Marlins started to ask for a number of prospects, the proposed deal started to expand to include Reyes and Buehrle.
Anthopoulos then spoke to Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston, who encouraged him to discuss the potential move, and the huge jump in payroll, with owners Rogers Communications.
"I always felt when the opportunity was right that Rogers would invest in the ballclub," Beeston said. "We've spent the money now let's go out and win."
But with the moves will come increased expectations.
"I don't want to put it into the context of what number of wins you're going to have but (the team) is built to win," said Beeston, who added both the trade and the hiring of Gibbons "were back to back shockers."
"I said 'Are you serious?'" Beeston said of Gibbons. "He's a baseball guy. And those are the guys you really want in your organization."
Notes: Gibbons most recently managed with San Antonio of the Texas League (double-A) in the San Diego organization last season. He also had three seasons as the Kansas City Royals' bench coach. ... Gibbons joined the Blue Jays' coaching staff in 2002 as a bullpen catcher and was promoted mid-season to first base coach. He served in that capacity until replacing Tosca. ... Before joining the Blue Jays the first time, Gibbons spent 11 seasons working with the New York Mets. ... Gibbons joins Gaston as the only managers to serve two stints with the Blue Jays. ... Only Kansas City and Pittsburgh have longer playoff droughts than Toronto. ... In a roster move Tuesday, the Blue Jays added shortstop Ryan Goins and catcher A.J. Jimenez to the 40-man roster and designated first baseman Mike McDade, infielder Mike McCoy and right-handed pitcher Cory Wade for assignment.