According to one estimate, eight out of 10 Americans will be fired at least once in their working careers. Being fired is one of the most traumatic experiences an adult can face, emotionally comparable to divorce or the death of a loved one. "Dismissal is a personal disaster of great magnitude," writes Ed Brandt in Fifty and (Fired. "A person feels he has been destroyed professionally, his personal worth has been reduced, his ego shattered, his competence questioned, and his family's well-being threatened.... It is not possible for a person to suffer his company's disrespect and come out whole."
It's no different in professional sports, although the sheer number of coaches and managers who are fired obscures the human element. A football coach who has been sacked, a baseball manager who has been given the ax, a general manager who has been handed his walking papers all feel the shame, anger, sadness, fear and self-pity of people who have been fired from ordinary jobs. Except that in sports the whole process is played out before millions of onlookers. Headlines announce the dismissal. Reasons for the move are aired and debated. Columnists speculate on the shortcomings of the cashiered coach or rally to his side against the owner. In a few days or weeks a new coach is named, and the focus shifts to him. Meanwhile, for the former coach, the pain and trauma endure, because despite the best efforts of pro sports to trivialize the experience with the asinine mantra that "coaches are hired to be fired," he or she is a human being. When human beings are fired, there are scars.
Probably the most notoriously bungled firing in the history of pro sports occurred in December 1976, when Chicago Blackhawk owner Bill Wirtz had someone shove a note under Billy Reay's apartment door. Reay had been the Hawks' coach for 13½ seasons. The note, which was found by his wife, informed Reay not only that he was dismissed as the team's coach but also that he was no longer part of the organization. This was three days before Christmas.
The late Harold Ballard, the mercurial former owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was another boss without the courage or grace to fire a longtime employee face-to-face. In November 1981 he dismissed coach and general manager Punch Imlach, who had recently recovered from a heart attack. Ballard's way of telling Imlach was to take away Imlach's parking spot in the Maple Leafs' lot.
October 29, 1990
Of course, some dismissals are handled with sensitivity, and a few have been downright amicable. In April the Atlanta Hawks chose not to renew coach Mike Fratello's contract, and at the press conference announcing the decision, Hawk general manager Pete Babcock called Fratello "one of the five best coaches in the NBA."
Said Fratello, "I guess they're going after numbers four, three, two and one."
Far more often, however, any amicability is strictly on the surface. There are no painless firings, in sports or in the ordinary workplace. A person's life has been uprooted. His confidence is shaken. His future is in doubt. A piece of himself is missing, and even if it is no larger than a dream, it will never be retrieved.
Doug Collins grew up in Benton, Ill., a small town (pop. 7,800) in the southern part of the state. Jerry Sloan, the first enduring star of the Chicago Bulls, was Collins's basketball hero, and Collins himself became a star at Illinois State. He was a true child of the Land of Lincoln.
Collins was the first pick of the NBA draft in 1973, going to the Philadelphia 76ers. He played in Philly his whole pro career, retiring at 30 after tearing up his knee in 1981. Articulate and likable, Collins went into broadcasting. He did color commentary for 76er home games on radio. Then he started coaching, first as a volunteer at the University of Pennsylvania and then as a full-time assistant at Arizona State. After two years there, Collins decided that he didn't like recruiting, and in July 1984 he returned to the broadcast booth, signing with CBS-TV as an analyst.
All his life he'd been a comer, climbing from rung to rung with ease. In May 1986 he was contacted by Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. Krause wanted an independent observer to write a scouting report on the Bulls, who had just gone 30-52 in Michael Jordan's second year. Krause liked what Collins wrote. He fired coach Stan Albeck and signed Collins to a four-year deal. It was Chicago's ninth coaching change in 10 years.
During his first year as coach, Collins led the Bulls to a 40-42 record. The next season Chicago won 50 games and then upset the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs to advance past the first round for the first time in seven years. In 1988-89, Collins's third year, Chicago established itself as a major power, again upending Cleveland in the opening round of the playoffs, beating the New York Knicks in Round 2 and taking a 2-1 lead over Detroit in the semifinals before bowing to the eventual league champions in six games.
It had been a run of basketball that the city of Chicago had never before experienced. Kids all over the country were wearing the black sneakers that the Bulls had unveiled for the playoffs, and Collins was wildly popular with the fans.
