Will colorful Thrift make Oriole waves?

November 01, 1994|By BILL TANTON

The Orioles stayed on the sports pages last off-season by signing new talent -- Lee Smith, Rafael Palmeiro, Sid Fernandez, Steve Sabo. There was a press conference every couple of weeks.

This off-season, even with the work stoppage, they're still holding frequent press conferences. This time the news is being generated by hirings among the front office, manager and coaches.

Yesterday the media gathered on the sixth floor of the warehouse at Camden Yards to meet the Orioles' new director of player development, Syd Thrift.

It's about time Thrift and the Orioles found each other. He has worked for just about everybody else -- the Cubs, Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Yankees, Pirates, Athletics, Royals and Armed Forces Baseball.

This guy is to baseball what Lou Saban is to football.

"Who's the best owner you've ever worked for?" I asked him.

He had to think. When you've worked for as many people as he has, you can't answer that one in a flash.

"Ewing Kaufman," he said finally.

That figured. Kaufman is the late owner of the Kansas City Royals. When Thrift was with them, they began the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy. Thrift was the director.

"You were the founder?" I asked Syd.

"No, Ewing Kaufman was," he said. "It was an idea I'd had for many years. But I didn't have the money or the wherewithal to start the academy. He did."

Even in a career as wide-ranging as Thrift's, the academy will go down as his signature contribution.

People wonder why other clubs haven't adopted the academy idea.

"The Dodgers have," Thrift said. "They do it every year in the Dominican Republic. That's where they developed all those MVPs."

You get the feeling, listening to Syd Thrift, that the man has the answer to any question having to do with scouting, teaching, training and player development.

When he talks about holding think tank sessions at 6 a.m., he's not kidding.

Thrift knows everyone in the game, and they know him, too. They'll tell you Syd is not bashful about using the first-person singular. "Syd'll tell you he invented the game" was a comment one made.

Still, not many baseball people can match Thrift's resume. He was general manager of the year with the Pirates in 1988. He gave Jim Leyland his start as a big-league manager. Syd was assistant GM of the Cubs last year.

"I told my wife yesterday," he said, "that the one job in baseball I'd want to have right now is this one, working with Roland Hemond and Frank Robinson and [new manager] Phil Regan and [new coaches] Chuck Cottier and Steve Boros. My goal here is to be an integral part of a World Championship team in Baltimore."

Some baseball people are puzzled by the Orioles' hiring of Thrift.

For one thing, the man is 65 years old. As a rule, a newly appointed director of minor-league operations is a bright young man on his way up, as John Schuerholz was in Kansas City, and as Harry Dalton once was here.

The job -- the travel, the crazy hours, eating food in minor-league ballparks -- is hard enough on a man in the prime of life.

The Orioles have a young man in the farm department who is definitely a comer. His name is Lee MacPhail IV. At 25, he's still a little too young to take over a minor-league system.

Syd will be young Lee MacPhail's boss now. Ironically, Thrift had his first exposure to organized baseball instruction in 1950 through Lee's grandfather, Lee MacPhail Jr., who was then the Yankees' farm director and went on to become GM of the Orioles in the '60s.

"I just spent 2 1/2 hours talking with Lee MacPhail about who we have in our system," Syd said yesterday.

Smart man. MacPhail is sharp. As Fred Uhlman Sr., special assistant to Hemond, said: "Lee is very good at this work. He knows the computer, too. These days that's important."

The Orioles as now constituted have a decidedly gray look with Thrift aboard, plus a 57-year-old rookie big-league manager, Phil Regan.

The more people you talk to about Regan, the more good things you hear. He's obviously a great guy and very knowledgeable.

But no one -- not even Syd Thrift -- knows what kind of big-league manager Regan will be. He has never been one before.

People are wondering how the hiring of Thrift will affect another ex-Oriole hero, assistant general manager Frank Robinson.

Frank wants to be a GM. Will Thrift get in his way?

Thrift has a strong personality. Will he and Frank hit it off? They had better. An assistant GM has to work closely with the director of player development.

There may be as many stories off the field as on it next season. If there is a next season.

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