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
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
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
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
When did you start thinking of yourself as a future scout
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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
It was just very fortunate. George, the year we
drafted him, had been injured almost the entire year. I was down in
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
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.
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
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
Generally, did you think of trades as short-term boosts
for a playoff chances, or a means to structure the ballclub for the
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
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
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.