A month later, he was fired.
He had seen it coming. Collins's relationship with Krause and Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf had been strained since midseason because of disagreements over personnel and over Collins's hard-driving style as coach. Collins had a meeting scheduled with them for July 6, and he told a friend that he thought he would be fired. The meeting lasted five minutes. "Reinsdorf told me I was too intense, too emotional, and the younger players didn't want to play for me," Collins says. "I told him, 'I'd always been taught that the bottom line was winning.'
"The most difficult thing to deal with in life is rejection," Collins continues. "It was a horrible feeling. I poured my heart and soul into that job, and I felt I had made a difference. I felt anger. I'd taken something that was pretty much rock bottom and had helped bring it up. Then to have it turned over to someone else—that was tough."
Collins's immediate concerns were for the feelings of his two children—Chris, his 15-year-old son, and Kelly, his 11-year-old daughter. He was particularly worried about Chris, who had been the ball boy for the Bulls at home games the previous three years. The team had been a big part of their relationship. Chris would sit underneath one of the baskets during each game, and after it was over, Doug would walk across the floor, give his son a kiss and put his arm around him as they made their way to the locker room. Collins asked Reinsdorf and Krause not to announce his firing until he had broken the news to his kids.
"We had our cry together," he says. "Chris was real upset. But he played in a summer league game that night and made two free throws in the last four seconds. Those are experiences that make you grow up."
Collins's summer basketball camp started the next week at Concordia College in River Forest, Ill. "I was really nervous about facing the kids," he recalls. "I didn't know what to expect, but when I came in, 250 kids stood up and cheered. That was the greatest therapy I could have had."
The healing process had begun, but it would be a long time before it was complete. Only two Chicago players called Collins to commiserate. Once training camp began that fall, Collins, tired of hearing about how relaxed and happy the Bulls were under new coach Phil Jackson, stopped reading the Chicago papers. He wouldn't watch the Bulls on television. He found himself rooting against his former team, and, feeling guilty for doing so, he talked to his church pastor. Anger, his pastor said, was a normal emotion.
The silver lining, such as it was, was that Collins could now watch his son play basketball for Glenbrook North High. TBS Sports, which Collins joined as an analyst in mid-July, arranged his schedule so that he saw 20 of Glenbrook North's 26 games. In one game, against rival Glenbrook South, Chris was fouled with three minutes left. As Chris, just a sophomore, stepped to the line, some South fans began a chant: "Phil Jackson! Phil Jackson!"
Collins's heart sank. "When winning or losing is on the line, people can be cruel," he says. "Your immediate reaction is to run out there and protect him. But I knew it was something he had to go through. These are life lessons. Chris sank both shots and went 12 for 12 from the line."
More than a year has passed since Collins was fired. While he enjoys television work—Collins was nominated for an Emmy last year—he is beginning to think about coaching again. "I'm only 39," he says. "After Chris gets out of high school, I might like to give it another try. Right now there's a trend toward laid-back coaches, but that will change. I was talking to [Blackhawk coach and G.M.] Mike Keenan about that. He was fired by the Philadelphia Flyers for supposedly being too tough. He told me, 'You've got to remember, it's the owner's team. He can do whatever he wants with it.'
"You know, the Bulls start training camp next week, and I have a completely different feeling than I did last year. I've started reading the Chicago papers again. Eventually you realize, So what? Time does heal."
One of the wackiest firings in the history of sports occurred in 1979, when Roger Neilson, now the head coach of the New York Rangers, was dismissed not once but twice by Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard. However, even a wacky firing leaves scars on a man whose life has been so ingloriously thrown out of joint.
Neilson, who was born in Toronto, had been a highly respected Junior A coach. After 10 years with the Peterborough (Ont.) Petes, during which he built a reputation as a defensive mastermind, Neilson spent a season with the Dallas Black Hawks of the Central Hockey League before being hired in 1977 to coach the perennially disappointing Maple Leafs. "When I came into the NHL," he says, "I never thought I'd be fired. I knew the game really well, and I wasn't the kind of coach who would aggravate the players. I didn't see any way I could get fired. That changed pretty quickly."
But not because of Neilson's performance. His first season, 1977-78, the Leafs went 41-29-10, the best record Toronto had had since 1950-51. Then they upset the New York Islanders in the quarterfinals of the playoffs.
