By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) - Toronto Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston stepped out of the dugout and took his final bows to the home fans on Wednesday, exiting the game on his own terms after leaving a lasting mark on a city and the sport.
Gaston's final home game as Blue Jays manager ended in an 8-4 thrashing of the New York Yankees and a rousing standing ovation from one of the largest crowds of the season.
Two of Gaston's fondest baseball memories are also those of most Blue Jays fans, Dave Winfield's hit down the third base line that scored the winning runs in the 1992 World Series and Joe Carter's three-run homer that clinched the championship the following year.
But the third special moment of Gaston's career is a personal one. Gaston, the only black manager to win a World Series, was given the Jackie Robinson lifetime achievement award in 2009 and treats it like a third championship.
"Something tells me Jackie Robinson is looking down on you fondly tonight," Blue Jays CEO Paul Beeston told Gaston during a moving pre-game ceremony.
Twice fired by the Jays, once as manager and later as a hitting coach, Gaston's final exit from the Toronto stage was a celebration of success.
A former major leaguer, Gaston arrived in Toronto in 1982, a city he could barely find on a map, as hitting coach.
He took over as manager in 1989 and held the job until he was fired in 1997. When John Gibbons was sacked in June 2008, the Blue Jays reached back into their past and brought Gaston back a second time.
"It's not too often you get to go out this way, usually they're telling you don't let the door hit you in the butt on the way out," smiled Gaston, who will assume an advisers role with the Blue Jays next season. "I left twice before, not on my own. They were dragging me, kicking me out the door.
"It's different this time. I'm leaving on my own terms."
On a perfect fall evening with the Rogers Center dome open, Toronto baseball fans showered the 66-year-old manager with heart-felt appreciation for his nearly 30 years of loyalty.
As Gaston stood behind the pitcher's mound with his wife and former players, a tear trickled down his cheek while video tributes from MLB commissioner Bud Selig, former team mates and home run king Hank Aaron, among others, were played.
For all his success, Gaston's abilities were not as respected around the greater baseball world.
In the nearly 11 years between his two Blue Jay stints, Gaston never landed another manager's job and had just three interviews for openings.
A deeply principled man, Gaston eventually stop applying for managerial jobs as he felt he was being used by teams wanting to be seen interviewing minority candidates.
"I still think there is a lot of work to do out there as far as bringing more minorities into this game," said Gaston. "There could be more umpires, there could more managers, there could be more general managers.
"I know it's better than it was and I'm proud for what I've done but it wouldn't have happened without the players."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)