- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Pat Gillick has always enjoyed a challenge he used to memorize pages from the telephone book and once worked for Orioles owner Peter Angelos but this seemed a bit extreme.
Lured out of a comfortable retirement to become general manager of the Seattle Mariners in October 1999, Gillick unofficially was issued a two-part mandate: a) keep superstars Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, plus manager Lou Piniella, from leaving. And b) if he couldn't figure that out, still find a way to improve the team.
Piniella signed a three-year contract extension after last season, and Gillick, backed by Seattle's ownership, did all he could do to persuade Griffey and Rodriguez to stay. But Griffey insisted on a trade to Cincinnati and was accommodated before the 2000 season. Then this year, free agent Rodriguez signed with Texas, getting the biggest contract in the history of team sports, a quarter-billion dollars over 10 years.
So much for a) On to b). Even after losing two of three at home to the New York Yankees over the weekend, the Mariners own the best record in baseball, 32-11, and an 11-game lead over Oakland in the American League West, thanks in part to Gillick.
"I wouldn't say it's a fluke," Gillick said. "But it's one of those things where everything seems to be falling into place."
It's early, of course. But the Mariners play in a weak division (Oakland, Anaheim and Rodriguez's Rangers all are below .500). And Gillick has helped construct a club seemingly set for the long haul, better than last year's team that, with Rodriguez, won 91 games and a division title. Seattle has good starting pitching, a splendid bullpen and plays solid defense. The hitting is timely. Piniella is a savvy leader.
And now they have Ichiro.
The salmon runs might be down to save water and electricity, but Itchy-mania has been spawned into a happy diversion spreading from Safeco Field throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The first everyday player imported to the majors from Japan, 27-year-old outfielder Ichiro Suzuki (forget the last name; he's so big, he's a first-name guy) was dubbed by Mets manager Bobby Valentine as one of the best five players in the world. And this was before Ichiro even suited up for the Mariners.
Although Valentine once managed in Japan and saw Ichiro up close, the statement still seemed outlandish. But he might be right. Coming off a 23-game hitting streak, Ichiro, whose height is listed between 5-foot-9 and 6-feet and who weighs about 160 pounds, is hitting .365, spraying the ball all over the place, stealing bases (15), showing off a strong throwing arm and generally creating baseball's biggest buzz of the year.
Last fall the Mariners paid Ichiro's Japanese team, the Orix Blue Wave, more than $13 million just for permission to talk to their star player. Despite the raves and Ichiro's .353 career batting average over nine seasons, it still seemed a bit of a risk. But not to the Mariners, whose Pacific Rim scout, Jim Colborn (now the Los Angeles Dodgers' pitching coach), got to know Ichiro pretty well.
"We had a lot of background on the guy," Gillick said. "He trained with the [Mariners] in '98, and people knew his character. From the character standpoint, we knew what we were getting. The only question is how he would make the adjustment."
So far, so good. His $5.65 million salary this year (he signed for three seasons) might be a bargain. Meanwhile, another Japanese player signed after Gillick took over, closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, has been even more sensational. The Mariners signed Sasaki, the all-time saves leader in Japan, in December 1999. Last year, he had 37 saves for the Mariners, a major league rookie record. This year, he already has 17.
Once a joke, the Mariners' bullpen is now among the best. It includes setup men Jeff Nelson and Arthur Rhodes, both of whom carry a sub-2.00 ERA, plus Norm Charlton, Jose Paniagua and Ryan Franklin. Only Paniagua was with the club before Gillick arrived.
Gillick has re-signed veterans Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, but nearly half the roster has turned over since 1999. Among the free agent additions were first baseman John Olerud and second baseman Bret Boone, who have added pop to the lineup, and starter Aaron Sele, who beat the Yankees on Sunday to improve his record to 6-0.
Gillick was the Orioles' GM from 1996 through 1998, and the Sele signing provides a microcosm of the Gillick effect on both clubs. Before the 2000 season, Sele, coming off 18- and 19-win seasons in Texas, wanted to sign with the Orioles. But Baltimore voided the four-year deal after it believed Sele had arm trouble. The Orioles offered three years, and Sele, insulted, refused. Gillick immediately jumped in, moving "with the speed of lightning," as Mariners principle owner Howard Lincoln was quoted as saying. Baltimore had first offered Sele four years at $29 million. The Mariners ended up giving Sele $15 million for two years, and last year the 6-5 right-hander went 17-10 and made the All-Star team.
Once again, what might have seemed risky business was no such thing to Gillick.
"We don't make a financial commitment of that type unless we're confident from a medical standpoint that the player will be able to perform," he said. "Based on the information we received from our medical people, we didn't have any apprehension."
Most general managers are gamblers by nature, but Gillick, 63, minimizes the risks. When he replaced Woody Woodward as Mariners' GM after first turning down the job (he was perfectly happy in Toronto where his wife, Doris, runs a couple of art galleries), some speculated that because of the looming problems with Griffey and Rodriguez, his sparkling reputation might be tarnished if he failed. In his first GM job, Gillick constructed the 1992 and 1993 World Series champion Toronto Blue Jays. Then, after retiring for the first time in 1995, he molded the Orioles into contenders.
