TORONTO - There's a "For Sale" sign on franchise cornerstone Roy Halladay, the optimism sparked by the Toronto Blue Jays' torrid start to the season has been replaced by harsh reality in recent weeks, and the future points more to rebuilding than contending.
Tumultuous times at the Rogers Centre? You bet.
But as the Blue Jays appear destined for a 16th straight year out of the post-season and attendance shrinks, manager Cito Gaston is the calm at the centre of the storm.
The team that was 27-14 on May 18, leading the American League East by 3 1-2 games, is long gone, now closer to last-place Baltimore than first-place Boston.
With no payroll increase in the cards for 2010, and perhaps facing another spending cut this winter, there's a possibility the club will be stripped down for a major retooling, if not a total rebuild.
And if that does indeed happen it will be Gaston, in his second stint as Blue Jays manager, who lays the new foundation. Once knocked for his handling of young players, he deserves credit for allowing Adam Lind, Aaron Hill and Ricky Romero, among others, to blossom under his watch.
He's also got far more out of the current roster than anyone expected, and will remain an icon in the city, even if he can't lead the Jays out of the wilderness, let alone to a World Series championship for the third time.
So Gaston may very well be the right man at the right time for an organization trying to chart its future. At 65, he's got a life full of experiences in the game to draw on as he faces what could be his greatest and - with a contract that ends after 2010 - perhaps final challenge as a big-league manager.
Ron Washington really needed some answers.
He was just 25, in Venezuela for the first time, desperate to get home after playing for Mexico in the 1977 Caribbean World Series. Yet officials at the Caracas airport wouldn't let him get on his flight, and for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why.
"I'm in my first time in a country I know nothing about and they were giving me problems," Washington, now manager of the Texas Rangers, recalled earlier this season. "I happened to look around and I saw this tall guy in a line and I said, 'Damn, that looks like Cito Gaston.'
"I remembered Cito from the Caribbean series, and I went to him. Cito had played a lot of years in winter ball in Venezuela, he spoke a little Spanish, he talked to them and he helped me get out of Venezuela. We've been friends ever since."
Washington laughs when he thinks of how Gaston had all the answers that day. He believes that's why Gaston commands so much respect in the dugout.
"I love Cito, because every time you talk to Cito, he makes you feel good," he said. "He's got this presence. Sometimes it's not just the presence of the players, it's the presence of their leader, too. Cito is one hell of a leader."
Dusty Baker thought he was ready for anything when he started playing pro ball in 1967. But when the 18-year-old from Riverside, Calif., arrived at camp with the double-A Austin Braves, he quickly found himself over his head.
It wasn't the baseball - it was the racism. And he might not have lasted without Gaston's guidance.
"He was a new signing like me but I'd never been to the South and Cito was from Texas, so he knew how things were," Baker, manager of the Cincinnati Reds, explained recently. "I played my first game in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1967, at a time when civil rights, racial unrest, Lester Maddox and George Wallace, Vietnam were all big.
"They had a mental institution right next to the stadium and once a week they would bring all the people from the hospital and sit them in right field, and I was playing right field. I dropped the first ball hit to me and they called me some names I ain't never heard before. I started crying. I wanted to go home back to California. I called my mama and said, 'I'm going to quit, I don't like this.' Then Cito came over and told me, 'Come hang with me kid,' and he took care of me and Ralph Garr from that point on every day.
"His demeanour, his baseball intellect, his outlook on things - he's helped me a lot."
The way Gaston goes out of his way to help people is what sets him apart, according to Baker, who continues to lean on his former minor-league teammate for advice.
"I'd run stuff by Cito all the time when he was out of the game, asking him how he'd deal with this, how he'd deal with that," said Baker. "You know you're going to get a straight answer and probably an answer on some things he's been through before. I know he's not talking out of some manual, he's talking out of the life book, so to speak.
"He just has a great outlook on things."
When Gaston speaks, you really have to pay attention. Sometimes his voice is hardly more audible than a whisper, and while it's not exactly by design, it serves him well.