Naturally, expectations were high the following season, and when the Leafs were hovering around .500 midway through the season, there were some cries for Neilson's head. One day in January 1979, while he was having a sandwich at the Maple Leaf Grill, he got an inkling that his job was on the line. "I was reading the newspaper," says Neilson, "when a report on the radio said, 'It's official. Neilson will be fired today.' Everybody kind of looked at me. I just threw my hands up and said, 'I don't know.' "
Jim Gregory was Toronto's general manager. When Neilson asked him about the report, Gregory said he didn't think it was true, but he added that Ballard would never fire anyone to his face. Neilson told Gregory, "If you know it's going to be my last game, let me know."
Nothing happened until the Leafs lost four games in a row in late February. On March 1 the team was flying to Montreal to play the Canadiens, the Stanley Cup champions. Gregory told Neilson, "It looks like after tonight you're gone."
Before the game Neilson shared the news with his players. He had grown up in Toronto during the '40s, the Leafs' glory years. He had never been an NHL player, but this had been his team. You never get over your first one. After talking with the players, Neilson went into a little side room and cried. He probably hadn't cried in 20 years. The Leafs played well that night, leading the best team in hockey 1-0 in the third period before losing 2-1.
That night the Leafs flew back to Toronto, and the next morning Neilson showed up at Maple Leaf Gardens to clean out his stuff and say goodbye to the players. A group of reporters was on hand. Neilson told them that someone from the Leafs would make an announcement at 12 o'clock. But no one from management was there by noon, so Neilson announced his own firing.
For the next two days the Leafs tried to hire his replacement. They offered the job to three men, each of whom knew Ballard well enough to refuse. Gregory told Neilson he should stick around, so Neilson agreed to do the Leafs' radio commentary for that weekend's games. "Friday night I was in the dressing room and the trainer was cutting Harold's toenails," says Neilson. "Harold said, 'What are you doing this weekend?' And I said, 'Some radio.' Harold told me, 'Well, don't go too far away. We may need you.' It was crazy."
The next day Gregory relayed this message to Neilson: He could come back and coach the Leafs that night against the Philadelphia Flyers under one condition—he had to wear a bag over his head. He would be the "mystery coach."
"I told Jim, 'I don't think I could do that,' " Neilson recalls. "Jim said, 'Harold is letting you get back as coach, you know? Why don't you just do it in the corridor so the reporters can take a picture? You don't have to wear it on the bench.'
"I actually was considering it. Then this guy who helped me with the game videotapes said, 'Don't be crazy. You're coming out of this looking pretty good.' "
A half hour before game time, Neilson told Gregory he couldn't wear the bag. Ballard didn't seem to mind. He'd gotten a lot of publicity out of the affair, and the Leafs, with Neilson once again behind the bench, won their next five games.
Toronto finished that season 34-33-13, the last winning record the Leafs have had. By June, Neilson still hadn't heard anything from Ballard about his future. Then one evening a group of Neilson's friends were visiting his house on Lake Ontario. They were watching a sports report when the announcer said, "Coming up next, Neilson fired again."
Neilson, who was outside at the time, ran in. "There was Harold saying, 'Yeah, I don't think we're going to have him back,' " Neilson says. "So I went down to Maple Leaf Gardens the next day to see him. I said, 'I saw on TV that you hinted that I was done.' He said, 'Yeah, you know, we feel we'd like to make a change.' We shook hands, and that was it."
Neilson has been well-traveled since, coaching in Buffalo, Vancouver, Los Angeles and Chicago before landing last year with the Rangers. He has been fired only one other time, by the Canucks, another organization known for instability.
Neilson is single. "That helps," he says. "I've talked to other coaches who have been fired, and they tell me that when rumors start, everybody gets down on their kids at school. Then when you're hired by another team, there's all the problems of moving. I can move in about a half hour if I have to. On the other hand, it's nice to have someone close, like a wife, to live the whole thing through with."
Neilson, who looks younger than his 56 years, gazes off into the street. It is the day after the Rangers lost their opener, to the Blackhawks in Chicago. Then their plane was delayed three hours on its way to Hartford. They have a night game with the Whalers. Neilson looks tired.
"But you're probably better off on your own," he says.
