It was in November of 1985 that the Pittsburgh Pirates gave Thrift an opportunity to become their general manager in a move that startled the baseball world. Thrift had been out of baseball for nine full years and was running a successful real estate business in Virginia.
Pittsburgh had called upon Thrift to get his thoughts on hiring a new general manager because they knew of his experience in baseball as a longtime scout and player development man for the New York Yankees, Pirates, Kansas City Royals and Oakland Athletics.
The Pirates were so impressed with Thrift's views on putting together a baseball organization that they gave him the job as GM.
The Pirates knew Thrift would be a controversial selection in that he viewed baseball in a different fashion than most experienced executives. Thrift had been the director and biggest proponent of the baseball academy that was launched by the Royals and he was viewed as someone who was open to trying new methods to discover and develop baseball players.
If Thrift discovered and believed in an innovative way to teach players how to improve -- from visualization specialists to unorthodox teaching methods -- he was willing to lend his support to such endeavors.
Thrift's first major move in Pittsburgh was symbolic of his philosophy of being open to new ideas and unheralded people. He hired Leyland as the Pirates manager, a man who had spent 11 seasons in the Minor Leagues without ever getting an opportunity.
Thrift lasted only three seasons as the Pirates' GM, but he and Leyland took the team from a sixth place standing to second place as the club made significant improvement each year. Thrift was not modest about the Pirates' advancement and once declared, "It ain't easy resurrecting the dead." He ultimately lost his job in a dispute with upper management.
Thrift never was one to back down if he believed in his position. I saw this first-hand during August of the 1989 season when he had become the general manager of the Yankees. I was the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Thrift and I agreed on a trade that would send infielder Tracy Woodson to the Yankees for right-handed pitcher Jimmy Jones. The deal was finalized with only the time of the announcement to be determined.
Thrift called me with a surprising development.
"Fred, I've been told that if I go through with this trade I will be fired. I want you to know one thing, though. We have agreed on the deal and I'm willing to go through with the announcement," said Thrift.
Thrift's word was more important to him than the prospect of losing his job.
"Syd, this isn't a deal worth putting your job at risk," I said. "We will call off the deal."
Thrift passed away last week in his native Virginia at the age of 77. He had spent nearly 50 years in the game and had loved every minute of his involvement.
He had worked in difficult circumstances and for strong owners in Oakland, Pittsburgh, New York and Baltimore, but in every stop he made he gained the respect of each organization from top to bottom.
When the services were held last weekend, the owner of the Orioles, Peter Angelos, was in attendance as was team general manager Mike Flanagan and Yankees GM Brian Cashman. They came to Thrift's Virginia homeland where he had been raised loving the game of baseball, teaching at the local high school and always being present and available to pass along worthwhile lessons in life.
I don't know of anyone who enjoyed the game of baseball more than Thrift. He missed the days when he wasn't a general manger but he took joy in every assignment, particularly as it related to scouting and player development.
"You know what the description of a general manger is?," Thrift once asked. "The red light in your hotel room is always blinking."
Baseball was always better when Thrift had the opportunity to return the call. I'll miss the conversations but I never will forget my friend.
The Leylands spoke for many of Thrift's friends with four simple words: "We are forever grateful."