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The Pirates had already gone the free-agent route, with disastrous results. Thrift believed in developing young talent. The first person he hired was his field manager, Jim Leyland. Thrift acquired Bobby Bonilla and Bob Patterson in trades and drafted Jeff King and Stan Belinda. In 1986 the Pirates lost 98 games and $7 million. Thrift, however, stayed the course. In '87 he got Andy Van Slyke, Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere in a trade for Tony Pena. The young team improved to 80-82. All six of Pittsburgh's minor league teams finished at or above .500.
In October '87 Thrift was offered another two-year contract. He and his wife, Dolly, sold the two houses they owned in Virginia and their real estate company. They thought they were moving to Pittsburgh for good.
During the 1988 season Thrift put more pieces of the Pirate puzzle in place. He hired Larry Doughty from the Cincinnati Reds to be his assistant G.M. He traded for Gary Redus. "We had improved a lot faster than anyone had realized we would, including me, and were one game behind the Mets in July," says Thrift.
In late July he dealt Darnell Coles to the Seattle Mariners for Glenn Wilson (who has since been traded to the Houston Astros). "The next day I got a memorandum from Carl Barger, the Pirates' president," Thrift recalls. "It said that in the future I needed permission to make any trade. I didn't see how I could do my job in those circumstances. But there are some situations where power and control are more important than winning."
Rumors of a front-office power struggle started flying. The Pirates, who had the youngest starting lineup in the league and the lowest payroll (less than $5 million), finished second to the Mets with an 85-75 record. They set a club record in attendance, nearly breaking two million, and made money for the first time in 14 years. Thrift was hailed as a genius. "But I kept reading in the papers about how I was going to be fired," he says. "All the world seemed to know about it but me."
Two days after the '88 season Thrift got a call from Barger and the club's CEO, Doug Danforth, requesting a meeting. It was held in Barger's apartment. Danforth did the talking. "He told me that I worked too hard," says Thrift. "He actually suggested that on my next job I take it easier. I just laughed and said the only reason I worked that hard was that I wanted to keep baseball in Pittsburgh. He said the reason they were making the change was that we had basic philosophical differences on the authority that went with my job. I told him I could accept that, because it was certainly true.
"But when you get fired, you're helpless. They have to justify what they did, so they call up the writers and say, 'This is off the record,' and then assassinate your character." Thrift was portrayed as power-hungry, meddlesome, egotistical. "It's a depressing emotional experience whose effect far exceeded me personally. It involved my wife and my eldest son, Jim, who was a Pirate rookie league manager. They fired him five days after me, on Oct. 9, his birthday, because he had the same last name as me. It affected my sisters, my brothers-in-law, my mother, who's 86. We're the type of family that is totally involved in each other's lives.
"Bart Giamatti called me and requested that I not go out into public places for a while. People were so mad [that Thrift had been fired after achieving so much with the Pirates], Bart was afraid I'd start a riot, and I revered that man so highly that I respected that request. So we waited around for them to fire our son, then went and lived with my mother in the town I grew up in, Locust Hill, Va."
Thrift returned to baseball the next year as a senior vice-president of the New York Yankees, but, frustrated with George Steinbrenner's constant meddling, he resigned on Aug. 29, 1989, 11 days after Steinbrenner fired his 17th manager in 17 years. "There have been 24 general manager changes in the last five years in the National League alone," he says. "I stopped counting in the American League when I got to seven changes for the Yankees. So then you wonder, Do I really want that job? You can't have stability without continuity."
Today Thrift, 61, is the baseball analyst for cable television's Mizlou-Sports News Network. He has written a book, The Game According to Syd, and he did a column for USA Today during the playoffs. He also accepts 40 to 50 public speaking engagements a year. Yet no one felt greater pride than Thrift did when the Pirates, led by the manager and players he put in place, won the National League East the last week of this season.