Lott: Talking to Cito Gaston about Hank Aaron, the Babe, and the Blue Jays

Cito Gaston
Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Cito Gaston had some pretty good years as a big-league hitter. He says he might have done better if he’d sought the advice of his old roommate.

But as a young player with the Atlanta Braves, he was too intimidated to ask Hank Aaron for help – except in the matter of how to knot a necktie.

“I didn’t want to bug him because I enjoyed being his roommate,” Gaston said Sunday. “Little did I know he would’ve loved talking to me about hitting. That was my bad right there. I would’ve learned how to hit a lot sooner.”

Gaston, 72, has told that story countless times, and talked about Aaron a lot again over the weekend when he reunited with a collection of players he coached and managed with the Blue Jays.

Jays group shot
Assembled before Sunday’s game: Otto Velez, Kelly Gruber, Cito Gaston, George Bell, Devon White, Russ Martin, Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Troy Tulowitzki, John McDonald and Ed Sprague. Martin and Tulowitzi caught the ceremonial first pitches from Alomar and Carter. Photo credit: John Lott

Of the eight former players honoured before Sunday’s game, Gaston tutored seven of them – Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, George Bell, Kelly Gruber, Ed Sprague and John McDonald – during two terms each as manager and hitting coach. They assembled Sunday for a pre-game ceremony marking the 40th year of the franchise, each the focus of a singular moment in Blue Jays’ history. Gaston was honoured as the manager of Toronto’s two World Series champions in 1992 and 1993. He said he stays in contact with almost all of the players from those teams.

When Gaston, an outfielder, made his major-league debut with Atlanta as a September callup in 1967, he was assigned to room with Aaron. Gaston was 23. Hammerin’ Hank was 10 years older and deep into a Hall of Fame career. They also were roommates in spring training that year and the next.

“I was afraid to mess with him in the room because I was afraid he’d kick me out of the room,” Gaston said. “I didn’t want that to happen. But he would have been delighted to talk hitting with me.”

Gaston spent six years as an everyday outfielder with the San Diego Padres, then was traded to Atlanta, where he spent three more years as a reserve.

“This game’s been very good to me,” he said. “I have roomed with my childhood idol. The only thing, I look back and I wish I had talked to him about hitting more, because it took me about six years in the big leagues to learn how to hit. Then I wasn’t playing as much anymore.”

He and Aaron subsequently became friends. When Aaron worked in Atlanta’s front office, he hired his old roommate as a minor-league instructor. Only then did the two start to discuss hitting. Those talks, and that job, helped launch Gaston’s career as a hitting coach and manager.

Gaston still marvels at Aaron’s uncanny knack of hitting the ball hard with consistency, and his remarkable ability to turn himself into a pull hitter late in his career.

“By far, he’s the best hitter I’ve ever seen in my life,” Gaston said. “I never saw a guy hit so many line drives. He’d go 0-for-4 and hit four bullets.”

During a gathering on Saturday night, Gaston said, former Jays’ pitcher Pat Hentgen asked him when Aaron, a right-handed hitter known for using the whole field, became a pull hitter. It was all about Babe Ruth.

“He told me, once he had a shot at Babe Ruth’s home-run record, that’s when he started pulling the ball. And I mean pulling the ball. As I told Pat, you might throw him a slider down and away and you’d think you’d made a good (pitch). He doesn’t hit it out of right field, he hits it out of left field. Most guys can’t do that – that’s a ground ball.”

Aaron broke the Babe’s record of 714 homers in 1974 at the age of 41 and finished with 755. Barry Bonds topped that in 2007 on his way to 762.

During a 20-minute chat with a small group of Toronto writers, Gaston offered his views on a wide range of topics. Among them:

Why players get hurt more often than when he played: “I have a theory but I have no proof. I know these guys lift a lot of weights, and I think they get pretty tight sometimes. If I owned a team personally, my guys would be doing aerobics, stretching, with light weights. Flexibility’s what you really need.” When he played, “I wish they would have let us lift a few weights, but they didn’t want us to lift weights at all.”

The impact in the clubhouse of big trade-deadline deals: “What happens when you go out and make deals like (the Jays did last year), the players feel like, hey, we’re trying to win … We’re trying to win now. So that gives you a little boost. “

The Jays’ chances of making a major deadline trade this year: Gaston said he believes the Jays have a shot at the playoffs again. But, he added, “You can’t get on management all the time because sometimes you just can’t make the deals.” And in order to acquire an impending free agent like David Price who could make a difference for a couple of months, a contending team usually has to surrender a lot in prospect capital. “Are you willing to do that for (a window of) one year? I don’t know.”

The trade that brought Josh Donaldson to Toronto before last season: “He’s a complete player. I would almost put his trade up with Joe Carter and Robbie Alomar (acquired by the Jays in December 1990). But until they win (a World Series), I still have to go with Robbie and Joe.”

On his decision to sell his Toronto home and move to Michigan: From 2008 through 2015, Gaston spent his summers in Toronto, where he attended every home game, and his winters in Florida. He still winters in the south, but recently bought a home in Michigan, where he and a neighbour do a lot of lake fishing. He had served as an advisor to the front office after retiring as manager after the 2010 season, but decided to give that up. “No one asked me to leave. I just left. They probably would’ve kept me here if I wanted to stay, but I’m 72. It’s time to go and do some things you want to do.”