Thrift wove tales, teams

Orioles VP from 1999 to 2002, Southerner knew talent and a good story

Syd Thrift 1929-2006

September 20, 2006|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN REPORTER

Tim Donner and his radio partner, Syd Thrift, were walking into the All-Star FanFest in Pittsburgh in July when they were stopped by a memorabilia dealer.

"There's Syd Thrift," the vendor bellowed. "The man who invented baseball."

"It could have been about his age, his experience, his success or his knowledge," said Donner, who spent Sunday afternoons each of the past four seasons hosting the syndicated radio show, Talkin' Baseball, with Thrift. "Or all of it."

Thrift, whose baseball career spanned almost 50 years, including three seasons running the Orioles, died Monday night in Milford, Del., hours after having his second knee replacement surgery in two years.

He was 77. An autopsy is pending.

"What we know is his heart stopped," said Donner, a friend of Thrift's for 18 years. "What caused it to stop, I have no idea and nobody else knows."

Thrift is survived by his wife, Dolly, two sons and five grandchildren.

Known for his player evaluation skills, his slow Southern drawl and his endless stories, Thrift joined the Orioles in 1994 as director of player development after similar stints with five other organizations. He was named the Orioles' director of player personnel in November 1998 and then became the club's vice president of baseball operations - the de facto general manager - from December 1999 until December 2002. It was his second GM job; he helped turn around the Pittsburgh Pirates while GM there from 1985 to 1988.

Thrift had mixed results while running the Orioles. In his three seasons in charge, the club went 204-281 (.421 winning percentage) and finished fourth each year. His fire sale of July 2000, in which he traded six high-profile veterans in five separate trades, yielded a cadre of washed-out prospects and just one legitimate big leaguer, third baseman Melvin Mora.

But under Thrift's leadership, the Orioles also selected Jay Gibbons in the Rule 5 draft from the Toronto Blue Jays and plucked Rodrigo Lopez out of the Mexican League.

"First of all, he was a great guy," Lopez said. "I just knew him for one season, but he meant a lot to my career. He was the first one to believe in me that I could pitch, be a starter in the major leagues."

Said Gibbons: "Obviously, I wouldn't be in an Orioles uniform if it wasn't for Syd Thrift. He took a chance on me when I was young, and I never forgot that. He's a huge reason why I am here and have been here. It was really sad to hear the news."

Thrift's connections to the game - those he worked for, with, directed or drafted - are endless. Thrift played a part in the development of a legion of players including Frank White, Rickey Henderson, Moises Alou and Barry Bonds. Thrift learned from Hall of Fame executive Branch Rickey. And, in turn, he tutored other up-and-coming baseball officials, including promoting Jim Leyland to his first managerial job.

"[Thrift] was my mentor. He brought me onto the baseball side," said Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who was a public relations intern with the Pirates in 1986 when Thrift moved him to baseball operations. "He was a real believer in youth, training young people to be stars."

Thrift also was known as an innovator. From computerizing off-field operations to demanding eye tests for players, he was always trying new ideas.

"Even as an older man I thought he had very young thinking," said Orioles executive vice president Mike Flanagan, who along with Jim Beattie, replaced Thrift in 2002. "He always found new ways to evaluate talent and improve on the talent he had."

A left-handed pitcher out of Locust Hill, Va., and Randolph-Macon College - he graduated from high school at 16 and college at 20 - Thrift signed a contract with the New York Yankees in 1949. He played four years in the minors before becoming a scout. In 1970, he founded the Kansas City Royals' renowned baseball academy.

"His greatest attribute was his ability to break down players and judge talent," said Tripp Norton, the Orioles' assistant director of minor league operations. "My best times with him were sitting at minor league games and listening to him break down someone to the most minute detail."

Those around Thrift grew accustomed to listening. He was a chronic storyteller with phrases unique to him. His "confederate money" description of the Orioles' woes in free agency was legendary. Also about free agency, he once said, "I have a pocket full of nickels. I'm by a Nickelodeon and I'm waiting to dance."

To the end, Thrift turned a phrase with the best. In his unexpected radio finale with Donner last Sunday he colorfully described a loquacious manager - a depiction that could as easily have been used to describe Thrift.

"This is a guy," Thrift said, "who could talk a hound dog off a meat truck."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.

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