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Kelly: Blue Jays manager John Gibbons is bulletproof – until he stops winning

John Gibbons is recalling the first time he was fired by the Blue Jays.

He was headed to Pittsburgh. His two sons were travelling with him on the team plane. His wife and daughter were driving down to meet them.

When he got the message – that then-GM J.P. Ricciardi wanted to meet – he knew. It happened the next morning in a boardroom at the team hotel.

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Gibbons said he felt bad. For Ricciardi.

"He gave me this opportunity. He trusted me. And I let him down. That's what bothered me the most."

Gibbons, 53, is sitting in his office in Dunedin in his usual post-workday posture – reclined so deeply into his office chair that he's nearly horizontal. He looks tired and relaxed.

He didn't use to look that way. During that first stint, Gibbons usually looked wired and wary. He had the same genial approach, but he spent a lot of time looking over his shoulder. He took slights to heart. He held grudges.

Being fired seemed to help.

After that first time, he and his family rented a plus-sized SUV and drove back to San Antonio. It took them three days.

"The Griswolds," Gibbons said, smiling at the memory.

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He got a job as the bench coach in Kansas City, and then managed San Diego's double-A affiliate in San Antonio.

That was pretty close to perfect. Gibbons hadn't spent a summer at home in 30 years. Now he could mow his own lawn and sleep in his own bed.

"The team wasn't very good, but I was completely happy," Gibbons said. "I wanted another shot, but I wasn't obsessed with it."

He talked to new GM Alex Anthopoulos all the time. When Anthopoulos first got his job with the Jays as a number-crunching assistant, Gibbons told him to drop by whenever he wanted. Anthopoulos started camping out in the manager's office, talking baseball for hours.

Even though Gibbons was gone, Anthopoulos kept that conversation going via phone and text. He said he wanted Gibbons to return in "some capacity." Gibbons figured he meant bench coach. At best. He'd have taken it.

When Anthopoulos offered him the manager's job for a second time, the first thing Gibbons told him was, "Don't do this to yourself."

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"I honestly didn't think he could pull it off. What sort of PR move is that?" Gibbons said. "I don't mind taking heat, but I really thought it might be a sort of nightmare return. But he convinced me."

Shortly thereafter, the team made a huge trade with the Miami Marlins and was installed as the odds-on favourite to win the 2013 World Series.

"Well, then that s–– went south," Gibbons said. He raises his hands to the ceiling, "I thought, 'Good Lord, it's gotta be better than this.'"

The next season was an encapsulation of what had been the trademark of Gibbons-coached teams – real potential; occasional streaks of quality; but missing that nose for blood.

"I told myself to get ready for the jabs," Gibbons said. "I knew that if we didn't do better the next year, we were all gone. And probably rightfully so."

Then they won.

Gibbons doesn't have a twee anecdote to encapsulate the change. Asked for his signal memory of the team's three-month run from mediocrity to brushing with best-team-in-baseball status, Gibbons says he can't recall a thing. He remembers it all as one big blur.

Does he feel different now?

"No."

He seems different. It's nothing drastic. Just a small change in tone.

Even when it was going badly, Gibbons always kept things light. Now they're lighter. Things that used to annoy him – say, repeatedly asking about the status of an injured player – don't any more. The little things don't seem that important.

There is an unmistakable sense of a man recognizing and enjoying his last go round. If that's what this is.

When Anthopoulos left, Gibbons lost all of his protection. He's gone out of his way to praise new team president Mark Shapiro and his aide-de-camp, Ross Atkins – "They've been great."

Shapiro hired former Cleveland manager Eric Wedge as a consultant. He's also a replacement in waiting. Gibbons says that doesn't bother him either.

"Wedgie is a great guy, a great baseball guy. I enjoy having him around."

Do you worry that Wedge is here to take your job?

"No."

He says it in such a way that he could mean either that he doesn't think Wedge will get the job or that he doesn't mind. Then he shrugs.

For his part, Wedge told the Toronto Star's Richard Griffin that he has no interest in the manager's job. Instead, he's looking for executive experience.

Sure, maybe. It could be true. It could also change. You can't know until it does or doesn't happen.

For Gibbons, there is only one way to protect himself – win. Winning bulletproofs him from now until he stops winning. And that will eventually happen, because it happens to everyone.

In retrospect, what Gibbons has done is preposterous. He was an afterthought as a pro. He was promoted from bullpen catcher to interim manager to manager. He got the job twice.

Just about everyone who was here when he started is gone. He's outlasted them all. It's incredible.

Nobody gets that more than Gibbons himself.

Does he feel freed by last year's playoff success? Does he worry?

"No," Gibbons said. "Honestly, whenever I have to go, I will leave happily. I feel very fortunate to have done all I've got to do here …"

Gibbons has come out of his chair to say that part. He leans back, and stops himself before he get all the way down. He jumps back up, finger extended.

"… but I'd still like to win it all first."

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