But Gillick, a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and three-time American League executive of the year, said he wasn't thinking about his image. And besides, he had a plan. He always has a plan.
"He seems to have an uncanny knack and ability to pick up the intangibles," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. Toronto GM Gord Ash, a protege of Gillick's, said, "He has one of the superior minds of the game. And he's a tireless worker. Those attributes make for a dangerous combination."
Gillick worked so hard in signing Olerud the Mariners were fined $5,000 for "the appearance of tampering," according to commissioner Bud Selig, after he contacted Olerud's parents before the then-Mets player filed for free agency.
Gillick graduated from Southern California with a business degree at the age of 20 and later pitched in the minors. Earl Weaver, who managed Gillick in the Orioles farm system, was quoted as saying Gillick was "too cerebral" to be successful. It's true, Gillick is smart. He has interests outside of baseball (In 1998, he was point man of a group that tried to buy the Blue Jays), and his memory and ability to recall names, faces and phone numbers is legendary.
Veteran scout Gordon Lakey once said Gillick "could find people the CIA couldn't." Armstrong calls Gillick "a big reservoir of information." But what really stands out, he said, is Gillick's instinct. "The difference between winners and losers is the guy with the good gut," Armstrong said, not referring to physical anatomy. "When it comes down to making the final decisions, it's got to be visceral." Gillick trusts his instincts. The result is he is usually prepared.
"He's got an analytical mind, and he doesn't panic," former Orioles GM and longtime Gillick friend Roland Hemond said. So even within the worst-case scenario, i.e., no Griffey nor Rodriguez, Gillick still believed he could succeed by putting together his kind of team. And he could do it all within the $80 million payroll budget neither penurious nor outlandish management dictated.
"It's kind of corny," he said, "but the more you're around, the more you appreciate character and chemistry. You can have all the ability you want, but if you don't have the right people with the proper approach, you're not gonna get it done."
Gillick said he would have loved to have kept both players. But, he added, "Sometimes you have to sacrifice talent to get the type of character you want on your club. And I keep saying this, injuries are such a big factor in determining winners and losers, so you've got to have people who are multiposition guys who can play different spots. You've got to have some parts that are interchangeable, regulars who can play other positions."
This was not the first time Gillick, who worked as a scout for Houston and the Yankees before joining the expansion Blue Jays in 1976, had to adjust to financial realities. Once known as "Stand Pat" with Toronto for his refusal to make moves (until his blockbuster trade with San Diego in 1990 that brought Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter to the Blue Jays), Gillick reshaped the 1992 World Series champions. Gone were Jimmy Key, Dave Winfield, Derek Bell, David Cone and Tom Henke. Added were Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Dave Stewart. The Blue Jays repeated in '93.
"From a budgetary standpoint, we had to make some tough calls," Gillick said of his Toronto experience, words that also apply to the present.
Gillick had no such restraints with the Orioles and Angelos, he of the perpetually opened checkbook. But his problems in Baltimore assumed other forms. After retiring from the Blue Jays in 1995, Gillick reluctantly agreed to work for Angelos, but only after Angelos assured him he would stay out of the way. Gillick is known for a willingness to seek other opinions and to embrace ideas other than his own, but he knows that the best owners are the ones who keep a low profile.
Angelos' profile is as much a part of the Baltimore skyline as the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.
The relationship was doomed to fail.
As has been well chronicled in various reports, including a blistering story in Sports Illustrated in February, Angelos remained actively involved despite his stature as one of the nation's foremost litigation attorneys. SI described him as "the Orioles' de facto general manager whenever he so chooses," reporting that he vetoed a couple of Gillick-engineered trades that might have helped the club.
Still, Gillick's moves helped the O's, managed by Davey Johnson, get to the AL championship series in 1996 and 1997. They beat Seattle in the division playoff in '97, making a strong impression on Armstrong. "The Orioles just outscouted us," he said.
The 186 victories during those seasons marked Baltimore's highest two-year total since 1982-83. But by then, Gillick had had enough. And besides, his primary reason for taking the Orioles job had vanished. Gillick said the key to the deal was being able to hire Johnson in 1996. But Johnson crossed swords with Angelos and lasted only two seasons, the two playoff seasons. Gillick stuck it out one more year, then left when his contract expired.
"It didn't work out," Gillick said. "I went over there because of Davey. He and I played together [in the Baltimore system]. He took the manager's position, and I decided to go with him. We had two years together. Then I finished out my contract and I left."
Of Angelos (who was not available for comment), Gillick will only say, "Every owner has a different style, and that's certainly his right. The way I do business and the way an owner wants to conduct business, sometimes there can be a conflict there. I'm not saying the owner is wrong or I'm right. Sometimes you're not on the same page."
All of which proved to be a heck of a deal for Armstrong and the Mariners.
"Pat's just done a fabulous job," Armstrong said.
Mentioning a dazzling catch Mike Cameron made in center field the other day, Armstrong said, "That's the kind of player Pat looks for. A player with a lot of pride. A player who comes to the ballpark ready to play every day, a player that hates to lose and loves to win. A lot of players tell you that, but there has to be some fire in his gut. That's why Pat likes to talk to the players, to see their desire… . This team has come together."


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