It's April fools' day, and Syd Thrift, the 6'4", 255-pound general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, is basking in the sun at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla., and watching the team he built play the Boston Red Sox. To his left is his wife, Dolly, and to his right a crowd of people, all trying to get an audience with old Pick 'em-up Syd. Thrift, 59, orders, evaluates, dispatches, grins and signs autographs with a nourish. Being a G.M. looks like good work if you can get it, says a voice in his ear. Thrift cracks up. Sure, it looks easy, but to be a successful G.M. you not only have to know baseball, you also have to convince the rich people who own baseball teams that you know the game.
This is an article from the May 9, 1988 issue
A year earlier to the day, Thrift had proved himself on both scores, trading catcher Tony Pena, a Pittsburgh fixture, to the St. Louis Cardinals for catcher Mike LaValliere, centerfielder Andy Van Slyke and pitcher Mike Dunne. That move was a key step in the stunning rebirth of the Pirates from one of the worst teams in baseball to a growing force in the National League. When Thrift took over as G.M. in November 1985, Pittsburgh had just finished last in the National League East with a 57-104 record and was headed toward financial catastrophe. Now, thanks largely to Thrift, the Pirates are not only expecting to make a profit for the first time in years, but they have also taken their division by storm, charging to an early lead and going 17-6 by week's end.
Thrift has turned Pittsburgh around by unloading Jason Thompson and other high-priced veterans and putting together a talented, well-knit group of youngsters who are getting paid less than any other team in the majors and don't seem to mind. If baseball were the auto industry, Thrift would be Lee Iacocca. "I've got great vision. I'm a bird hunter," says Thrift, who shoots ducks in his spare time. "I see the birds way off, when they're specks on the horizon. Some guys see 'em when they're 400 feet away. Some guys don't see 'em until they're on top of 'em. Some don't see 'em until they're flying away."
Just getting the job was an amazing feat, considering that 1) Thrift had been out of major league baseball for nine years and 2) some thought he had a mean streak a mile wide. "In the old days, I used to tell Syd that I knew he wanted my job," says former Pirate G.M. Joe L. Brown, who's now a member of the team's board of directors. "We laughed, but it was only a half-joke. In 1985, when we were looking for a guy who could turn us around, I had a list of 60 names. Syd's name wasn't on my list at first. I really questioned whether he could get along with people."
"I've always been a blunt guy," says Thrift. "I was never one of them storytellers, those pressroom scouts. I never played golf. I didn't get along with some people, and I really didn't care. I'm not like that now."
Thrift was a scout for Pittsburgh from 1957 to '67, then worked for the Kansas City Royals as a scout and as the first director of the team's Baseball Academy, an innovative school for developing young athletes, primarily from other sports, into major league ballplayers. In 1975 he was hired by Charlie Finley to be the head of minor league operations for the Oakland A's. Along the way Thrift gained a reputation for being a moody overreacher who knew baseball as well as the back of his meaty hand and who was a brilliant judge of talent. Indeed, he had signed or helped develop some of the best players in the game, including Al Oliver and Frank White. When Thrift was named Pittsburgh's G.M., Oliver and Reggie Jackson were two of the first people to congratulate him.
"See Bobby Bonilla over there?" says Thrift, pointing to the player stepping up to the plate in Bradenton. "I've been watching him since he was 18...."
Thrift discovered Bonilla during those years Syd spent in exile from the game. In 1976, after Oakland lost a big chunk of its roster to the new reentry draft. Thrift decided to quit the A's and go into the real estate business in Fairfax, Va. But he had a baseball connection in his eldest son, Jim, who played college ball at North Carolina and at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., and who now, at age 25, manages a rookie league team in Princeton, W.Va. Jim was selected to a national high school all-star team that toured Europe in 1981, and Syd went along to give baseball clinics. Bonilla was one of the players on the team, and as soon as Thrift saw him, he urged the Pirates to sign him as a free agent, which they did later that year.
After five seasons in Pittsburgh's farm system, Bonilla was picked by the Chicago White Sox in the major league draft. But during Thrift's first season as Pittsburgh G.M., he got Bonilla back by trading away pitcher Jose DeLeon. Last year Bonilla hit .300 with 15 home runs, including shots from both sides of the plate in one game. He hit another homer into the upper deck of Three Rivers Stadium—a feat only three other players have accomplished. And this season he's off to a blazing start, batting .326 with 18 RBIs and leading the league with seven homers.
Watching Bonilla stroke the bat in the Florida sun, Thrift-the-purist says, "If he'd just take the two-strike approach, get up on the bat an inch with two strikes, as we teach, then he'd have the edge. The guy with the edge always wins." Then the new Thrift takes over. "But I love ol' Bobby Bonilla," he adds. "I know he's a great kid."
