Baseball Men - The GM


Posted Oct 21, 2005


Our ‘Baseball Men’ series continues with Pat Gillick, former Executive of the Year and two-time World Series Champion.

Of all the wings of the Baseball Hall of Fame, the General Managers’ area might be the one in most dire need of some new additions.

 

Hard as it is to believe, only three general managers have received Cooperstown plaques to date. No one would argue with Ed Barrow, Branch Rickey, and George Weiss as legendary empire builders, but if there was a club that was a little too exclusive, this might be it. After all, none in the trio were active in the game after 1966 and the ‘youngest’ in that dusty old crowd, Weiss, won his last World Championship nearly 50 years ago.

 

Even the stodgiest of stodgy old timers can’t possibly be so out of touch as to believe that absolutely no Hall-worthy general manager have graced the game since the Johnson administration. Take a look at the immortals’ roster - it’s full of non-players, from pioneers to long-forgotten announcers and sportswriters. For goodness sake, even team owners and league presidents (remember them?) are better represented than the guys who’ve actually gone about the work of assembling great rosters.

 

If and when the Cooperstown crowd ever decides wake up and correct their oversight in regard to all-time general managers, here’s a candidate they might want to keep in mind - a guy named Pat Gillick.

 

After winning a College World Series title with USC in 1958, Gillick signed on as a lefty starter in the Orioles’ minor league system. After an arm injury curtailed his playing career in 1963, the newly unemployed 26-year-old was immediately hired by the new Colt .45’s expansion team (soon to be re-named the Astros) as a scout and scouting director. He moved on to the Yankees’ player development and scouting departments in 1974-76, then joined the expansion Toronto Blue Jays, where he was quickly promoted from Vice President of Player Personnel to General Manager. Gillick retired from the Jays following the strike-shortened ’94 campaign, but returned to serve as Baltimore’s General Manager for the 1996, 1997, and 1998 seasons. After a second brief retirement, Gillick finished off his career as Mariners GM from 2000 through 2003.

 

Any kind of glance back on Pat Gillick’s career as a team builder reveals greatness, and on multiple levels.

 

You want a talent evaluator? This is the guy who drafted future stars like Dave Stieb, Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, and Jimmy Key. The guy who once stole a future MVP, George Bell, through the same Rule 5 draft that also produced solid Blue Jays contributors like Willie Upshaw and Kelly Gruber.

 

Some might say a Hall of Fame GM should be a superlative trader, too. Well, look no further.

 

Pat Gillick once traded for a young prospect named Fred McGriff and built a two-time World Champion with the 1992-93 Blue Jays by swapping for stars like Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, David Cone, and Rickey Henderson. His best set of trades and signings may have come in his last posting, in Seattle, where found a way to replace expensive superstars like Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez with a well-designed collection of complimentary players including Mike Cameron, Aaron Sele, Bret Boone, and Jeff Nelson.

 

Of course, none of those decisions amount to much without results, and Gillick has collected those plenty of those, too. He needed six full years to build a winner with an expansion franchise and once he turned the corner he never did look back - Gillick’s teams enjoyed winning seasons in every one of the eleven full seasons before his departure from the Toronto, then enjoyed another two winning seasons in Baltimore, and another four straight winners in Seattle. In all, Gillick crafted winning teams in 16 of his last 17 full seasons, nine of which made it into October. One of those teams, the 2001 Mariners, earned a record-tying 116 wins and Gillick’s recognition as Executive of the Year.

 

How valuable was Pat Gillick over the course of his career? In the nine combined years prior to his three retirements, his franchises averaged 94 wins per year and made seven total playoff appearances. After he left, however, those same ball clubs fell off a cliff by averaging 61 wins and came up with exactly . . . zero playoff appearances. Basically, the guy made a difference between his ball clubs’ finish at the very top or the very bottom of the division.

 

Among all free agency-era GM’s, only John Schuerholz has been Pat Gillick’s equal in terms of consistent winning and titles, and even Schuerholz has to come along with a tiny asterisk - the Braves’ master architect has worked with bigger budgets during most of his career.

 

To put Gillick’s achievements in their fullest context, however, it’s important to remember what they’ve meant to the course of baseball history. He’s contributed to playoff teams with three separate franchises, displaying the kind of team-building versatility matched only by the immortal Rickey’s work with the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Pirates. Gillick’s two World Series winners, the 1992 and 1993 Blue Jays, were the most popular teams in Major League history in terms of attendance. The capper to his international career may have been the signing of Ichiro Suzuki for the Mariners, the one single move that’s done the most to open up Japan’s vast talent pool and audiences to Major League Baseball in the new millennium.