When Willie McCovey was inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame in 1986, his first major league manager, Bill Rigney, was sitting in the front row. McCovey told the audience in Cooperstown, N.Y., that when he was first called up to the majors, in the summer of 1959, he traveled all night to reach San Francisco from Phoenix. He didn't tell Rigney, then the manager of the Giants, that he hadn't slept, and Rigney put McCovey in leftfield, starting him against the Philadelphia Phillies' ace, Robin Roberts. McCovey went 4 for 4 with two triples. "For the season," McCovey recalled, "I hit .354, was named Rookie of the Year and made Bill Rigney a genius. In 1960, 1 hit .238 and got Bill Rigney fired."
Rigney delights in the story. He is 72 years old now, a special assistant to Oakland A's general manager Sandy Alder-son and the cheerful survivor of three firings in 18 years of managing. "You're only as good as your players perform," Rigney says. "When you sign the contract, you know that the security is zilch."
That is experience speaking. Thirty years ago, Rigney was not so fatalistic. The wound of being fired by his beloved Giants still oozes when memory pricks.
Rigney had the Giants in his blood. Mel Ott was his boyhood hero, and Rigney had wanted to play for the Giants from the time he was a child. That dream was fulfilled when Rigney's contract was bought by the Giants, then in New York, just after World War II. His playing career ended after the 1953 season, but Rigney stayed in the organization, managing its top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers. When Giants manager Leo Durocher was fired after the 1955 season, Rigney was promoted to run the parent club.
The Giants steadily improved under Rigney, and in 1959, in San Francisco, they led the National League by two games with eight left. But they collapsed and finished third to the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Milwaukee Braves. As a result there was a lot of speculation about Rigney's future, and he recalls a Saturday Evening Post cover line that read: RIGNEY MUST WIN IN '60. The next season the Giants started slowly, but by June they were battling the Pirates for first place until Pittsburgh swept them in a three-game series to move four games in front.
The next night the Giants got back on track with a 7-3 win at home over the Phillies. Rigney, who had grown up and still lived in the East Bay, often stayed in a downtown hotel when the Giants had a home night game followed by a day game. He remembers riding up the elevator at the Fairmont Hotel after the win and seeing a headline in the Chronicle: is RIGNEY IN OR OUT? "Now I'll sleep good tonight," Rigney recalls thinking.
At the ballpark the next day, Rigney began hitting infield practice. "I remember looking over, and there was Chub Feeney, the Giants' vice-president, on the bench. He never came down to the bench. I looked at him, and he turned his palms up and shrugged. So I went to him and said, 'It looks like you've got something to tell me that you're not all that happy about.' Chub said, 'That's right. You're fired.' Horace Stoneham, the Giants' owner, had said he was going to fire me, and Chub told Horace, 'If he's going to be fired, he's my friend, I'll fire him.' "
Rigney's first thoughts after getting the news were about what it meant to be a Giant. "To me the Giants personified what major league baseball was about," he says now. "The traditions around that club—it was marvelous. It's maybe like your first love. You never really forget it. I'll never forget the Polo Grounds. I'll never forget my first game. I'll never forget the '51 season. To have to accept being fired, and never really being given a solid reason why, five minutes before a ball game was...." Rigney pauses. "It's like anything else. The first time it happens to you is the toughest one to handle.
"I called my wife right away. She said, 'Good. Come on home. We'll go to the mountains.' " And that's what Rigney, his wife and their three children did for the next three weeks.
Rigney describes the rest of 1960 as "a hard heal." But he landed on his feet. Baseball expanded the following season, and Rigney, with Feeney's help, landed the manager's job with the Los Angeles (later California) Angels. He kept it for 8½ seasons, the longest tenure of any Angel manager, before getting fired in 1969.
Rigney immediately caught on with the Minnesota Twins and led them to the West Division crown in 1970. He kept that job until the middle of 1972, when the Twins were 36-34 and he was fired by owner Calvin Griffith. "I thought the club was playing as good as it could play," says Rigney. "I never really knew why Calvin fired me. He called me and said, 'My brothers and I have decided to make a change.' No explanation. That's the one thing as a manager you deal with. He's the owner, and he doesn't need a reason."
That was Rigney's 17th year as a big league manager. He gave it one more try, with the Giants again in 1976, but he knew then that he'd had enough. He resigned after the season. "I sometimes look at it that I managed for 18 years," says Rigney, "and I only really had three bad days."
