Saying it was more about timing than about time, Don Buford yesterday became the Orioles' director of minor-league operations, making him the first black to head a department with the organization's baseball operations.
Buford, 62, was named to fill a vacancy created by predecessor Tom Trebelhorn's installation as director of organizational instruction, a position similar to the one Trebelhorn held from 1996 to '98.
A fixture on the powerful Orioles teams that ruled the American League from 1969 to '71 as well as one of the organization's most popular contemporary figures, Buford referred to his installation as significant for personal and professional reasons.
"I feel very fortunate at being the first [minority] to hold such a position," said Buford, who became the first black to play baseball at Southern Cal. "I'm going to do my darndest to make sure I'm successful. I've been able to overcome difficulties during my career. Given my background personally and professionally, I think this is a good fit."
A member of the organization for 17 years as a player, major-league coach, minor-league manager or executive, Buford worked from 1995 to '99 as assistant director of player development to Syd Thrift and Trebelhorn. Having served as bench coach on Johnny Oates' staff in 1994, Buford originally interviewed for the directorship in 1995 but was instead named assistant to Thrift. When Frank Wren arrived as general manager in October 1998, Thrift was reassigned as director of player personnel and Trebelhorn named director of player development.
Buford said he never considered leaving the organization. Instead, he remained one of the warehouse's most popular figures while strengthening his working relationship with Trebelhorn. Buford emphasized the bond will only tighten in their current capacities.
Thrift, now the vice president for baseball operations, cited Buford's familiarity with the player development system and his "outstanding ability to work with our minor-league teams, our players, staff and affiliates. It is a credit to our owner, Peter Angelos, to promote from within the organization. These appointments allow us to take another step forward in creating a unified system of instruction for all Orioles players."
Said Buford: "I always felt if it was available I would be prepared and that it was a matter of waiting to see if it happened. I've never been someone to try and gain a position by backstabbing someone else. I'd prefer to be helpful to others. Timing was a factor as it is in most things."
The Orioles also announced the promotion of Tripp Norton from administrator for player development to assistant director of minor-league operations. Norton joined the Orioles in 1998 after working for the Detroit Tigers.
Buford's ascendance comes less than 15 months after the Orioles failed to include a minority candidate in the search for a general manager. Commissioner Bud Selig subsequently mandated that teams apprise him of their attempts to hire minorities or risk punishment. During the six-week managerial search that culminated in the Nov. 3 naming of Mike Hargrove to succeed Ray Miller, the club interviewed Ken Griffey, former Kansas City manager Hal McRae and incumbent bench coach Eddie Murray.
The club did not conduct a search to replace Wren. Instead, Thrift was promoted and given a modified title.
It was during renovation of the front office that Buford interviewed with Angelos. Trebelhorn, once considered a possibility as interim manager last May, asked to return to instructing.
Not since Frank Robinson served as one of the club's two assistant general managers from 1991 to '94 had the club named a minority in a position of such responsibility. Calvin Hill served as vice president for administrative personnel from 1987 to '93.
While a statement released by the club heralded Buford's status as the first African-American to head a department within baseball operations, Angelos did not return calls on the matter.
Buford's expanded duties include coverage of the Triple-A Rochester affiliate and the Rookie League team in Bluefield, W.Va. Previously, Buford visited the club's three Maryland affiliates and minor-league facility in Sarasota, Fla. He also will work more closely with Thrift and others involved with daily operation of the major-league club.
"I believe this provides an opportunity to become even a closer-knit organization," said Buford.
The third man in three years to hold the office, Buford inherits a farm system consistently rated among the game's least productive but also recently infused with a number of premium draft picks.
"We've been filling holes with veteran players, even right now," Buford said. "Our young guys are on the verge of getting there, but they'll still be playing their first years at Double-A and Triple-A. Veterans are stabilizing our system. But hopefully after this year that will change."
Referring to a recent poll by Baseball America citing the Orioles as one of the game's worst three farm systems, Buford said, "We're not bad. Let's hope they keep looking at us like that so no one takes our players."