Syd Thrift is a throwback to Rickey era

November 01, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

There's nothing stereotyped about Syd Thrift. Individuality becomes him. He's an original, a king-sized iconoclast, free with opinions, an effective and dominating speaker with a voice that breaks the sound barrier. What comes out can be profound; also provocative.

In Thrift, the Baltimore Orioles have made what could be one of their most significant signings in the history of the franchise. As he was introduced as the club's new director of player development, his persona suggested something akin to the second coming of Branch Rickey, who had an impact on baseball that few other executives have ever had.

Joe Foss, the club's vice-chairman of business and finance, who made the announcement, said, "He has a passion for developing players, an innovator."

Foss also said the Orioles spent $10 million this year (up $2 million over the previous administration) and didn't deny that owner Peter Angelos wants to budget something close to the $17 million the Toronto Blue Jays allocate for their farm system.

The 65-year-old Thrift, endowed with enthusiasm, has one of the game's most varied backgrounds. He's outspoken, engaging and the man responsible for lifting the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the mid-1980s, from last place to respectability. He also headed the Kansas City Royals' Baseball Academy, which recruited nationwide for the best young athletes it could find, not necessarily baseball players, in an effort to turn them into major leaguers.

It was an effort that failed to pay immediate dividends, but the concept was similar to how Rickey taught fundamentals en masse to the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, which elevated them as the premier forces of the National League.

Would Thrift like the Orioles to establish something similar?

He clenched his fists in anticipation, looked to the heavens anexclaimed, "It would be my dream come true. I would like to establish a year-round baseball program of teaching. Right now, in baseball, it's a part-time arrangement.

"You draft a kid in June, sign him for, say, $300,000, and by the time he reports the organization has him for about a month his first season. If that isn't borderline insanity, I don't know what is."

Thrift wants to keep young players active almost year-round, helping them as much with the mental approach to the game as pTC the physical. "Intangibles can be a major difference," he said. "It costs a team $2.5 million, on the average, to sign a player and develop him all the way to a Triple-A roster. We have to find new and better ways to do things."

That resembles the Rickey philosophy so much it smacks of plagiarism. Did they ever meet?

"Yes, the first time was when Rex Bowen, who was my boss when I was scouting for the Pirates, introduced me.

"Mr. Rickey talked for 30 minutes straight. Guess what his subject was? He was decrying the fact many of the great young minds of America were studying medicine, instead of enrolling in seminaries. He believed it more important to help the religious side of life rather than treating the body."

When Rickey attempted a third major league, the Continental, he invited Thrift to be a part of it. "I was going to go with him, but the idea never reached fruition," Thrift said.

Thrift, when he talks of his comparatively brief playing career, remembers signing a contract (a $1,500 bonus and $150-a-month salary) with the New York Yankees' organization in 1949, when they operated 27 minor league clubs and the farm system numbered 540 players. He spent a season at LaGrange in the Georgia-Alabama League, batting .306 as a first baseman and pitcher who won five of six games.

The next winter he was told to be in Phoenix for the first instructional school in baseball history. It was the idea of George Weiss, the Hall of Fame Yankee general manager. Casey Stengel was there to inspect this gathering of the club's prime young prospects, Thrift among them. That's when Stengel became enthralled with a then teen-age Mickey Mantle and said, "He's so fast his feet only touch the top blades of grass when he runs."

Thrift recalls it vividly: "Mickey was a shortstop then. We'd take infield practice. I was at first base, Billy Martin at second, Mantle at short and Tom Sturdivant at third base before he hurt his leg and became a pitcher. You've never seen such powerful arms. After taking infield I knew my hands had a workout.

"In the foot races, Mantle outran all the infielders by [about 15 yards], and then they matched him against the outfielders, including runners like Jackie Jensen and Al Pilarcik. And he put them away, too. What a talent."

Thrift was assigned to Amsterdam in the Canadian-American League that season. "Yeah, I played for a team with the nickname of Rug Makers," he said. "You hated to send home a picture of yourself in a uniform that had Rug Makers across the front. But that's what we were called."

Before he could advance through the minors, he was called for military duty and stationed at Fort Eustis, Va. In professional baseball, off the field, he has been identified with nine different clubs as a scout, instructor, director of player personnel, general manager, leader of the first baseball academy, and now he joins the Orioles. It's a position he covets.

He insists he's no miracle worker, "only a worker", but a visionary. The Orioles have a colorful figure, a throwback to the era of Rickey, Frank Lane and Bill Veeck. Syd, as in Sydnor, brings a personality with him that doesn't always influence people, depending on your reaction, but, most emphatically, he knows how to make a contribution.

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