There he was, happily at work in the Vienna real estate office of Syd Thrift and Associates, from which he occasionally would retreat with his faithful bird dog for some quail hunting in the Carolinas or goose hunting on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He had been out of organized baseball nine years.
"Syd Thrift?" asked the man on the telephone.
It was Joe L. Brown calling. Brown had come out of retirement this summer to take over temporarily as the Pittsburgh Pirates' general manager. He was looking for his replacement.
Before the conversation was over, he knew it would be Thrift.
"Syd Who?" some reporters asked when Thrift was introduced at a news conference Nov. 7 in Pittsburgh. A real estate agent as GM?
Not everyone realized that Syd Thrift may have been out of the game, but he never was away from it.
Thrift had been a longtime scout for the Pirates, had directed the Kansas City Royals' once ballyhooed baseball academy for raw recruits in Sarasota, Fla., had been director of minor league operations for Charlie Finley's Oakland A's. He had signed Frank White for the Royals, drafted Rickey Henderson for the A's. Player procurement and development, his card might have said.
And that was exactly the background the Pirates' new ownership was seeking in a new general manager, a man who would face one of the giant tasks in the game, leading the Pirates out of last-place wilderness, and at the same time helping alter the mood of a city further depressed by this summer's cocaine-trafficking trials, which brought forth a parade of big-league players to testify. Thrift's modest assignment: beat the big-time Steel City Blues.
So, he's back for good reason, just as he left for good reason, in 1976. "I had spent all my time with other people's sons, and not my own," he said.
He quit the A's and took up with young Jim and Mark. Jim, then in eighth grade, already was a baseball prospect. As he grew up to be an All-Met player with Oakton High and for a time a minor leaguer in the Oakland chain, Syd grew with him, coaching age-group teams, giving clinics, always being around a ball field, whether it was Memorial Stadium or the diamond near his house. He had gone back to fatherhood, and baseball basics. He added, "You don't learn to be a teacher in college."
When the inevitable question came up Nov. 7, Where have you been, Syd Thrift?, phrased as if he had been "somewhere in space" or "on an island," he had to suggest that, in his humble opinion, he knew quite a bit about the game as it's played in 1985. Constantly coaching young players has kept him in touch. What difference, the level of the game?
"Why, isn't all baseball one baseball?" he said the other day during a visit to the office he's turned over to Dolly Thrift, his wife of 24 years.
Besides, all those years out of the majors Thrift, 56, studied the game. Honed baseball theories, of which he has many. Up at 5 o'clock and shortly after reading everything he could get his hands on about baseball. "If I had read the Wall Street Journal and the classified ads as much," he said, "I could have bought the Pittsburgh Pirates."
Up in Pittsburgh, they had been expecting someone other than a Northern Virginia real estate agent when in walked a bushy-browed, big ol' boy with a drawl who's got a place on the Rappahannock and quotes scripture and, now, promises that the Pirates are going to play "good, old-fashioned hardball."
But before thinking Thrift's approach, strictly speaking, might be old-fashioned, because he came along when all diamonds were grass and many were just dirt, one should consider: Thrift might not be so easy to predict; he used to be a left-handed pitcher.
A big Pirates banner hangs in Thrift's office. In downtown Vienna, a little Pirates hotbed has surfaced since Thrift got the job. Chuck Robb called; Thrift coached the governor at Mount Vernon High School. Suddenly, Thrift's associates are talking Pirates.
And what does Thrift talk about first with a visitor?
His "measured lead" theory, which has to do with base stealing and generally upsetting a defense.
He bounds to his feet to demonstrate -- he can't wait to reactivate his theories.
In the '80s, he knows full well, speed has revolutionized the game; base-stealing has been at an all-time high. But in fact, much of the science of the speed game was developed at the Royals' baseball academy, under Thrift himself.
His measured lead is the maximum distance from a base at which a runner can still feel comfortable about getting back safely. This precise spot is arrived at through the timing of runners, pitchers and catchers. With, say, a 12-, 13- or 14-foot lead at first base, a runner knows exactly how much time he has to get to second against a particular pitcher and catcher. Thus, he doesn't have to worry about the dangers of the lead and can concentrate on getting a jump on the pitcher. Never mind that Rickey Henderson would run wild using Thrift theories; more startlingly, the slow-footed Sal Bando stole 20 bases for Oakland in 1976.
When he opened the Royals' baseball academy with "no format, no blueprints," just the assignment to find players with little experience who might become major league players, Thrift instituted an open-door policy. "We had inventors, scientists, mathematicians visit."
A photographer documented the flight of pitched balls, he said, and "there in 1971, for the first time, I really saw what a baseball did. There's no such thing as a rising fast ball." Depending on how a pitcher grips the ball, he said, it simply might not drop as much as some. But rise? No.
All the time, Thrift had everybody up early, talking theories. On bunting: "Tilt the bat up to 45 degrees and point it forward a little bit and you'll guarantee no pop up." Ted Williams came by and told him, "If I hit two ground balls in a row, I'd place an imaginary ball beneath the pitched ball and swing at that."
One of the hardest hitters Thrift ever signed as a Pittsburgh scout was Bob Robertson, from western Maryland. Three times Thrift scouted him and three times Robertson looked bad. But Robertson "had powerful hands on him, like Jimmie Foxx must have had. I went there again, determined he wasn't going to see me. I parked my car way out in left, by the trees. First time up, he hit the ball into the trees, through the trees, and hit my car and put a dent in it."
Willie Mays also left an impression in Thrift's life, when both played on the Fort Eustis, Va., army team in the early 1950s: Mays holding a runner at second base with what Thrift described as a remarkable, on-a-line throw from deep center field. Said Thrift, "He was so far out in center it was dark out there."
Growing up in tiny Urbanna, on the Rappahannock, and later in college at Randolph-Macon, Thrift played ball, inspired by his Methodist minister's sermon on the parable of the talents. Talent he had. As a pitcher, Thrift made all-state in college.
But later he injured his arm and never rose above the minors. He was only "good enough to confuse 'em," meaning management, not always batters.
Even now, one can't be sure what Thrift will do. Consider his choice of manager.
When Brown called Thrift it was to get Thrift's input on the kinds of qualities the new GM should possess. Having heard the response, Brown asked Thrift if he might be interested in the job. With Thrift hired, Brown stepped aside, leaving Thrift to pick the Pirates' field boss. Some in Pittsburgh figured he'd take his friend Steve Boros. But, surprise, Thrift chose neither Boros nor some recycled manager but White Sox third base coach Jim Leyland, a fresh face for the Pirates' fresh start.
That left some of the Pittsburgh media asking "Jim Who?" having recently asked "Syd Who?"
They'll get the names straight, Syd Thrift knows, especially if he makes his theories work.