"You know, Syd is happy now," says Dolly. "He's happier now than he's ever been since we've been married." This statement has some impact, considering that Dolly and Syd have been wed since 1961, about a year after she saw him walk into the law office in Urbanna, Va., where she worked as a secretary. She figured right off that she was looking at the man she would marry.
Somebody hits the ball to left. "Yaaay, Barry! Go get it!" screams Dolly before continuing her narrative. "After 1976, there wasn't a single day when Syd wasn't involved in baseball in some way. Legion ball, high school ball. I often thought he missed baseball more than he missed me. We would have this discussion every spring. I kept telling him. Just be patient. Then one day the chance came out of the blue. I was thrilled for him. Way to go, Jose!"
Needless to say, both Barry and Jose play for the Pirates. Barry Bonds, the son of Bobby, came up in 1986 as a center-fielder. Then the Pirates picked up Van Slyke, and Thrift had to persuade Bonds to move to left. "There's an art to it," says Thrift. "It's called praise." Thrift told Bonds about Rickey Henderson, who had had to make the same transition when he joined the A's. "I told Barry if he wanted to be a great player, like Rickey, and not just a good player, there were things he had to do." This season Bonds leads the league in doubles (9) and is in the top 10 in runs (17) and homers (5). Jose Lind is a smooth-fielding second baseman whom Thrift brought up last August, just before trading Johnny Ray to the California Angels. Everybody sees how good Lind is now, but Thrift saw it then.
He has made many other moves that have paid off handsomely for the Pirates, including getting shortstop Al Pedrique from the New York Mets for veteran in-fielder Bill Almon, and baby-faced slugger Darnell Coles from the Detroit Tigers for another veteran infielder, Jim Morrison. Thrift also brought in a whole new pitching staff, which includes Dunne, Brian Fisher, Doug Drabek, Vicente Palacios, Jim Gott and Jeff Robinson. "We've got 10 quality arms," says LaValliere. "You don't get a break against us."
And the future looks just as bright. "We have around 50 arms with major league potential in the organization," says Larry Doughty, Thrift's assistant and a former Cincinnati Reds scouting director. All six teams in the Pittsburgh organization were .500 or better last year; two of them, the Double A Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators and the Single A Salem (Va.) Buccaneers, won pennants. Pittsburgh finished in a tie for fourth in its division with an 80-82 record, but it won 27 of its last 38 games.
Last fall Thrift won a power struggle for control of the club over president Malcolm Prine, and Prine resigned on Oct. 23. "There was right on both sides," says Brown. "Mac had hired Syd. But two men can't run a baseball team. The board decided we couldn't do without Syd Thrift. Baseball knowledge is like riding a bicycle. You never forget it."
As for what Prine described as a "lack of a harmonious relationship." Thrift says, "Nobody wants to be shown up in life. It's human. I'm like that, too. I learned that way back when I was a scout. I'd get bent out of shape when I said a guy was a prospect and other guys said, 'No, he isn't.' I know what to look for, but even today I can't describe it because the funny thing is, it's a little bit different in every guy."
Dolly leans back, shades her eyes and says simply, "All Syd knows is who has what it takes."
How does one become an apothecary for baseball ills? One way is to grow up in rural Locust Hill, Va., in a frame house with no windows on one side. Thrift, who didn't have many boyhood pals because he lived a quarter mile from the nearest neighbor, spent a lot of time bouncing a rubber ball off the window-less side of the house, then hitting or fielding the carom.
Baseball filled his imagination as he followed the Washington Senators on radio via the intonations of Arch McDonald: There's a drive into the left-centerfield gap. Back, back...Bong-Bong! One bong was a single, two bongs a double and so on. Then one day when he was seven, his father, Syd Sr., took him to Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play a doubleheader with the New York Yankees. That was July 4, 1936. "I remember it like yesterday," Thrift says. "Bobo Newsom and Pete Appleton for the Senators. Lefty Gomez for the Yankees. Joe DiMaggio hit a home run. From then on I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play this game."
The boy had some tools and eventually settled on pitching and playing first base. Syd Sr., who ran a general store, saw that the game was becoming more than a pastime for his son and started to get worried. "My father had enormous hands and looked like Nikita Khrushchev," says Thrift. "He told me a baseball was fun, but you couldn't eat one or make a soup out of one."
His mother, Lucy, was a former teacher. Each night she taught Syd and his sisters, Lucy and Louise, the three R's. After graduating. from Syringa High at 16, he was driven to Randolph-Macon College by the family minister, Rev. Steve Cowan of the Urbanna Methodist Church. As Thrift recalls, the family went to church "once or twice every Sunday, with no debate."
