Deal closer close to end? Gillick: In the last year of his Orioles contract, the esteemed GM eyes fulfilling Angelos' quest but getting away from baseball's 'day of reckoning,' too.

February 25, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Like more than half the players in his clubhouse, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick is a pending free agent. Unlike more than half his team, Gillick contemplates retirement.

"Everybody's insecure about something. I'm insecure. But I'm not insecure about the future," he says.

Gillick's resume offers little except success. He has the leverage of two World Series championships, financial security and universal respect within the industry. His present is represented by a veteran club coming off a wire-to-wire division title.

Yet when pressed about his future, Gillick sidesteps the issue. In one breath he speaks of wanting to bring majority owner Peter Angelos a world championship and in another describes his return as fulfilling the "obligation" of a three-year, $2.8 million contract.

"Nothing's set in stone. Right now, I'm focused on this season and getting back to the playoffs," Gillick said. "The other stuff will take care of itself, I think."

He worked for George Steinbrenner as director of scouting and player development before joining the Toronto Blue Jays in their infancy. He retired within the shadow of the 1994 players strike, then returned to breathe life into the Orioles.

"Pat was one of the reasons I wanted to come here. You know as long as he's here, there's no doubt the Orioles will be a professional, first-class organization," said manager Ray Miller. "If goes, I want to learn as much as I can from him while he's here."

For Gillick, this season hardly guarantees a gold watch. A third consecutive postseason appearance is expected; the club's first World Series appearance in 15 years is the justification for a $70 million payroll.

Now 60, Gillick sometimes sounds tired of it all, especially the breakneck acceleration in labor costs and the difficulty of maintaining a cohesive clubhouse. At the same time, front office staffers speak of someone whose sharp sense of humor can lighten the mood with a quick sweep down a hallway, then return upstairs to transact the business of an organization in which the pressure for success is palpable.

"Pat Gillick is more than an outstanding baseball man; he's an outstanding person," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone, a former GM himself who has forged a close personal and professional relationship with Gillick. "Pat has so much to offer this game if people would stop and listen. He's one of the select people respected by all facets of our industry. He's the kind of person who could effectively serve as a commissioner, I think."

Baseball's most veteran team, the Orioles must address 13 free agents before the 1999 season -- Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Scott Erickson and Jimmy Key among them -- making this winter's dealings with Brady Anderson, Scott Kamieniecki, Lenny Webster and former closer Randy Myers seem like recess. Gillick has had preliminary talks with agents for Erickson and B. J. Surhoff, but he has steadfastly declined to negotiate during the regular season. Angelos then typically assumes the role of lead negotiator.

Angelos, an enthusiastic deal-maker, does not begrudge Gil- Gillick lick's negotiating policy. Angelos acknowledges the professionalism and competence Gillick has brought to the organization and has told associates he would like to retain him.

Popular belief holds that Gillick endures a fractious relationship with Angelos; that view is distorted. Should he step down as general manager after this season, Gillick said he might remain with the club in another capacity.

"Peter Angelos is a very competitive guy. The last three years have been the same: He wants to give a championship club to the fans. He and management are going to find some way to be competitive," Gillick said.

The two strong-willed men spoke heatedly during the swirl surrounding Davey Johnson's resignation last November, leading to speculation that Gillick might follow the manager out the door. But associates label Gillick's differences with Angelos as "baseball decisions" rather than a clash of personalities.

Gillick strongly lobbied Angelos against granting Anderson a fifth guaranteed season. He also preferred to deal for Montreal Expos first baseman David Segui last June, but instead traded for Geronimo Berroa when Angelos intervened. Angelos also overruled his attempts to trade Bobby Bonilla and David Wells in 1996, vetoes that eventually helped the Orioles capture a wild-card berth.

"Pat recognizes that it's Peter's team and Peter's money. But he's also not afraid to stand up to him. And Peter respects that," says one high-ranking Orioles official.

Angelos likewise recognizes Gillick's fingerprints on an organization that lacked direction and maneuvered timidly before the general manager's arrival. The owner who frequently ripped Johnson as a "5 o'clock manager" is impressed by Gillick's organization and work ethic. "Top-notch" is a favorite description.

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