"You know, Syd is happy now," says Dolly. "He's happier now than he's ever been since we've been married." This statement has some impact, considering that Dolly and Syd have been wed since 1961, about a year after she saw him walk into the law office in Urbanna, Va., where she worked as a secretary. She figured right off that she was looking at the man she would marry.
Somebody hits the ball to left. "Yaaay, Barry! Go get it!" screams Dolly before continuing her narrative. "After 1976, there wasn't a single day when Syd wasn't involved in baseball in some way. Legion ball, high school ball. I often thought he missed baseball more than he missed me. We would have this discussion every spring. I kept telling him. Just be patient. Then one day the chance came out of the blue. I was thrilled for him. Way to go, Jose!"
Needless to say, both Barry and Jose play for the Pirates. Barry Bonds, the son of Bobby, came up in 1986 as a center-fielder. Then the Pirates picked up Van Slyke, and Thrift had to persuade Bonds to move to left. "There's an art to it," says Thrift. "It's called praise." Thrift told Bonds about Rickey Henderson, who had had to make the same transition when he joined the A's. "I told Barry if he wanted to be a great player, like Rickey, and not just a good player, there were things he had to do." This season Bonds leads the league in doubles (9) and is in the top 10 in runs (17) and homers (5). Jose Lind is a smooth-fielding second baseman whom Thrift brought up last August, just before trading Johnny Ray to the California Angels. Everybody sees how good Lind is now, but Thrift saw it then.
He has made many other moves that have paid off handsomely for the Pirates, including getting shortstop Al Pedrique from the New York Mets for veteran in-fielder Bill Almon, and baby-faced slugger Darnell Coles from the Detroit Tigers for another veteran infielder, Jim Morrison. Thrift also brought in a whole new pitching staff, which includes Dunne, Brian Fisher, Doug Drabek, Vicente Palacios, Jim Gott and Jeff Robinson. "We've got 10 quality arms," says LaValliere. "You don't get a break against us."
And the future looks just as bright. "We have around 50 arms with major league potential in the organization," says Larry Doughty, Thrift's assistant and a former Cincinnati Reds scouting director. All six teams in the Pittsburgh organization were .500 or better last year; two of them, the Double A Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators and the Single A Salem (Va.) Buccaneers, won pennants. Pittsburgh finished in a tie for fourth in its division with an 80-82 record, but it won 27 of its last 38 games.
Last fall Thrift won a power struggle for control of the club over president Malcolm Prine, and Prine resigned on Oct. 23. "There was right on both sides," says Brown. "Mac had hired Syd. But two men can't run a baseball team. The board decided we couldn't do without Syd Thrift. Baseball knowledge is like riding a bicycle. You never forget it."
As for what Prine described as a "lack of a harmonious relationship." Thrift says, "Nobody wants to be shown up in life. It's human. I'm like that, too. I learned that way back when I was a scout. I'd get bent out of shape when I said a guy was a prospect and other guys said, 'No, he isn't.' I know what to look for, but even today I can't describe it because the funny thing is, it's a little bit different in every guy."
Dolly leans back, shades her eyes and says simply, "All Syd knows is who has what it takes."
How does one become an apothecary for baseball ills? One way is to grow up in rural Locust Hill, Va., in a frame house with no windows on one side. Thrift, who didn't have many boyhood pals because he lived a quarter mile from the nearest neighbor, spent a lot of time bouncing a rubber ball off the window-less side of the house, then hitting or fielding the carom.
Baseball filled his imagination as he followed the Washington Senators on radio via the intonations of Arch McDonald: There's a drive into the left-centerfield gap. Back, back...Bong-Bong! One bong was a single, two bongs a double and so on. Then one day when he was seven, his father, Syd Sr., took him to Griffith Stadium to watch the Senators play a doubleheader with the New York Yankees. That was July 4, 1936. "I remember it like yesterday," Thrift says. "Bobo Newsom and Pete Appleton for the Senators. Lefty Gomez for the Yankees. Joe DiMaggio hit a home run. From then on I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play this game."