Syd Thrift, as plenty of people recalled yesterday, was “a good baseball man.”
It’s a common term thrown around when describing a manager, general manager, scout, anyone who’s been around for a while and has a real passion for the sport. Few men, though, fit that description as well as Thrift, who died late Monday at 77, apparently of complications from knee replacement surgery in Milford, Del.
Shoot, for all we know, Syd invented the phrase. He probably had a great story about its incarnation, too. Something about how he was down at spring training one year talking to Branch Rickey — or “Mistah Rickey” as Thrift would say in his distinctive drawl — when suddenly the idea just came to him.
Syd had millions of stories, all of them about baseball, most of them informative or entertaining, a few of them indecipherable. That was part of his charm, though, particularly in his later years.
Who else would answer a question about Albert Belle’s degenerative hip with a reference to “country roundcat,” evidently some early-20th century playground game no one younger than 73 had ever heard of?
Syd had that rare ability to hold a modern-day baseball conversation and relate it to his old-school days in the game. And boy, did he spend a lot of days in the game, nearly 50 years on the major-league level as a scout, personnel director, assistant GM and GM with the New York Yankees, Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs and Baltimore Orioles.
I knew him only in the later stages of his career, when he served as the Orioles’ de facto GM. He could be a treat to be around, and his baseball knowledge and experience were unparalleled. But he was clearly past his prime, a fish out of water in the 21st century game.
These days, you can’t tear a GM away from his BlackBerry. Syd had enough trouble figuring out to answer a call on his cell phone.
Rival GMs became frustrated with him, unwilling to spend days, even weeks, trying to work out trades with a man who was used to conducting business the old-fashioned way.
People forget what an innovator Thrift was, though. The man helped found Kansas City’s famed baseball academy. He was one of the first to get players to work with vision specialists and to conduct personality tests. He was a pioneer of computer-based player analysis when he was GM in Pittsburgh and took a young public relations intern named Jim Bowden under his wing.
“He was a real believer in youth, training young people to be stars,” said Bowden, now GM of the Washington Nationals. “He learned from hitting coaches, managers, scouts, evaluators. Great passion for the game. Innovator. Creator. … He was my mentor.”
And he made his share of shrewd transactions, such as trading popular Pirates catcher Tony Pena to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1987 for the lesser-known Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne. Van Slyke and LaValliere became cornerstones in Pittsburgh’s rebuilding project that resulted in three straight division titles.
Unfortunately, he’ll probably be remembered more in these parts for his mostly disastrous tenure with the Orioles, when he shelled out big bucks to the likes of Albert Belle, David Segui and Marty Cordova. Or falling for a radio prank in which he believed Howard Stern’s producer was a minor leaguer in his farm system.
That’s not how Syd should be remembered, though. He spent more time and did far more in this game than most of today’s front-office executives combined.
He leaves behind his devoted wife, Dolly, sons Jim and Mark, five grandchildren and a legacy unparalleled in the sport’s history.