Not shy or retiring, Thrift ready to work

November 01, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

The Orioles have entrusted their youth to a man who has reached the age symbolic of retirement. And for that, new director of player development Syd Thrift, 65, made no apologies yesterday.

"Retirement? Absolutely not. I'll start thinking about retirement when Eddie Robinson does," Thrift said of the legendary Grambling State University football coach. "He's 75 and he's [8-0]. Retirement is for people who don't want to work. I've never been stung by that."

Consequently, when new Chicago Cubs general manager Ed Lynch fired Thrift as assistant GM two weeks ago, Thrift made it his job to find a new job.

Larry Himes, recently demoted from his position as Cubs general manager, vouched for Thrift's work ethic.

"Syd is indefatigable," Himes said. "That job is the perfect fit for him. He has no aspirations to do anything other than what he's doing now. He has a great ability to get to know the kids and really enjoys talking to them about how to get to the big leagues and how to stay there once they get there."

The Orioles held a news conference yesterday at which Joe Foss, vice chairman of business and finance but becoming more involved in baseball, announced the hiring of Thrift, who signed a one-year contract.

The club is expected to announce contract extensions today for scouting director Gary Nickels and assistant director Fred Uhlman Jr., who is expected to get an extension of two years, half as long as his boss'. The Orioles also will clarify the role of Don Buford, who will work for Thrift.

Thrift, who replaces Texas Rangers rookie GM Doug Melvin, inherits a farm system rich in pitching and outfield prospects and thin in infield and catching talent.

"It's our intent to make major strides in improving our farm system," Foss said.

By hiring Thrift, the Orioles made it clear they do not subscribe to the belief that old is bad. Thrift's opening days in his new position will determine whether he considers old -- as in already employed by the Orioles -- to be bad.

Thrift said he will move quickly in evaluating the personnel in a farm system partly responsible for the Orioles' organization moving from near the bottom in baseball to eighth since 1987, according to the rankings of Baseball America, the bible of the minor leagues. Thrift yesterday began poring over job evaluations of minor-league managers and instructors.

"I don't practice Jacksonian democracy," Thrift said. "When he became president, he walked in and got rid of everybody. I practice Jeffersonian democracy. I want to be fair and see what's here first. I'll let them know soon. It's not fair to leave them hanging."

Thrift, who emphasizes visual systems training -- using tests and exercises to strengthen players' eyes and get them to better focus on their targets -- comes to the Orioles after working as assistant GM for the Cubs for three years.

His most successful and high-profile years in baseball came from 1985 to 1988, when he built the Pittsburgh Pirates from a last-place team into one on the brink of winning three consecutive division titles.

During Thrift's tenure, the Pirates traded for Bobby Bonilla, Doug Drabek and Andy Van Slyke, and drafted Barry Bonds and Moises Alou.

Thrift, from Locust Hill, Va., has been in professional baseball since he was a minor-league left-handed pitcher and first baseman in the New York Yankees system in 1949.

He began his scouting career in 1954 with the Yankees, then held jobs for the Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, the Pirates again and the Yankees, as senior vice president in charge of baseball operations in 1989.

"My only interest has been in the area of scouting and player development, including the years I was a general manager," Thrift said. "We will spend a great deal of time learning how to teach and coach people, instead of just players. It's very important for us to know as much as we can about the players as people."

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