 

Nowadays the 68-year old Gillick is in semi-retirement, serving as a part-time consultant to the Mariners’ front office and a full-time husband to Doris, his wife of 37 years. By rights, the man should one day be speaking from a shrine in Cooperstown. Pat Gillick was nice enough to talk to me from his home in Canada.

 

 

When did you start thinking of yourself as a future scout and executive?

 

In the one year I was at USC, in 1958, we won the College World Series and I had really planned to go to law school. However, I was approached by the Orioles and played as up as high as AAA, with Rochester, Columbus [Ohio], and Vancouver.

 

At the end of five years, I really wanted to evaluate where I was. In year four and year five, I had some arm trouble - nothing real, real serious, but I had some arm trouble - so I decided to go back to the university and get my Master’s [degree] and go on from there. When I’d played with Baltimore, Paul Richards and Eddie Robinson were there, and they’d since moved on to the Astros. Eddie called me and asked me if I’d be interested in coming down there to work them in the farm department. I said ‘probably not’ - I had a chance to be a student assistant with the USC baseball team and get my degree. But, I finally decided to go down to Texas and work with them.

 

You had some spectacular years before you moved on as a pitcher, though. Just a couple of years before you retired, you went 11-2 with a 1.91 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 114 innings. How hard was it for you to walk away from the playing field?

 

I kind of set my goal for five years, and if I wasn’t there, I’d think of something else. I very bluntly asked Harry Dalton, who would be the general manager for Baltimore and the Angels and Brewers, what the organization thought. He said they thought I’d probably be a fringe major leaguer. I said, ‘I appreciate that’ and went on to get another career started.

 

Starting off as a scout and scouting director with the Astros for those first 10 years, was that a foundation for your later career as a GM?

 

You know, I think it helped me to understand scouts; it helped me understand players and scouts’ projections for players. It helped me to understand what scouts had to do to procure talent. It gave me a good foundation and, along the way, I was fortunate to get a good business education from Tal Smith and Gabe Paul in New York.

 

In reviewing your career, that seems to be the comment that keeps on coming up, ‘Pat Gillick was a superior talent evaluator’.

 

I think people have to do a self-evaluation. John Schuerholz was never a professional player, so consequently, his strengths were in other areas. He knew what his strengths were. Harry Dalton was never a professional player and he knew what his strengths were. They hired people they had confidence in, and let them run with it. Some general managers try to be everything, and that may make them weaker.

 

I felt my strength was to be out in the field and letting the scouts know that I cared about them and I was going to fight for their players. That was really my strength, more in that area. [My former Assistant General Manager] Gordie Ash had a strength in the administrative side, so when I was on the road I didn’t have any second thoughts about what was going on in Toronto with both Gordie and Paul Beeston.

 

Mariners President Chuck Armstrong once said that you have an uncanny knack for picking up intangibles. By that, I guess he meant non-statistical factors like hustle, smarts, focus, and maybe non-statistical performances, like a pitcher’s ability to hold runners or a base runner’s ability to advance on a throw. How did you consider those kinds of factors in evaluating players?

 

We took into consideration the whole picture. I’ll tell you one thing that was very important to me on both the amateur level and the professional level - practice. I sometimes got more out of practices than I got out of games.

 

For instance, on the amateur level, the best kid on the team might not swing the bat during the game because the opposing team might intentionally walk him four times. So I tried to go in three days ahead of a game to get a good line on the way he practiced, his work ethics, his relationships with his teammates. You can tell if there’s a communication and camaraderie with the players.

 

It’s the same thing on the professional level. If someone’s off to side and nobody seems to congregate around him, you might say ‘Hey, something’s up’.

 

You were also known for luring athletes from other sports - I’m thinking of high school football players like Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten - and later developing them into major leaguers.

 

The one thing about athletes is, they can adapt to other sports. If you’ve got a guy with tremendous hand-eye coordination and a good work ethic, I think you can make a ball player out of him.

 

You found a future MVP in the Rule 5 draft and traded for an obscure Yankees farm hand who would go on to be a borderline Hall of Famer. What did you see in young players like George Bell and Fred McGriff?

 

It was just very fortunate. George, the year we drafted him, had been injured almost the entire year. I was down in Santo Domingo [Dominican Republic] and saw team batting practice before a game. He didn’t play the game because the Phillies were concerned he would be drafted [by another team], but he was working out. Based on the batting practice I saw, it kind of confirmed the excellent reporting our scouts had had for the previous season, before the injury.

 

McGriff was a funny situation. We had a farm club in Bradenton, in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. I was down in Florida to see a guy that [scout] Eppie Guerrero had signed and all of the sudden this other guy, McGriff, stepped up and hit a ball over the clubhouse.

 

In regard to scouting, how do you feel about some current general managers’ greater emphasis on statistical analyses?

