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Gillick has finishing touch

The Baltimore Sun

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Lounging cross-legged in an overstuffed chair at the Bright House Networks Field complex, Pat Gillick couldn't look much more comfortable.

It's the preseason. The annual blather about hope springing eternal hangs in the thick Florida air. And Gillick again is leading one of baseball's most talented teams.

"I think we've got a shot," Gillick said of his 2007 Philadelphia Phillies. "I think we have a very good starting staff and if we can beef up the bullpen a little bit, I think we can be OK."

That's understated Gillick-ese for saying he is poised to be in the postseason with his fourth different club. In his past 20 seasons as a big league general manager, nine of his teams have made the playoffs - including the Orioles' last postseason appearances in 1996 and 1997 - and two have won the World Series.

Most impressive, in 18 of his past 20 seasons, his club has finished over .500.

"You know he has a track record, a record of success, but I didn't realize it was that good," Orioles vice president Jim Duquette said. "But he and [the Atlanta Braves' John] Schuerholz are the two general managers people try to stack themselves up against."

Gillick, who turns 70 this August, built the expansion Toronto Blue Jays into a two-time World Series champion in the early 1990s. He took the Seattle Mariners to two American League Championship Series and a record-tying 116 regular-season wins in 2001.

Then there was his successful but tumultuous three-year stint in Baltimore, in which the Orioles made it to the ALCS in 1996 and 1997, the club's only playoffs in the past 23 seasons.

Gillick walked away in 1998 - his only full-season loser since 1982 - when his Orioles contract expired. It was his second retirement, the first coming in 1994 and the third in 2003. That one really was supposed to be the end of the Gillick era.

But Gillick apparently uses the same career counselor as Roger Clemens and Hulk Hogan. Two offseasons ago, Gillick unretired for the third time to become GM of a Phillies team with budding stars and a healthy payroll.

"I really didn't have any intention of coming back," Gillick said with a smile. "And then this opportunity came up and somebody talked to these people and they made me a proposal. ... I liked the organization, so I just decided it would be fun."

The Phillies had won 88 games in 2005 and had finished two games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. Their nucleus included shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and then-Rookie of the Year first baseman Ryan Howard.

Careful choosing

It was classic Gillick - identifying a team on a legitimate upswing.

"In the teams he has chosen, he has known there is a chance to win right away," Duquette said. "As impressive of a track record he has had with the winning seasons, I think what is as impressive is to be able to evaluate from afar ... evaluate the personnel within another organization. That is not easy to do."

Gillick's first major move with the Phillies was trading veteran first baseman Jim Thome to the Chicago White Sox for gritty outfielder Aaron Rowand and two prospects. It was a risk, but Gillick was trying to find a permanent spot for Howard, who responded by winning the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player award.

Then, when last year's Phillies reached July 30 with a 47-54 record, Gillick dealt veteran pitcher Cory Lidle and star right fielder Bobby Abreu to the New York Yankees for more minor leaguers. He felt he needed to change the clubhouse dynamic.

"There were some guys on the team that wanted to take a leadership role and wanted to be more energetic, and Bobby - he's a great person and great player - is sort of a laid-back guy. And so, out of respect for him, they basically stepped back," Gillick said. "After that group left, then I think some of these guys saw an opportunity to step up."

The day of the Yankees trade, the Phillies swept a doubleheader and kept progressing, compiling a 38-23 record to close the season just three games behind the wild-card winner. Gillick tried to build on that momentum this winter, trading for dependable right-hander Freddy Garcia and adding another starter, Adam Eaton, through free agency.

The Phillies now have the NL's deepest rotation, making them a chic pick to make a long playoff run - a familiar position for Gillick.

"He is the perfect GM if you are ready to compete or on the verge of competing," said former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, who played for Gillick from 1996 to 1998. "Any GM wants to be in that situation, but he has a good sense of putting the final pieces together on a team that's on the verge."

The mid-'90s Orioles were on the postseason precipice with All-Stars such as Cal Ripken Jr., Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Mussina. They had a new owner, Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos, who spent money. And they had a winning manager in Davey Johnson, who had been Gillick's teammate in the Orioles' minor league system.

"I knew Davey for a long time," said Gillick, a left-handed pitcher who reached Triple-A but never made the majors. "I thought I'd enjoy working with him. That's the reason I went over there."

The partnership lasted two seasons, with two losing trips to the ALCS. At the end of 1997, Johnson resigned in a contractual dispute with Angelos. The owner then promoted pitching coach Ray Miller to manager, and Gillick said he knew "I probably wouldn't be too far behind" Johnson.

"I had a good working relationship with [Johnson]," Gillick said. "And I enjoyed it, and I didn't have the same camaraderie [with Miller]."

Nearly a decade removed from Baltimore, Gillick said he harbors no bitterness toward the Orioles.

"Mr. Angelos, I get along with him fine," Gillick said. "I find him to be a very charming guy, very smart, very analytical."

In turn, Angelos said about Gillick: "He is a very knowledgeable and proven baseball professional and I have always had a high regard for his ability and, certainly, he has an engaging personality. I'm sorry I didn't get to know him better."

A rift developed, however, well before Johnson's resignation. It occurred in July 1996 when Gillick decided the team needed to get younger and wanted to trade veteran slugger Bobby Bonilla and left-handed starter David Wells for a group of prospects headlined by the Seattle Mariners' promising catcher, Chris Widger.

The Orioles were buried in the AL East behind the New York Yankees at the time, but were only a handful of games out of the wild-card race. Angelos didn't want to give up on the season, so any potential dumping moves were nixed.

Rift develops

The Orioles surged in the second half, captured the wild card and made the postseason for the first time in 13 years. Angelos' veto reportedly enraged Gillick and emboldened the owner, perhaps forever dooming the relationship.

"I believe Angelos had a right to feel good about keeping that team together," Anderson said. "It was one of the most successful teams they've had in 23 years; they were great teams and Gillick was a huge reason."

"To me that's what having a successful team is all about," Anderson added. "You can have an argument, 'Let's trade Bonilla and Wells and the owner says, 'No.' The owner turns out right sometimes and the GM's right sometimes and who cares when you have success?"

None of that mattered in 1997, when the Orioles led the division wire-to-wire, winning 98 games before losing the ALCS to the Cleveland Indians. The 1998 season, though, was a nightmare - the team with the majors' highest payroll finished 79-83 and in fourth place.

It was the Orioles' worst showing in seven years - but the best since. The post-Gillick Orioles haven't hit the .500 mark, haven't even matched those 79 wins.

It fits with Gillick's career trajectory. The Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs since Gillick left in 1994. The Mariners averaged 98 wins in his four seasons in Seattle; they've averaged 70 in the past three without him.

It's possible Gillick is particularly adept at knowing when a ship is sinking and jumps off before disaster strikes. He said his departures are much less complicated.

"Usually the situation is [that] one of the parties is going to get sick of the other one. So it is better to leave before they get sick of you," he joked.

Regardless, his career speaks for itself. Good teams improve when he arrives and struggle when he leaves.

"I would never say it was a coincidence," Anderson said. "I never underestimate the power of Pat Gillick in assembling talent and assembling the right parts for a team."

Now it is Philadelphia's turn. Gillick is in the middle of a three-year contract. He anticipates this really might be the last stop. His energy is high, but he says it's not what it once was. He delegates more than he ever did.

Still, he remains excited, challenged. And he wants to achieve what he hasn't since the Blue Jays beat the Phillies in the 1993 World Series.

"I've got one more year here after this year, and I am going to try and win this thing," Gillick said. "We are going to try and win it."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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