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Thrift was never short on knowledge

The Baltimore Sun

Who are you?"

The question hung in the air as Syd Thrift held my hand hostage in his big right meat hook.

He said it again, ramping up the volume and authority of his slow Southern drawl, like Foghorn Leghorn meets Virginia state trooper.

Frankly, I was confused.

It was December 2001, after my first full year of covering Thrift, then the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations. I had spoken to the man at least on a weekly basis, and at times daily, for most of the past nine months. Here we were at a winter luncheon with a group of reporters, and suddenly he didn't know who I was.

It crossed my mind that the critics were correct. That Thrift, then in his early 70s, was officially losing it.

So I re-introduced myself to the man in charge of the team I covered.

He snapped back: "I know who you are. I want to know who you think you are?"

Thrift then launched into a tirade about a column I had written linking his job future to the ongoing free-agency period. It was the best setup to a dressing down I had ever received. Not that I was about to give him props at the time.

As we began to argue over the validity of my opinion, the room cleared, leaving just Thrift and me. We spoke for 15 minutes that day, with him eventually and calmly admitting he had been deeply stung by recent national stories that had painted him as stupid, a stooge or both. My piece wasn't nearly as personal, but I just happened to be the first critical reporter he had seen, he told me, so I got the brunt of his anger.

Thrift, who died Monday night at age 77 after knee replacement surgery, was many things.

Temperamental. Folksy. Proud. Ego-driven. Quirky. Manipulative. Rambling. Grandfatherly.

But stupid, he wasn't. The guy graduated high school at 16, college at 20. He was always thinking, strategizing. He had an amazing recall for anything involving numbers.

"He was dumb like a fox," said Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland, whose managerial career was jump-started by Thrift in 1986, when he hired Leyland to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates. "He'd give you all that country bumpkin [bull], but he was smart as a whip. He had a great vocabulary. He had a brilliant mind, really."

The truth is, Baltimore got cheated. By the time Thrift took over the club in December 1999 he was no longer the man who had built the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy or had traded the Pirates into a winner. He was still entertaining at times. And still a fountain of baseball knowledge.

But this Thrift was jaded. And he was distrustful -- of the media, and even of his own staff. A man who had always walked to his own shuffling beat, he began to worry so much about job security that it clouded his judgment.

Plus, ideas that were once fresh and cutting edge seemed just plain kooky by 2000. There was the doctor with the radical manipulative techniques that Thrift sent some players to. The doctor so frightened Orioles staffers that they privately referred to him as "Bonecrusher."

And then there was the visualization specialist that Thrift suggested to his pitchers to improve their focus, which, for us cynics, triggered images of Bull Durham character Nuke LaLoosh breathing through his eyelids.

Worse, though, was the performance of Thrift's Orioles teams during his three years in charge. They finished fourth each year and compiled a dismal .421 winning percentage.

His July 2000 fire sale, in which he dealt six solid veterans in five different trades and boasted that it would make his eventual successor look brilliant, yielded just one keeper, third baseman Melvin Mora. Thrift also was responsible for two of the worst signings in club history: long-term deals for David Segui and Marty Cordova, two often-injured players coming off atypically outstanding and healthy seasons.

Considered an excellent talent evaluator, he did have successes, too, plucking Jay Gibbons out of the Rule 5 draft and Rodrigo Lopez out of the Mexican League.

But Thrift's time here was more tragicomedy than compelling drama. Nothing was more surreal and painful to watch than that December 2002 news conference at Camden Yards in which Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan were announced as Thrift's replacements.

The club had informed Thrift he had been let go and should pack his things, but he attended the conference and told reporters that he expected to remain with the team in an unknown capacity. Beattie and Flanagan didn't know what to say, except to awkwardly thank Thrift for his service.

Thrift worked briefly for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a consultant after that and then landed a part-time job co-hosting a syndicated baseball radio show. True irony, considering his harsh opinion of the media late in life.

But it was a perfect fit. It allowed him to keep his hand in the sport that he knew as well as anyone. And it allowed one of baseball's great historians to tell his old stories -- with the special flavor only Syd could add.

A year ago this week my cell phone rang with a number I didn't recognize. When I answered, that familiar Southern voice was on the line.

Part of me wanted to snap, "Who are you?" in my best Thrift twang.

But I didn't. Because, though our association was frosty at times, he deserved respect. So we talked, and I agreed to go on his radio show the next day -- which was the last time I ever talked to him at length.

In a strange way, I was honored by that phone call. It was from one of the sport's greatest characters. A man whose baseball contacts were endless.

And, a few years after our business relationship had ended, Thrift, indeed, still knew who I was.

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