 

I think part of the whole package in evaluating a young player is statistical analysis; you have to have that in the mix with the physical ability and visual observation. I don’t downgrade statistics at all. Just like any other business, everyone has a different way, a different formula for getting the job done. If someone wants to use statistical analysis completely, that’s fine, they can do it that way. If I want to use a combination of analyses, I should be allowed to do it my way.

 

Another feature of player development nowadays is record bonuses for first round draft picks.

 

You know, all of the sudden a guy gets a couple million dollars and . . . you don’t know how he’s going to react to it. It’s almost like, you can look at all these cases of people who actually get devastated by winning the lottery. The guy does this and that and ends up bankrupt. That’s why it’s so very important to know a player mentally and get a handle on how he’s going to react.

 

Your ownership stuck with you despite the fact that you had to go through six straight losing seasons in getting the Toronto’s expansion team off the ground. Do you think an ownership would have the same kind of patience nowadays?

 

You hit the key word there - ‘patience’. One thing I’ve found over the last, oh, 15 years, is that people have run out of patience. When we bought the Toronto expansion franchise in 1976, we paid $7 million. And now, when $400 million might be invested in a team, ownership is not as patient. They want quick results. The fans are more impatient than they were 10, 15 years ago.

 

It takes time to develop a foundation, a nucleus a farm system, an attitude. It takes time for players to develop in the Minor Leagues. There’s an odd player that can come to the big leagues as a rookie who can perform quite well, but other guys get their feet on the ground for one or two seasons. So, getting competitive and developing at the same time is a very difficult mix.

 

Generally, did you think of trades as short-term boosts for a playoff chances, or a means to structure the ballclub for the long-term?

 

Usually, my trades were more for long term situations rather than short term, be it McGriff, be it [Joe] Carter, be it [Roberto] Alomar. I knew we weren’t looking at one and two-year situations, but the longer term.

 

That’s surprising, considering that almost all your ballclubs were competitive, from 1983 on.

 

I’ve always said, ‘I want a club that’s in a position to be competitive’. Somebody can say, ‘Well, you should say you want to win a championship right now’. Well, yeah, but a lot depends on injury. The same holds true for whatever other ballclub is in your division. If you’re competitive, you’ll be in a position to take advantage of other teams’ misfortune in terms of injuries.

 

What was your attitude toward dealing with your fellow general managers? On the one hand, you’re all in the same fraternity, but on the other, you’re obligated to do your best to maximize your advantage in a trade.

 

Because it’s only thirty clubs, it’s a repeat business in the major leagues. You don’t want the other GM to look bad in his situation and he doesn’t want to be embarrassed. The approach we try to take is - ‘look, you’ve got something that can help us, we have something that can help you. We’ve got a weakness in this position and you have the guy, and you have a weakness in that position where we can provide help’.

 

Try to give the guy as close to equal value as possible, because you want to deal with the individual again in the future. If he has a bad taste in his mouth, with the thought you were trying to put one over on him . . . I wanted to deal upfront. Rather than a trade, say, a fair exchange.

 

How important is it for a GM to have a good relationship with the local media?

 

I think it’s vital to have a good relationship with the press. I think it’s very, very important to have good lines of communication, to understand their job and what they’re trying to do. I don’t want to use the word ‘accommodate’, but you have to be available as much as possible.

 

Now, sometimes you can’t comment or discuss something, but if the press ever catches you lying on some matter, they’re going to bury you.

 

Generally, how did you relate to your ownership groups in Toronto, Baltimore, and Seattle?

 

In both Toronto and Seattle, I just kept ownership and the team president informed of what we wanted to do and went ahead and did it. In Baltimore, it was a little more micro-management and hands-on management. I didn’t react very well to that style so I probably wasn’t as successful as I should have been. We probably didn’t do some things for the Orioles that we could have done for the long term.

 

I enjoyed my time in Baltimore - they’re some of the best fans in baseball - but ownership should generally let go of the situation a little bit and let the front office do its thing.

 

You were long-time friends with a couple of your managers, Bobby Cox and Davey Johnson. How much of your GM/manager relationship was based on a personal rapport and how much was it matching philosophies and approaches to the game?

 

We had an organizational philosophy but our managers bought into it. Our managers believed in it because they could see the progress we made with it. I don’t think the organization can be on one train track with the manager on another track - you have to be in it together. You have to be on the same wavelength.

 

I guess part of your enduring legacy, in Seattle especially, was your landmark signing of Ichiro Suzuki for the 2001 season. Why did you go in that direction?

 

That was almost completely based on the staff. Ichiro had come over prior to my arrival and spent part of a Spring Training with the Mariners in something called a ‘Friendship Relationship’ with the Orix Blue Wave [of the Japan Leagues].

