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Jays' season ending with player unrest over manager Gaston

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The Canadian Press
10/2/2009 11:12:33 PM
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BALTIMORE - One by one some of the most important and influential Toronto Blue Jays confirmed major issues exist between the players and manager Cito Gaston. Over and over Gaston expressed his surprise that there are problems, and that nobody in the clubhouse should have a problem with him.

It is in that disconnect that the latest crisis for a troubled organization with more than its fair share of fires to put out exploded very publicly Friday. As if the unresolved matters of charting a direction for the team, deciding GM J.P. Ricciardi's fate, and reinvigorating an increasingly apathetic fan base weren't enough for interim CEO Paul Beeston to sort through, he must now also settle a simmering rebellion against perhaps the franchise's most beloved icon.

This may very well be the most significant and pervasive level of dysfunction to ever infect the Blue Jays.

"There are issues, obviously," clubhouse leader Vernon Wells said before Friday's 13-7 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. "We have to figure out how to do this in a family manner. We're not out to bash anyone in this situation. It's a touchy situation. It's something that obviously most of us, if not all of us in this clubhouse, have not gone through something like this."

Wells indicated he and ace Roy Halladay are at the forefront of a group of players that also includes second baseman Aaron Hill and catcher Rod Barajas which intends to raise the clubhouse issues in a meeting with Beeston, and perhaps Gaston in a team-wide chat, this weekend.

While they were all uncomfortable airing their dirty laundry in public -- Halladay offered nothing more than the terse "Any concerns I have will be expressed to the right people" -- they confirmed what multiple sources at all levels of the clubs, including two players, told The Canadian Press earlier about the "friction" between players and Gaston.

At issue are Gaston's "constant negativity," poor communication and old-school approach and the problems stretch back to last June when he replaced the fired John Gibbons. There are also complaints about Gaston's hands-off, in-game decision making -- a criticism that dates back to his first tenure as manager from 1989 to 1997.

One player also noted that Gaston once said "there aren't any good players in here."

It's unclear if the relationship is salvageable.

"I think there are some things that need to be addressed," said Hill. "I think everybody pretty much feels the same for the most part. Everything that's gone on with the team, we've stayed together. It's one of those things where as a whole I think they'll stay together."

Gaston -- the 65-year-old whose contract runs through the 2010 season, just like Ricciardi's -- questioned just how pervasive the insurrection was, and said bluntly, "I've treated everybody with respect, so I'm not sure what their bitch is."

"I don't think you can and just rely on the players that told you that," he added later. "I think you need to talk to all of them to find out. If it comes out to 50 per cent, maybe we got a problem. And I'd like to know what the problem is because I can't be any fairer than what I've been."

He repeated that after the game, saying: "Guys are fine. I think you could go around and find one guy and one guy, but I don't think it's 50-50. I doubt it." Gaston then said he was done speaking on the topic.

Beeston, who will address the team Saturday, told the Globe and Mail that he too had trouble believing there are issues.

"I'm not pleased by the fact that anybody would talk to the press before talking to me first," he added.

That the players can be so frustrated and Gaston so unaware of it can't be a good sign as the Blue Jays try to move forward from what has been a difficult and disappointing 2009 season. Gaston, adored by disgruntled fans for leading the Blue Jays to World Series titles in 1992 and '93, has in many ways become the face of the franchise since returning.

Criticism for this season's train wreck has centred on Ricciardi, Wells and Rogers Communications Inc.'s indifferent ownership, not Gaston, which has irked some players.

"He shouldn't come out of this smelling like a rose," said one.

Prior to news breaking Friday morning, those who agreed to talk to The Canadian Press would do so only if their names weren't used. Some players wanted to speak to senior team officials first and didn't want to come off appearing as malcontents. But a series of interviews over the last few weeks indicate the problems are widespread and far beyond the normal tensions that often build up between players and a manager over a long, losing season.

The players who subsequently spoke publicly agreed things must be resolved, and soon.

"You can't sit there and let problems linger," said Barajas. "A small problem starts growing into a bigger problem and all of a sudden if you let this go for another four months, who knows what could happen? ... You don't want to go into a brand new season with a whole set of issues. It's going to make for an unhappy season."

Added first baseman Lyle Overbay: "It's something that we go through and we've got to figure it out because we're not going to be a very good team if this is going to go on. We've got to get it straightened out, either way."

One player said there was no team meeting or pre-game discussion with Gaston on the matter.

Compounding things is that there's also a split in the coaching staff between bench coach Brian Butterfield, pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and bullpen coach Bruce Walton, who were left over from the fired John Gibbons' staff, and Gaston's crew of hitting coach Gene Tenace, third base coach Nick Leyva and first base coach Dwayne Murphy.

Gaston said he wasn't sure if there were any changes in store for his coaching staff -- all under contract through next year -- but seemed to suggest someone was talking too much.

"If I'm a coach, and I'm coaching for Bobby Cox, I'm not going say anything about Bobby Cox on this level, because whether you're coaching here, it gets out and this might be the last place you coach in the big-leagues," said Gaston. "But as far as coaching, I've got coaches that are loaners, they go their own way, I always invite them to come out and have dinner. If you want to come you can come, if you don't want to come, that's fine."

The revelation of discord sullies what had been a seemingly seamless return to the manager's chair for Gaston, who took over a 35-39 team last June and led them to a 51-37 mark. Then there was a surprising 27-14 start to this season before the wheels fell off with a 39-69 stretch.

The issues with Gaston have existed the whole time since his return, but became magnified as the year went down the toilet. The locker-room unrest, ironically, comes to light during a torrid run on the field as the Blue Jays (75-85) had won six straight before losing for just the second time in their past 11 contests.

"This is not about winning and losing," said Wells. "This is about family issues. Obviously, if something comes out and we've won nine out of our last 10 games, it's not about the winning and losing."

Added Scott Downs: "I don't think anything really snuck up. I just think nobody paid attention to it. It was just one of those things where it was kind of `We have a job to do. Let's go do our job and play the game, play hard and let everything else take care of itself."' Whether or not that can happen under Gaston is now in question.

Few people have served the Blue Jays for as long and with as much passion as Gaston, although many around the team believe it is time for him to step into the advisory/ambassador role envisioned for him once his contract expires after the 2010 season.

"It's not up to the players to have me back here," Gaston said. "It's up to ownership, of course Paul Beeston and J.P.. It's up to them, it's not up to the players. I'm willing to come back here next year and my door is always open, guys can come in and talk to me about everything."

How open he really is about to be tested.

"Whatever goes on, obviously yeah, I'm going to be in the middle of it," said Wells. "Doc and I have been here for the longest time and we've gone through our share of managers and coaches a"

"I have not yet (spoken to Gaston). I think that obviously that the time is going to come. For some of these discussions I was going to wait until this weekend and kind of clear the air and get some things out there, probably from both sides. I'm sure he has things to say. I'm sure guys have things to say. It remains to be seen how that conversation's going to go."




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