Front office didn't want Thrift, but Foss was boss

November 01, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The banker hired the farm director. That's what happened, and don't anyone deny it. Joe Foss, Orioles vice-chairman of business and finance, just appointed himself minister of baseball.

You should have seen Foss at yesterday's news conference, gazing at Syd Thrift as if he were Marilyn Monroe. No one in the front office wanted Thrift, but what do those silly baseball people know?

"It's our intent to make major strides in improving our farm system," Foss proclaimed, neglecting to mention that the system was progressing just fine under the evil Doug Melvin.

Foss is to Peter Angelos what Larry Lucchino was to Eli Jacobs, only with zero background. Lucchino was no Branch Rickey, mind you. But at least on baseball matters, he knew when to defer.

The issue is not Thrift's ability -- he possesses one of the game's sharpest minds. And it's not his senior-citizen status, though the new front office motto should be, "Don't trust anyone under 55."

The issue is Thrift's train-wreck personality. Club officials know his history. They fear he'll be self-centered, egotistical, and potentially even a back-stabber.

Davey Johnson was viewed in much the same way, and that was one reason the Orioles hired Phil Regan as manager.

Why the sudden shift in standards?

Evidently, because Foss said so.

"He should be in hockey," one club official said. "He likes the power play."

No, he should just be working in his area of expertise, crunching numbers on the business side. Meet the new Foss, thinks he's the big boss. It's enough to make one long for Angelos.

And so begins the campaign to discredit Melvin, who inherited one of the game's worst farm systems in 1987 and made it efficient and productive, if a cut below Atlanta's and Montreal's.

Foss mentioned yesterday that the Orioles haven't developed an impact position player since Cal Ripken. That might be true, but how come? Foss would know, if he had any depth of knowledge.

The Orioles had low draft positions in the mid-1980s, and selected poorly. From 1987-90, they took pitchers first -- Gregg Olson, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina. Now, they're loaded with outfield prospects.

Just brutal, this farm system.

The four-man search committee that chose the manager and farm director included two suits -- Foss and attorney Russ Smouse. When will Angelos learn? If you don't trust your baseball people, fire 'em -- just keep the bankers and lawyers away.

Actually, Foss had the right idea initially -- to make scouting director Gary Nickels the head of both scouting and player development. But Nickels lives outside Chicago. His wife is an assistant principal at a junior high. His daughter is a freshman in high school. He was not willing to move.

The one positive development is that Nickels received a four-year contract extension and assistant scouting director Fred Uhlman Jr. a two-year deal. That ensures the draft braintrust will remain intact, even if Thrift wreaks havoc elsewhere.

General manager Roland Hemond claims he's not worried about Thrift angling for his job, but it almost would serve him right. Hemond has been so worried about Frank Robinson replacing him, he resisted a promotion that would have put him on the same level as Foss.

Whatever, to hear Foss tell it, it's one big happy family.

"I wouldn't agree that we had a lot of resistance from the baseball people about this move," Foss said. "Some of the baseball people wondered about Syd's age. They wondered about the fact he had been a former GM. They wondered if he was seriously interested in this position.

"He clearly articulated his passion for player development. Everyone who has had a career in professional sports over a long period has people who are supportive, and people who aren't. We made sure as we talked to others in baseball that we had a complete picture of Syd."

The complete picture?

Before getting fired by the Pirates in 1988, Thrift said that if he left Pittsburgh, it would be bigger than Wayne Gretzky leaving Canada.

Somehow, the Steel City survived.

Hearing Thrift expound about the baserunning techniques he devised at the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy, you would have thought he invented the stolen base. Baseball men everywhere snicker at his boastful style, but what did Foss know? Bankers don't run with that crowd.

Thrift is accomplished -- so much so that The Sporting News recently named him one of the five best teachers in baseball. Yet, the Orioles are his sixth organization. Clearly, he's a handful.

For all the tension during the Melvin-Robinson power struggle, the Orioles' front office always worked together. The fear is that Thrift will follow his own agenda, and take credit for everything but Camden Yards.

Naturally, Thrift scoffs at such talk.

"That crushes me, ticks me off," he said, referring to the criticism that has followed him his entire career. "I've got more friends than all those people put together.

"How can you be egotistical when you don't know very much? I think people confuse enthusiasm with ego. That's a shame. Enthusiasm is like air in a tire. I see too many flat tires every day."

To his credit, Thrift indicated that the farm system might not need a major overhaul -- the framework for many of his ideas already is in place. And he emphasized that he doesn't want to be perceived as a threat -- "that," he said, "would bother me tremendously."

So, why is everyone so nervous?

The banker picked the farm director.

The farm director wrote a book called "The World According to Syd."

You figure it out.

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