 

Both Jim Colburn, who was the pitching coach with Orix for a couple of years, and Roger Jongewaard knew Suzuki. Jim knew about the guy’s mental makeup and work ethic and they made the call. It’s worked out well.

 

In his first year, the team enjoyed a historic 116-win season as well as inspiring a new, enduring connection between the majors and the Japanese. How much of the decision was about Ichiro’s potential popularity as far as that new market?

 

We wanted to put together the best possible team. At the same time, revenue drives the wheel, and we knew if we acquired Ichiro we’d get television exposure in Japan. Seattle is almost the closest American city to Japan so there’s been a lot of tourism, so it’s been a win-win situation from a baseball and revenue standpoint.

 

Apart from that special case, what was your approach to signing free agents?

 

When I made up my mind to go after a player, it’s sort of like a situation with another GM. You’re dealing with an agent, and the agent needs a little win, too. You have to be flexible, you have to use common sense, and you have to realize that the guy on the other side of the table represents a client, too.

 

When you have an agent who’s aware of the salary parameters for a certain player, then it’s pretty easy to get a deal done where both parties are pretty happy. Usually, in our negotiations, I wanted both the ballclub and the agent thinking, ‘Hey, nobody got snookered in his deal’. It’s a give and take situation.

 

It’s clear how respected you were among your colleagues and players, but at the same time, general managers inevitably have to fire or trade or release players. How did you handle that aspect of the job?

 

Telling a major league player that his career is over with, that you have to go in another direction, that’s probably the most difficult part for me. It’s because he has to start an entirely new lifestyle, et cetera. It’s a real blow to, not only the players, but their families as well.

 

With the younger players, at some point, it wasn’t that difficult for me. If the staff truly thought that a young man wasn’t going to be a major league player, I didn’t want the young man to be a career minor leaguer. He should know he should go back to school or another profession where he can be successful.

 

At the end of the day, I think the most important thing is your reputation, the way you’re viewed in the industry. You have to deal fairly, honestly, and up front with your people.

 

What about situations where you felt you had to deal with a negative situation? Was there ever a time when you felt the need to openly criticize one of your players in the media or otherwise go public?

 

As far as the players, it would definitely be a one-on-one situation and one-on-one dialogue, be it someone with an alcohol problem, be it a drug problem. Again, I have to get back the fact - these are employees. They’re baseball players, but they’re still employees of a company, and I think companies basically have an obligation to take care of their employees.

 

I think confidentiality is very important. If a player or an agent or somebody wants to divulge our discussions, that’s fine, but from my standpoint the players have to have know that their discussions have a confidential basis.

 

What’s your take on the steroids issue and how you’d deal with it today?

 

The players, they have sort of a chat line or a gossip line and if they find out that one player is performing well, using some kind of supplement, they’re going to try it.

 

In professional sports, or in any business you’re involved in, you’re only as good as your employees. You have to care for your employees and keep them well informed. Our approach in Seattle was ‘forget about your performance, let’s talk about your life, let’s talk about the long range effects’. We tried to do as much education as possible.

 

Apart from the Yankees, your ’92 and ‘93 Toronto champions were the only repeat champions of the last thirty years. How do you regard the majors’ current situation in terms of competitive balance?

 

I think the Commissioner’s done an excellent job bringing parity to the game. I think small market teams and their fans want a somewhat level playing field. You’ll never get a completely level playing field due to the television situation, but everyone wants a chance to compete.

 

I think they’ve done a good job in revenue sharing and trying to get funds for the small market teams to improve the quality of their players.

 

You had bigger budgets in your Baltimore and Seattle days, but never enjoyed anything like a nine-figure payroll. What was your attitude toward the gap between bigger market teams and your ballclubs?

 

Every market’s a little different. If you said to Seattle fans, ‘Hey, we need two years to reload’, I think they’d consider that. In New York or Boston or LA or Chicago, they’d run you out of town. The big market teams, there’s a continuous pressure to put a winning product on the field and they do become impatient. 

 

The other thing is, even with the amount of money they have, they have one of the more difficult jobs because they have to take a look at every player. No player is out of their reach, so they have to look at the whole spectrum. If you have a Pittsburgh or a Kansas City, on the other hand, they don’t have to worry about a player making $5 or $6 million a year, because that player doesn’t fit their profile.

 

During your 40 decades as a scout and executive, you’ve watched thousands of ballgames and ballplayers. Now that you’re retired, I wonder, will you ever be Joe Sixpack on the couch, just watching baseball for the heck of it?

 

(immediately) Oh, I don’t think so.

 

I can watch a football or hockey game and be a Joe Sixpack observer and relax and enjoy it. But baseball . . . I’ll always be wearing a different hat.

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