"I guess I must have gotten it from my mom," Gaston said. "I know when someone's screaming, no one listens. But if you talk soft, people lean forward to hear what you have to say and they have more patience to hear what you have to say. Why do people listen to me? I don't know. I'm consistent, though. I'll stay after a guy if I see something that's not right, to the point sometimes where he probably gets upset with me. But I'll say, 'I don't care, all I care about is you getting better.'
"I live my life to treat people the way you like to be treated, and it's very easy to do. I really don't understand people who can't do that because if you want to be treated poorly, then treat people poorly. If he thinks I'm a jerk, he's not going to listen to a word I say.
"To me it's very simple."
Kenny Williams figures he wouldn't be general manager of the Chicago White Sox if not for the two partial seasons he spent in Toronto, often sitting by Gaston's side in the Blue Jays dugout.
He wonders how much different his career might have played out had he met Gaston earlier and benefited more from his "superior knowledge and a way of looking at the game that supersedes most guys."
Williams nearly hired Gaston to manage the White Sox for the 2004 season before settling on Ozzie Guillen instead, partly out of the loyalty owner Jerry Reinsdorf felt towards a former player.
"I had everyone fly to me to be interviewed," Williams said, "but I flew to Cito, that's the level of respect I have for him. And it's not because he put me in the lineup all the time, because I didn't play a whole lot.
"When it comes to hitting, people tend to focus on mechanics. While he understands and certainly is a student of mechanics, he also understands the value of mentally preparing you for each individual at-bat. I didn't understand that and respect that enough until I got here. Other coaches talked about it, but not how to. There's a difference between someone saying it and someone showing you how.
"The best advice he gave me, the thing that clicked in me, and it's too bad I never really got a chance to play very much after I finally learned this, is he asked me a simple question: 'How many at-bats do you think you waste every game you get to start?' I was honest with him and myself, and said probably one. He said, 'If you played every day, that's 0-for-162, try to dig out of that hole.' I never wasted another at-bat.
"You know, coaches can say fight, fight, fight, fight. That one thing resonated."
Orlando Hudson was just a fast-talking, borderline hyperactive kid in the Blue Jays farm system when he first met Gaston about a decade ago. During spring training, Gaston was in camp as a guest instructor, and Hudson still draws on the lessons he received.
That rep about Gaston not being able to work with young players? Hudson laughs.
"He's just so smart about ball playing, you listen to him and you're like, 'This is the type of guy who should be in the GM office,"' said Hudson, the Los Angeles Dodgers all-star second baseman. "He can tell young players, 'Hey, you are in a slump but don't worry about that, I been there, done that. Let me tell you what you're doing. Step back off the plate a little bit, bring your hands in a little bit.'
"He's just right on point with everything, from pitching to hitting. He taught me a lot about certain pitchers, patterns, what to look for, what to think about before you go to the plate, what your mindset is before you go to the box.
"I told him once, 'Gosh Mr. Gaston, I ain't never thought about all that."'
Hudson puts Gaston on the same level as his current manager, Joe Torre.
"Them boys can take a team of 10-year-olds," he said, "and probably win 20 games in the big leagues."
Any discussion with Gaston about hitting starts with "having a plan." He adamantly believes batters should go up to the plate intent on hitting a specific pitch, look for it, and never guess about what's going to come out of a pitcher's hand. He often laments that he didn't "learn how to hit" until late in his playing career.
The approach comes from a rant by his general manager in 1975.
"Eddie Robinson," Gaston said, smiling at the memory. "It was in my first year back with the Braves and we came off a bad West Coast trip, and Eddie had a meeting. He was the GM so it was a little unusual.
"During the meeting he says, and I'll be nice - he used the F-word, 'Do you guys ever look for a pitch to hit?' And it just kind of opened my eyes. I've always been taught to listen, because a guy can say 101 words, and the last one might be the one that helps you. But if you don't listen, you'll never hear that one word.
"So I was thinking, man, what did he mean by that? Most of the time you're taught to look fastball and adjust to breaking ball. You find out real quick in the big leagues you can't hit like that. So I asked him what he meant by that and he said, 'You walk up to the plate and if you want to hit the fastball, hit the fastball, and anything else you take."'
