The boy had some tools and eventually settled on pitching and playing first base. Syd Sr., who ran a general store, saw that the game was becoming more than a pastime for his son and started to get worried. "My father had enormous hands and looked like Nikita Khrushchev," says Thrift. "He told me a baseball was fun, but you couldn't eat one or make a soup out of one."
His mother, Lucy, was a former teacher. Each night she taught Syd and his sisters, Lucy and Louise, the three R's. After graduating. from Syringa High at 16, he was driven to Randolph-Macon College by the family minister, Rev. Steve Cowan of the Urbanna Methodist Church. As Thrift recalls, the family went to church "once or twice every Sunday, with no debate."
Thrift was a decent ballplayer. A big lefthander, he once outpitched Lew Burdette, who played for the University of Richmond, to win the state college championship 4-2. After graduation Thrift was signed by the Yankees, and in 1950 he took part in baseball's first instructional school, in Phoenix. "The Mantles, the Bauers, the Martins," says Thrift. "I was probably scared to death. I think I was respectable, but I don't remember. I was busy watching what everybody else was doing."
He was released by the Yankees the next season and spent two years in the Army. In 1953 he was signed by the Triple A Oakland Oaks, but injured his arm in spring training and was let go. Later that season he pitched with a Double A club in West Palm Beach, Fla., and then played first base briefly for a Class D team in Leesburg, Fla., before finally giving up.
Not long after that he began scouting for the Pirates, for whom he signed Don Money and Woodie Fryman as well as Oliver. His size was intimidating, and so was his ambition. "Syd was always driven," says Brown. "He never wanted to settle for less than what he could be. He recognized he had a special ability. But he had problems getting it across."
After 11 years as a full-time scout for the Pirates, Thrift was hired as eastern scouting director for the expansion Royals in 1968. The next year he was made head of the team's Baseball Academy. In no time he was telling Kansas City owner Ewing Kauffman that he had eight to 10 major league prospects among the youngsters at the camp. So Kauffman sent down some scouts and they scoffed at what they saw. "These guys didn't know," says Thrift. "I knew. I resented the hell out of that." After three years spent running the academy, Thrift returned to scouting and eventually left the Royals, feeling unappreciated and underpaid. Time has vindicated his work at the academy, though. Fourteen of the kids he picked to make the majors have done so.
Playing for Thrift wasn't easy. "He was a soldier," says Ron Washington, an academy alum now with the Cleveland Indians. "When you're around a guy like that, it makes you tough because you don't want him on your butt. He stressed handling the downside. If you handle that, you've got the game whipped."
Thrift has had a lot of experience grappling with the downside, both on and off the field. His father died in 1962, before Syd got a chance to show him just how savory a soup could be made from a baseball. Three years later, Thrift's second son, Mark, was born with severe brain damage. He is now a patient at the Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax. "I never knew how to handle what happened," says Thrift. "The bitterness was just in me after that. I have no excuses for some of the things I've said or done. Those were things said by a bitter man. I guess I have a certain kind of personality, and Mark—it just compounded it. I felt guilty when I was at home. I felt guilty when I was on the road. I punished myself in the end."
Thrift left baseball in 1976 because h" felt his priorities had become messed up "I'd been around other people's kids al my life, and I hadn't seen my own growing up," he recalls. "Baseball was not only my number 1 priority, it was my number 2 and 3 priorities, too. I finally realized it's got to be God, then family, then your job."
In '76 Thrift heard a speech by Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry on talent and the commitment to excellence and it inspired Thrift to put his career—and his life, for that matter—in perspective. Since talent is not man-made, it was presumptuous to credit himself with seeing what all the idiots in baseball couldn't see, or to blame himself for fathering a son who has never said a word. "I don't owe what I know to any one man, and I can't take any credit for it myself," says Thrift. "Talent is like a bestowal, a gift. It's up to you to recognize the gift and train it."