Leeman Bennett is on his way to his Ford dealership in Buford, Ga., outside Atlanta. At age 52, after 20 years of coaching football—five in college, 15 in the pros—he's out of the game, fired from his last two jobs. In January 1983 the Falcons dismissed Bennett with three years left on his contract, even though he had just taken the team to the playoffs for the third time in six years. In 1986, after his second straight 2-14 season with woeful Tampa Bay, he was dumped by the Buccaneers.
Bennett started coaching in 1965 as an assistant to Blanton Collier at Kentucky. Then, in rapid progression, he moved to Pitt, the University of Cincinnati, the Naval Academy, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Detroit Lions and the L.A. Rams, where he served for four years as receiver coach and play caller under Chuck Knox. Atlanta offered him the head job in 1977.
Bennett inherited a Falcon team that had never had a winning record and had gone 4-10 the previous season. In his first year, Atlanta improved to 7-7. Then, in three of the next five years, the Falcons had the only winning records in their history. Atlanta was 9-7 in '78, 12-4 in '80 and 5-4 in the strike year of '82. The team made the playoffs in each of those years. After the Falcons lost to the Minnesota Vikings in the first round of the '82 playoffs, Bennett, with a regular-season record of 46-41, was fired by owner Rankin Smith. In his farewell press conference Bennett said that he "felt used" by the Falcons. The team hasn't seen the playoffs or had a winning season since.
"I had gone down to Rankin Smith's offices with a list of things we had to do for the '83 season," recalls Bennett. "He told me that the top three people in the organization thought we had more talent than the team was showing, and they were going to make a change. I was surprised, but I wasn't going to try to talk him out of it. Any time you've done pretty well and then you're fired, it hurts your ego. But I knew that we, as a staff, were getting as much out of the team as it had, and over time, that's proved to be correct."
Bennett has two sons, who were 16 and 13 at the time. "It hurt them," he says. "They couldn't understand what happened. I'm not sure it's out of their minds even now. I probably should have talked to them. But I didn't."
Shortly after being fired, Bennett got a call from the Seattle Seahawks about their head coaching spot. "I turned down the interview," he says. "I can't even tell you why. I was never really down or depressed. I'm basically a happy person. I just wasn't ready to jump back in."
Bennett sat out two seasons before the Buccaneers called. He never interviewed for a coaching position. He never sent out feelers. His record, he figured, spoke for itself, and people knew where to find him. So Bennett dabbled in a couple of real estate ventures to fill his days. He says he had a premonition that Buccaneer owner Hugh Culverhouse would call.
At Tampa Bay, Bennett recognized immediately that he had very little talent to work with. After the Bucs failed to sign Bo Jackson, their first choice in the '86 NFL draft, Bennett knew they were still years away from respectability. "You cannot make those kinds of mistakes in this league and survive," he says. His second 2-14 season sealed his fate.
Bennett returned to Atlanta after Culverhouse fired him. He bought his car dealership in 1987, and that, too, has been a struggle. "I ask myself all the time why I would want to compete in the business world when I spent 25 years coaching football," he says, smiling at the folly of the notion. "I'm competing against guys who have spent those same 25 years learning the auto business. I can't say I don't like what I'm doing, but I can say I like the football life better. It's in my blood.
"I know that the probability of me being called by a football team now is very slim. I think my forte would be in a management position, being able to look at an organization and determine who was doing his job and who wasn't. What you see in the business world that you don't see in the sports world is the attitude, 'I'm going to commit myself to this man, and we're going to get the job done.' Firing someone is a fix, like a drug addict gets a fix. It's a short-term thing. Not too many owners have the confidence to turn things over to their management and say, 'You run the club.' Their egos get in the way."
Some firings open new doors in life. Dick Vitale's dismissal by the Detroit Pistons in 1979 exposed a ladder that took him from his knees to his feet to his proper niche. It doesn't matter whether you like Vitale's broadcasting style. He is an American original, enthusiastic and unvarnished. But television would never have discovered him had he not gotten what he calls the ziggy, the old canaroo.
