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Look no further than Gillick to find root of Orioles' success

Creating clamor, crowding the spotlight and notifying the world how good he is has never been the Pat Gillick way. His efforts as general manager of the Orioles, in a comparatively brief period of time, make him one of the best things that ever happened to the franchise. Gillick is observant, a deep thinker, secretive and understated. That's his personal profile.

His plan, when he was a left-handed pitcher in the team's farm system, was if he didn't ascend to the major leagues by the time he was 25 years old he would join the FBI. His application was already on file. Instead, Eddie Robinson, an Orioles player and coach from another era, who was aware of Gillick's intellect and unusual maturity, persuaded him to come join the scouting department of the then-Houston Colt .45s -- and a new career was born, at the age of 26.

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Instead of tracking suspects, he was pursuing prospects. Gillick, in a ballpark interview, spoke out on the "State of the Orioles" and how, at this point, they have quickly become one of the most dominant teams in baseball. Much has to do with the free-spending characteristics of owner Peter Angelos, whom Gillick says "just wants to win, that's all. It's good he likes the game."

Gillick has more than fulfilled the hopes held out for him when he came out of retirement two years ago, after taking the Toronto xTC Blue Jays from an expansion team to a champion and perennial contender. He doesn't have the autonomy in Baltimore he had in Toronto, where he worked for a corporation, could do things entirely his way and didn't have to acquaint the owner with the moves he was contemplating.

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Gillick has adjusted to the difference, but at this time it's uncertain if he'll stay with the Orioles beyond his present contract, which calls for another year. Actually, Angelos, Gillick and field manager Davey Johnson make for what is an effective combination -- Angelos supplying the money and overall direction, Gillick determining most of the personnel decisions (but first apprising the owner) and Johnson providing leadership from the dugout.

It was Gillick who made the moves to restructure the Orioles from an almost one-dimensional team a year ago to one far more diversified. "We could only win games one way, mostly by the long ball," he said. "Our lack of speed was obvious, a questionable defense and a bullpen lacking depth. Actually, the Orioles of last year played better than I anticipated, to a large part due to Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Roberto Alomar, Cal Ripken and Bobby Bonilla.

"If we wouldn't have lost Eric Davis, we might have won even more games so far this year. We are a team of balance, but injuries can wipe you out. That's the caveat," said Gillick, who on Friday moved quickly to make up for the absence of Davis, acquiring Geronimo Berroa from Oakland. "The present defense, pitching, of course, and other aspects are much better."

The presence of Ray Miller as pitching coach is significant. "Ray has been a tremendous help," Gillick said. "He has brought discipline, gained confidence and earned the respect of the pitchers." What about Pat Dobson, who preceded Miller in the job? "He had all the technical knowledge necessary. He knew his subject, no question. I don't believe he gained the respect of the pitchers."

As to the health of the farm system, Gillick sees minimal signs of early improvement, but, realistically, it's not enough. Is there still a way to go? "A long way to go," he answered. "Our strength is in good arms. But there are few position players. We've progressed because of the efforts of Gary Nickels, Syd Thrift and Don Buford, but we still have a long way to go."

Baseball, as with other aspects of society, has undergone enormous change. He says managers today turn away from some issues they would like to deal with because "players are making big money and you can't get rid of them. Years ago, they'd have been gone."

So what Gillick is saying is managers deal with the essentials from a management perspective and, in effect, rarely assert a strong hand because the players are more in control. The players are, in a way, independent vendors, not functioning in what was once a structured, rigid environment. That was how baseball operated, but not anymore.

Gillick was hired two years ago at the suggestion of Johnson, who told Angelos that Gillick might be available -- perhaps the only time in baseball history a manager helped select a general manager. They get along well, but how does he define the relationship? "He's easy to work with from my standpoint," Gillick answered. "We go back to when we were both playing in the Orioles' farm system. Davey has talent in evaluating players. He has a strong sense of objectivity and -- something that's unusual for a majority of managers -- he can project where young players ought to be and their chances for development.

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"He knows how to critique a player. Most managers live for today when it comes to personnel decisions and ignore the future. Davey has confidence in himself, a little bit of cockiness, can get stubborn, but he's a winner. He knows what players are all about."

As to the vastly overstated "chemistry in the clubhouse" theory, which is nothing more than an empty cliche, too often emphasized by sportswriters who never played the game, he says, "What you absolutely got to have is a focus, and some guys don't have it. You don't need all nice guys, but there has got to be a feeling of wanting to win."

What does it take to succeed? "You have to use trades, draft choices and free agents, but the nucleus has got to come from the farm system. The objective is to build a competitive organization and contend year after year. If things break your way, you win."

It's a philosophy that can't be denied, but a smile from Dame Fortune is always important, unless the team on the field has so much talent it overwhelms the opposition. Then the element of luck becomes virtually irrelevant.

Thrift, who heads the farm system, says about Gillick: "This is the hardest-working general manager I've seen. You know what's different about him? He's a scout at heart. That's how he started after he finished up playing. Pat's a nonstop evaluator. He's always doing it."

Ask Gillick his secret and you go away empty. He has none. There's nothing magical about him. No formula or buttons to push, which makes it sound much too simplistic. "Hard work," he replies. Press him again and he raises his voice for added emphasis: "Just hard work. I have no hobbies." But don't minimize his extraordinary judgment.

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He never knew Branch Rickey, who fathered the concept of the farm system and developed an assembly line of prospects in St. Louis, Brooklyn and, to some extent, Pittsburgh, but admires him.

Gillick is constantly praising assistant Kevin Malone and has made him more of a spokesman than any other assistant general manager in baseball, so he doesn't covet attention. Malone is the heir apparent. Meanwhile, Gillick is one of the best things to ever happen to the franchise.

Pub Date: 6/29/97


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