Gaston has been preaching that approach ever since.
"If the pitcher's got a real bastard pitch, you don't ever want to swing at that," he said. "You give him that pitch and say I'm looking fastball, or I'm going to look for a breaking ball. Guessing is looking fastball and he throws you a curveball for a strike, and you say I'm going to look curveball. Then he throws you a fastball, so you got your pitch, but you're guessing and weren't ready for it."
There's lots of pressure on players in the big leagues. Clubhouses can be an insecure place, few jobs are very safe, and virtually every action is judged by both the public and the team's hierarchy. Some managers pile on the tension, others ease the load.
Former Blue Jays pitcher Al Leiter believes no one does the latter better than Gaston.
"Innately, because of the way the game is, it's about failure," said Leiter, now a TV analyst for the New York Yankees. "So you're already going to be agitated because you feel like you're not worthy, and if you have a manager that's pushing on you even more, that doesn't help. He's just really positive, a positive guy.
"There's no bullshit. He'll take you aside and say, 'Hey, what you did the other day wasn't cool, blah, blah, blah,' but it's not a rant, it's not turning tables over, it's not M-Fing you. It's treating you like an adult, with respect.
"He cares about your family, he cares about you as a person. That's important. If I'm going to work with you and I'm going to be your mentor and help you, shouldn't I know something about you? That way, I know your head's up your ass after the last road trip because you feel comfortable enough with me to talk about something that happened with your wife, or your kid struggling in school, whatever.
"There was never a time I went away and said, 'Man, that was kind of a jerk move.' Never. And there were plenty of times where he could have with me."
There's a theory that Gaston is programmed to dislike pitchers. He's all about hitting, all about picking pitchers apart. Some people believe he just doesn't really want to deal with them.
A.J. Burnett disagrees. During their four months together last season, he appreciated the way Gaston would let him be, and particularly the confidence he showed by leaving pitchers in the game when they were in trouble.
"Cito would come down periodically in the dugout with something about hitters if you were pitching the next day, just giving you a little insight," said Burnett, who's now with the New York Yankees. "Even sometimes during one of my really good games, I could be shutting, he might say something anyway. But he lets you pitch.
"I've always been a (former Jays manager John Gibbons) fan and I'll fight for Gibby until the day I die because I love him to death, but Cito always left us out there, like 'These are my starters, I'm going to run as far as I can before I have to take them out of the game.' That's what the starters respected most about him. When it came to that crunch time, when it came to that point in the game, he came out and said, 'Hey, it's you, let's go,' and turned around."
Gaston's first stint as Blue Jays manager ended with his firing late in the 1997 season. Incredibly, a man who had led his team to four division crowns and consecutive World Series championships in '92 and '93 didn't manage another game until he replaced the fired Gibbons on June 20, 2008.
Why? Some believe Gaston never got the credit he deserved because those teams were supposed to win, that anything less would have been a failure. Others criticized his game management skills. Some wondered if race had something to do with it.
There were lots of job interviews, and he decided to stop going to them several years back so he wouldn't feel like he was a token minority candidate. He decided he wouldn't take another job unless it was flat out given to him, which is what happened when general manager J.P. Ricciardi called him last summer.
It wasn't long before he was given an extension through 2010. It might be his last contract. Then again, it might not.
"Trust me, before J.P. called me up and asked me to come back I was pretty happy at home doing the things I want to do, travelling, playing golf and spending time with my grandkids," said Gaston. "I think about how many more years do I want to do this. I'm 65 and I'm enjoying it, I'm not exhausted from doing this stuff. I'm up every day and have a lot of energy in what I'm doing, so I guess it depends on what they want to do after next year, too.
"To come back and do this for 2 1-2 years, if it is the last year next year, it's fine, but if they ask me to stay around another year or two I might consider doing that. If they don't, I won't be hurt by it at all. I'll just go and probably do something else in the organization. This city is always going to be my home, I'm always going to come here in the summertime."