He was a streetwise New Jersey kid who had always hammered against the odds. Vitale, who lost the sight in his left eye as a child when he poked it with a pencil, was never a hotshot basketball player. But he played at Seton Hall-Paterson (N.J.). His first coaching job out of college was with junior high football players in Garfield, N.J. In his second year he was made head coach of Garfield's varsity basketball team. Then he coached East Rutherford High's team for seven years, winning two Jersey state titles. In 1971 he became an assistant at Rutgers. Ever the fast talker, Vitale was a dynamite recruiter, and in 1973 he was offered the head coaching job at the University of Detroit. There his teams averaged 19.5 wins a season in his first four years, and in 1978 Vitale was hired to coach the Pistons.
The big time. A three-year, $300,000 contract in the NBA. Hired to be fired? That never crossed Vitale's mind. "Everywhere I'd been, people had done everything they could to keep me," he says. "My mental game plan was to use the Pistons job as a stepping-stone to my Utopia. Five years and then I figured I'd get the call to the Garden to coach the Knicks."
Reality soon set in. After the team lost its first two games in his first season, Vitale, who had developed a bleeding ulcer while coaching high school, was hospitalized for five days with excruciating stomach pains. The team started 0-5, and even when it finally won one, a cloud hovered over the occasion. Vitale went berserk over a ref's call and was hauled off the court, screaming and flailing his arms, by a 300-pound security guard.
"My intensity, emotion and rah-rah style were not compatible with an 82-game season," says Vitale. "I thought I blew it by leaving college."
Detroit went 30-52. After the Pistons began the next season 4-8, Vitale had a long talk with owner Bill Davidson about the team's weaknesses. The next day, Nov. 8, Vitale was getting ready to go to practice when he got a call from Davidson's secretary. Davidson wanted to talk to him and was stopping by his home.
"You're getting fired," Vitale's wife, Lorraine, told him.
"Honey, you're crazy," Vitale said.
Lorraine left the house. She didn't want to be there when it happened. Davidson arrived and didn't mince words. "I made a coaching change today," he said.
Vitale couldn't believe it. "I'll be honest," he says now, "I broke up crying."
In the weeks to come he considered seeking professional help. "I was so weak characterwise that I couldn't deal with failure," Vitale says. "I felt like a zero. All I wanted to do was stay in my room and sleep. I hung around the house and watched soap operas for a couple of months. Finally Lorraine woke me up. She said, 'You violate everything you've ever preached.' And it was true, boy. I had this whole speech I used to give about how the scoreboard doesn't tell you who the loser or the winner is, but when I got fired, I didn't remember any of that. What a baby I was. What a wimp."
A month after Vitale was fired, an all-sports network called ESPN came into existence. Scotty Connal, the executive producer of basketball telecasts, had heard Vitale give a speech two years earlier and thought he would be great on television. Connal called. Vitale agreed to give it a try. He started doing college basketball broadcasts for $350 a game. "I was like a kid in heat," he says. "I'd found the microphone and I didn't want to give it up. I felt important again."
Now Vitale has a new five-year contract with ESPN, three more years on a contract with ABC, product endorsements, an autobiography and a basketball magazine with his name on it. He commands $10,000 for speaking engagements and has an annual income exceeding $1 million. He is happily married, a doting father to his two daughters, ages 17 and 18, and wouldn't trade jobs with anyone. But at age 51, he's still a coach at heart.
"The only emptiness I feel is that I never rolled the dice with the big-college boys," he says. "I never coached a North Carolina or a UCLA or an Indiana. But I was lucky, too. I never had to face the scrutiny these guys do today: recruiting violations, the drugs, graduation rates. I'm a sensitive son of a bitch. It would have killed me.
"But now I coach on TV, boy. I coach every night. Who else coaches Indiana on Wednesday, Notre Dame on Friday and' UCLA on Saturday? I've been doing that for 11 years. And you know what? I'm undefeated, baby."
Syd Thrift was living in Fairfax, Va., running a real estate company that employed 30 agents, when he got a call from Joe Brown during the 1985 World Series. Brown had been called in by the Pittsburgh Pirates' new owners, a consortium of nine corporations and four individuals, to find a new general manager for the team after it lost 104 games and $10.7 million in 1985. Thrift had run the Kansas City Royals' Baseball Academy in the early '70s and then had been minor league director of the A's in 1975 and '76. He accepted a two-year deal with the Pirates. "I viewed the job as the most responsible position in baseball," he says today. "To see that baseball survived in Pittsburgh."