Thrift was a decent ballplayer. A big lefthander, he once outpitched Lew Burdette, who played for the University of Richmond, to win the state college championship 4-2. After graduation Thrift was signed by the Yankees, and in 1950 he took part in baseball's first instructional school, in Phoenix. "The Mantles, the Bauers, the Martins," says Thrift. "I was probably scared to death. I think I was respectable, but I don't remember. I was busy watching what everybody else was doing."
He was released by the Yankees the next season and spent two years in the Army. In 1953 he was signed by the Triple A Oakland Oaks, but injured his arm in spring training and was let go. Later that season he pitched with a Double A club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then played first base briefly for a Class D team in Leesburg, Fla., before finally giving up.
Not long after that he began scouting for the Pirates, for whom he signed Don Money and Woodie Fryman as well as Oliver. His size was intimidating, and so was his ambition. "Syd was always driven," says Brown. "He never wanted to settle for less than what he could be. He recognized he had a special ability. But he had problems getting it across."
After 11 years as a full-time scout for the Pirates, Thrift was hired as eastern scouting director for the expansion Royals in 1968. The next year he was made head of the team's Baseball Academy. In no time he was telling Kansas City owner Ewing Kauffman that he had eight to 10 major league prospects among the youngsters at the camp. So Kauffman sent down some scouts and they scoffed at what they saw. "These guys didn't know," says Thrift. "I knew. I resented the hell out of that." After three years spent running the academy, Thrift returned to scouting and eventually left the Royals, feeling unappreciated and underpaid. Time has vindicated his work at the academy, though. Fourteen of the kids he picked to make the majors have done so.
Playing for Thrift wasn't easy. "He was a soldier," says Ron Washington, an academy alum now with the Cleveland Indians. "When you're around a guy like that, it makes you tough because you don't want him on your butt. He stressed handling the downside. If you handle that, you've got the game whipped."
Thrift has had a lot of experience grappling with the downside, both on and off the field. His father died in 1962, before Syd got a chance to show him just how savory a soup could be made from a baseball. Three years later, Thrift's second son, Mark, was born with severe brain damage. He is now a patient at the Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax. "I never knew how to handle what happened," says Thrift. "The bitterness was just in me after that. I have no excuses for some of the things I've said or done. Those were things said by a bitter man. I guess I have a certain kind of personality, and Mark—it just compounded it. I felt guilty when I was at home. I felt guilty when I was on the road. I punished myself in the end."
Thrift left baseball in 1976 because h" felt his priorities had become messed up "I'd been around other people's kids al my life, and I hadn't seen my own growing up," he recalls. "Baseball was not only my number 1 priority, it was my number 2 and 3 priorities, too. I finally realized it's got to be God, then family, then your job."
In '76 Thrift heard a speech by Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry on talent and the commitment to excellence and it inspired Thrift to put his career—and his life, for that matter—in perspective. Since talent is not man-made, it was presumptuous to credit himself with seeing what all the idiots in baseball couldn't see, or to blame himself for fathering a son who has never said a word. "I don't owe what I know to any one man, and I can't take any credit for it myself," says Thrift. "Talent is like a bestowal, a gift. It's up to you to recognize the gift and train it."
If Thrift could be remembered for one contribution to baseball, he would like it to be his theories on the two-seam and four-seam fastballs. Many pitchers don't pay much attention to what direction the seams are pointing when they throw a fastball, but after studying aerodynamics and watching thousands of pitchers work, Thrift concluded that it can make a big difference. A two-seam fastball is thrown with the pitcher's index and middle fingers paralleling the seams on the ball; while with the four-seamer the fingers cross the seams (see pictures, page 81). "The two-seamer sinks," says Thrift, "and the four-seamer is faster and explodes; well, doesn't sink as far. The pitchers in our system will use both pitches."
"The four-seamer has been around for a long time, like everything else in baseball," says Pirate batting instructor Milt May. "Guys like Koufax and Gibson had to have it. But Syd has carried it one step further. It gives certain guys another pitch to use. More velocity. Dunne was a fine pitcher when he got here, but the four-seam fastball gave him the edge."
Indeed, Dunne threw only the sinking two-seam variety when he came to the Pirates. After adding the four-seamer to his repertoire, he was 13-6 in '87 and the National League's rookie pitcher of the year. According to Doughty, the four-seamer also added 4 or 5 mph to the fastball of Gott, who, since being claimed on waivers last August, has become Pittsburgh's closer. "The toughest pitchers have both pitches," says LaValliere. "It's just another thing for the opposing hitter to think about."
And that's as Thrift-y as you can get. "The mind is the battleground," says Syd. "The guy who makes the other guy think too much wins."
Or as Doughty puts it, "All major league teams do things 93 percent the same. It's that seven percent that makes a difference. Syd's seven percent is like nobody else's."