Pat Gillick was on a roll, and he didn't want to stop. So Gillick, the new general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, worked the phones from home on Christmas Day. Then, on Dec. 26, he completed a trade with the Cincinnati Reds for lefthander David Wells, sending the Oriole public relations staff back to work early during the holiday week. "Don't you ever leave those people alone?" Doris Gillick asked her husband. After telling assistant p.r. director Bill Stetka of the Wells deal, Pat said, "We might have something else tomorrow. Are you going to be around?"
The public relations people made it to New Year's without having to announce another major deal, even though Gillick stayed on the phone. After one month on the job he has already transformed the Orioles from the major leagues' most disappointing team in 1995 to the winter-book favorite to win the American League East in '96. Over a stunning two-week period, ending with the trade for Wells, a 16-game winner last year, Gillick also acquired second baseman Roberto Alomar, one of the game's best all-around players; closer Randy Myers, the National League save leader over the last four years combined; third baseman B.J. Surhoff, a .320 hitter last year; lefthander Kent Mercker, a solid No. 4 starter; and righthander Roger McDowell, a quality middle reliever. And Gillick, who at week's end was still shopping for a leftfielder and a backup catcher, did all this without overpaying free agents or giving up much in trades (chart, page 52).
After dealing Wells for young center-fielder Curtis Goodwin and a minor leaguer, Cincinnati general manager Jim Bowden said, "The Orioles just won their division."
At least it looked that way heading into 1996. With the fortunes of the rest of the East teams sagging—the Toronto Blue Jays are caught in a death spiral, the Detroit Tigers are rebuilding, the New York Yankees are once again in chaos created by George Steinbrenner's roster and front office moves, and the defending champion Boston Red Sox have seen their pitching staff depleted by free agency—the time was right for the Orioles to strike. Fortified by the revenue generated from sellouts most every night at Camden Yards and by an owner, Peter Angelos, who isn't afraid to spend that money, Gillick and new Baltimore manager Davey Johnson hit the ground running. "I feel like I've died and gone to heaven," says Johnson.
Angelos's Oct. 30 hiring of Johnson, whose .576 winning percentage is the highest among active managers, was the first major step in revitalizing the Orioles. Johnson had wanted the Baltimore job a year ago, but then-Baltimore G.M. Roland Hemond hired Phil Regan, a rookie manager. Last season Johnson took Cincinnati to the National League Championship Series, then stepped down as skipper as Red owner Marge Schott had planned; Regan, who never gained the respect of his players, ended up with a 71-73 record. Angelos fired Regan on Oct. 20, and Hemond, whom Angelos believed was too timid to make major deals, resigned later that day.
In his search for a new general manager, Angelos kept coming back to Gillick, who had built the Blue Jays into two-time world champions before he retired in 1994 and became a consultant with the club. Several times Gillick refused to interview with Angelos because he had heard the owner was difficult to work for, too meddlesome. It was Johnson who convinced Gillick that Angelos's reputation as a tyrant was unfounded. "Peter wants smart people working for him," Johnson says. "Pat is the smartest."
Gillick took the job on Nov. 27, and now, Angelos says, "every night I go to bed delighted that I can go back to practicing law full time and not have to be consulted on anything except financial matters." Indeed, Gillick has made all the personnel decisions, while keeping his new boss abreast of contract negotiations.
Signing a handful of thirtysomething free agents every year—McDowell is 35; Myers, 33; Wells, 32; and Surhoff, 31—isn't Baltimore's plan. With All-Star-caliber players like shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, rightfielder Bobby Bonilla and pitcher Mike Mussina already in the lineup, the Orioles only had to fill specific holes to become pennant contenders in '96. In the process they are buying time until they can rebuild their farm system, which, Angelos says, "has been long overlooked."
Fact is, most of the prospects the Orioles had counted on to lead them through the 1990s didn't pan out, and the last standout every-day player to come up through the Baltimore system was Ripken, in 1982. To overhaul the farm system the Orioles hired Kevin Malone, who had interviewed for the general manager's position but then thought enough of Gillick to sign on as the assistant G.M. Malone's expertise lies in player development and scouting, areas in which he excelled for the Montreal Expos before becoming their G.M. last year.
"We have a championship club, and we expect to win this year," Johnson says. "But a true championship club wins, then replenishes itself with its minor league system." In fact, only four Orioles are signed beyond 1997—Alomar, Palmeiro and Surhoff (all through '98) and catcher Chris Hoiles, who signed a five-year deal before the '95 season. "We're not in a spot we can't get out of," says Gillick, who also has axed $16 million from the payroll and might come in below last season's $48.8 million budget—embarrassingly high for a sub-.500 club.