The Pirates had already gone the free-agent route, with disastrous results. Thrift believed in developing young talent. The first person he hired was his field manager, Jim Leyland. Thrift acquired Bobby Bonilla and Bob Patterson in trades and drafted Jeff King and Stan Belinda. In 1986 the Pirates lost 98 games and $7 million. Thrift, however, stayed the course. In '87 he got Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere in a trade for Tony Pena. The young team improved to 80-82. All six of Pittsburgh's minor league teams finished at or above .500.
In October '87 Thrift was offered another two-year contract. He and his wife, Dolly, sold the two houses they owned in Virginia and their real estate company. They thought they were moving to Pittsburgh for good.
During the 1988 season Thrift put more pieces of the Pirate puzzle in place. He hired Larry Doughty from the Cincinnati Reds to be his assistant G.M. He traded for Gary Redus. "We had improved a lot faster than anyone had realized we would, including me, and were one game behind the Mets in July," says Thrift.
In late July he dealt Darnell Coles to the Seattle Mariners for Glenn Wilson (who has since been traded to the Houston Astros). "The next day I got a memorandum from Carl Barger, the Pirates' president," Thrift recalls. "It said that in the future I needed permission to make any trade. I didn't see how I could do my job in those circumstances. But there are some situations where power and control are more important than winning."
Rumors of a front-office power struggle started flying. The Pirates, who had the youngest starting lineup in the league and the lowest payroll (less than $5 million), finished second to the Mets with an 85-75 record. They set a club record in attendance, nearly breaking two million, and made money for the first time in 14 years. Thrift was hailed as a genius. "But I kept reading in the papers about how I was going to be fired," he says. "All the world seemed to know about it but me."
Two days after the '88 season Thrift got a call from Barger and the club's CEO, Doug Danforth, requesting a meeting. It was held in Barger's apartment. Danforth did the talking. "He told me that I worked too hard," says Thrift. "He actually suggested that on my next job I take it easier. I just laughed and said the only reason I worked that hard was that I wanted to keep baseball in Pittsburgh. He said the reason they were making the change was that we had basic philosophical differences on the authority that went with my job. I told him I could accept that, because it was certainly true.
"But when you get fired, you're helpless. They have to justify what they did, so they call up the writers and say, 'This is off the record,' and then assassinate your character." Thrift was portrayed as power-hungry, meddlesome, egotistical. "It's a depressing emotional experience whose effect far exceeded me personally. It involved my wife and my eldest son, Jim, who was a Pirate rookie league manager. They fired him five days after me, on Oct. 9, his birthday, because he had the same last name as me. It affected my sisters, my brothers-in-law, my mother, who's 86. We're the type of family that is totally involved in each other's lives.
"Bart Giamatti called me and requested that I not go out into public places for a while. People were so mad [that Thrift had been fired after achieving so much with the Pirates], Bart was afraid I'd start a riot, and I revered that man so highly that I respected that request. So we waited around for them to fire our son, then went and lived with my mother in the town I grew up in, Locust Hill, Va."
Thrift returned to baseball the next year as a senior vice-president of the New York Yankees, but, frustrated with George Steinbrenner's constant meddling, he resigned on Aug. 29, 1989, 11 days after Steinbrenner fired his 17th manager in 17 years. "There have been 24 general manager changes in the last five years in the National League alone," he says. "I stopped counting in the American League when I got to seven changes for the Yankees. So then you wonder, Do I really want that job? You can't have stability without continuity."
Today Thrift, 61, is the baseball analyst for cable television's Mizlou-Sports News Network. He has written a book, The Game According to Syd, and he did a column for USA Today during the playoffs. He also accepts 40 to 50 public speaking engagements a year. Yet no one felt greater pride than Thrift did when the Pirates, led by the manager and players he put in place, won the National League East the last week of this season.
"Have you ever heard people cry on an answering machine?" Thrift says. "I have. My phone never stopped ringing for two days. Agents called. Fans called. Friends. People I had worked with. People in airports. Even some of the Pirate owners. You don't know how much that means to me. It makes you feel like you knew what you were doing was right. We created a feeling there, a spirit within that group that was unbelievable. It was very rewarding to see their joy at accomplishing what we'd all been working for.
"One of my goals in the '90s is to introduce management and leadership training into baseball. There's very little of that. When you fire someone, it's a concession of management failure. In the future more attention will be paid to the firer, instead of the firee."