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Is Thrift O's man for 2003?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Other Orioles officials had tears in their eyes. Syd Thrift had his eyes on the future.

It was July 31, 2000, and Thrift had just traded B.J. Surhoff, completing a flurry of deadline deals that revamped the roster, moving six high-priced veterans for a list of minor-league prospects.

"Somebody is going to be able to sit up here three years from now," Thrift said, "and say how smart they are."

The words were meant to be reassuring for a disenchanted fan base and a clubhouse in a state of shock. Thrift put himself on the line that first season as Orioles vice president for baseball operations. By 2003, he promised, the person in his position would be sitting pretty, no matter who it was.

So how attractive does that position look heading toward next season? And who will be the one who fills it? Should Thrift stay, or should he go?

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has already addressed his on-field staff for next season, saying manager Mike Hargrove and his entire coaching staff will be back. In July, Angelos said, "Syd is here to stay," but the owner said he would wait to officially address Thrift's situation until after the season.

Meanwhile, others inside and outside the organization wait in not-so-silent wonder.

"I have a lot of respect for Syd," said Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer. "To me it's not a personal issue. I think in this case, you need to be judged and you need to be accountable. And if you look at this organization, it's in disarray.

"So, with that said, I think they need to look at making some changes."

In Thrift's first two seasons as vice president of baseball operations, the Orioles went 74-88 and 63-98. By all accounts, this has been a turnaround season, but after climbing back to .500 on Aug. 23, the club lost 23 of 27 and entered last night's game at 67-86.

Meanwhile, the Orioles' top three minor-league affiliates - Triple-A Rochester, Double-A Bowie, and Single-A Frederick - finished a combined 109 games under .500.

Thrift, 73, whose professional baseball experience stretches more than 50 years, remains committed to turning things around. Without directly answering the question of whether he'd like to be back, he pointed to a multitude of positive developments from this season.

"We've had an exciting year, even though the record is not what we hoped it would be," Thrift said. "If we can be as successful each day as we have for the last 365, then 2003 will be a very pleasant year."

Major-league gains

Any debate about Thrift's future can start with a look at the moves he's made at the major-league level. The team's roster is covered with Thrift's success stories, from six-year minor-league free agent Rodrigo Lopez to Gary Matthews, who was acquired in an April trade with the New York Mets for left-handed reliever John Bale.

Lopez, originally signed to pitch at Rochester, has emerged as an American League Rookie of the Year candidate. Matthews, originally signed to be a reserve outfielder, has blossomed into an everyday player.

In the best trade of Thrift's tenure, the Orioles acquired Jorge Julio from the Montreal Expos for Ryan Minor. Julio has saved 25 games and posted a 2.07 ERA as a rookie, while Minor has toiled with Newark in the independent Atlantic League.

At last year's trade deadline, Thrift sent Mike Trombley to the Los Angeles Dodgers for relief pitcher Kris Foster and Geronimo Gil. Trombley was a bust for the Dodgers, and Gil has held down the Orioles' starting catching job all season.

Thrift continues to turn other team's discards into aces. He signed Willis Roberts (5-3, 3.27 ERA this season) and Travis Driskill (8-7, 4.78) as six-year minor-league free agents. His better acquisitions also include Jay Gibbons, Tony Batista, Melvin Mora and Buddy Groom.

"You're never going to bat 1.000," Thrift said. "The worst thing you can ever do is nothing. I like to keep moving. I like to keep trying this guy, signing this guy because I know the numbers are really what count."

During the purge of 2000, when the Orioles traded Surhoff, Mike Timlin, Charles Johnson, Harold Baines, Will Clark and Mike Bordick (since re-acquired), Thrift saved the franchise several million in salary over the life of their contracts.

But aside from Mora, the players coming back have yet to make much of an impact, with several getting hurt, including Chris Richard and Luis Rivera.

For Johnson, the Orioles acquired Brook Fordyce, who quickly received a three-year, $7.7 million contract and became an expensive backup catcher behind Gil.

Another move being second-guessed is last winter's trade that sent prospect Willie Harris to the Chicago White Sox for Chris Singleton. Neither player tore it up this season, with Harris batting .230 and Singleton batting .267. But Singleton is arbitration eligible, which means he could double his $1.4 million salary for next season.

With Matthews in the fold, the Orioles might wind up non-tendering Singleton's contract, which would cut him loose and leave them with nothing to show for Harris.

"Suppose Singleton hits .330 next year," Thrift said. "Everybody is quick to judge. ... Everybody wants immediate success, and that's one of the cardinal sins of this profession. They expect somebody to wave a magic wand over something and turn a team that has been going one way for a long time and immediately resurrect it and walk on water."

Minor-league losses

Two walls in Thrift's office are covered with magnets featuring the names of every major-league player, arranged by team, position and current injury status. He keeps close tabs on the Orioles' farm system, as well.

The minor-league managers still report to him, and he oversees all the hiring and firing of the staffs, along with player movement from level to level. Minor-league director Don Buford and scouting director Tony DeMacio report directly to Thrift.

"In my position, I have to depend on a lot of people," Thrift said. "When you talk about this job, most people start and end with the major-league team, which is really a fraction of the total picture."

This is Thrift's eighth season with the Orioles, and he spent the first four running the farm system. In his fifth year, he had a limited role under then-general manager Frank Wren, but now he is still heavily involved in the club's minor-league development. On Friday, for example, Thrift was in Sarasota, Fla., for the start of the instructional league.

Thrift considers this a critical component of his job. While the struggles of Rochester, Bowie and Frederick didn't sit well with him, he points to successes at the lower levels and doles out credit, saying, "I think in scouting, this was probably the best year we've had."

But problems must be addressed. Rochester, which has endured five consecutive losing seasons along with the Orioles, severed ties with the club last week, ending a 41-year relationship and sending the franchise in search of a new Triple-A affiliate.

Aside from second baseman Jerry Hairston, the Orioles have not had an everyday position player come through their system since Cal Ripken in 1982.

How much responsibility does Thrift take for the minor-league woes?

"We're all responsible," he said. "I can't say I'm over here, and everything's over there. Mr. Angelos is who I report to. I have the responsibility of the scouting department, the minor-league department and the major-league team, all three things. That's the way it really is."

The right leader?

Thrift's detractors pin the franchise's struggles to flaws in his leadership style. No one questions his work ethic, only his methods.

"Communication is practically nil throughout the whole baseball operations department," one Orioles official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He likes to operate where he's the one in control and everyone else is in the dark."

Another Orioles official said that if Angelos decides not to retain Thrift, "champagne bottles will be popping everywhere."

Thrift defended his leadership style saying, "I make my own final decisions, but I've never made one yet without consulting with at least a half-dozen people. That's a fact. Not just here, but anywhere I've been. Sometimes, if I miss somebody, they feel they've been left out, but that's not intentional."

Palmer said the Orioles shouldn't make a change with Thrift "just to make a change."

"If they're going to go out, then they need to get somebody who can communicate or can maybe bring a fresh look," Palmer said. "It's easy to say we're going to go back to the Oriole Way, or we're going to all be on the same page, but apparently that's not the case, and they just need to move forward.

"This team overachieved. They played their hearts out, and that's all you can ask. Now do we want to try to get better players? Yes. Do we want to have a general manager that other general managers want to talk to and respect and so forth? You have to look and see if that's the case now. If it's not, that's another reason to make a change."

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