It has become fashionable to call the 1988 Pittsburgh Pirates anything but the Pittsburgh Pirates. Perfectly acceptable substitutes are names like the Thrift Shop or Bargain Basement Baseball. To understand what this means, you have to know that the Pirates lost 104 games in 1985, weren't much better in '86, and had financial problems like you wouldn't believe. Everybody wearing a Pittsburgh uniform suddenly looked as though he was going to a hard-times party.
Actually, the turnaround that has made the 1988 Pirates one of the best young teams in baseball began in November 1985, when Syd Thrift took over as general manager.
Syd Thrift? Half of baseball couldn't remember who he was after he left the game nine years ago to form his own real estate company, and the other half never knew him.
But Thrift, at 6 ft. 4 in. and 225 pounds, and with a military bearing, is hard to miss. He is also known for (a)a flair for making you believe everything he says, and (b)the ability to spot talent in young players.
After Syd graduated from Randolph-Macon College in 1950, the New York Yankees took one look at this big left-hander and signed him to pitch and play first base in their minor league organization. By 1957, however, Thrift's throwing arm had lost so much of its velocity that he changed directions and became a scout for the Pirates.
Syd was so good at uncovering raw talent that in 1969 when the Kansas City Royals started their Baseball Academy, a new idea for speeding the development of young players, he was placed in charge. Later, Charles O. Finley hired him to head up Oakland's minor league farm system.
When Thrift returned to Pittsburgh, one of his first tasks was to pick a new manager in time for the '86 season. He interviewed six candidates before awarding the job to Jim Leyland, the third-base coach of the Chicago White Sox.
``I picked Leyland because he was full of ideas, and because he didn't seem to be all bound up with the traditional ways that baseball does things,'' Thrift told me. ``He was flexible. Just because something had been done the same way in baseball for the past 50 years didn't mean a thing to Jim.
``If he thought he'd found a better way to do something, he'd try it. I like that approach. I also liked the fact that he had managed for 11 years in the minors, so there wasn't much in the way of problems that he hadn't been asked to solve.''
Thrift's next order of business was to attack the defeatist attitude that permeated the clubhouse. He traded away some high-priced veterans, replacing them with young players who had both talent and motivation. And he did what many people consider the impossible by bringing in a whole new pitching staff that today includes Mike Dunne, Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher, Jim Gott, and Jeff Robinson.
From one of the highest payrolls in baseball, Pittsburgh now has one of the lowest, and the team expects to make money this season for the first time in several years.
The Pirates also created a late-season sensation in 1987 by winning 27 of their last 38 games to finish just one game under .500. And this spring they took up where they had left off, getting away to a fast start that even had them holding first place in the National League East for a while before the New York Mets overtook them.
There are lots of exciting ``Syd Thrift specials'' on this team, a perfect example being Bobby Bonilla, who has been burning up the league all spring. Bonilla wasn't even drafted out of high school, but was signed by the Pirates as an 18-year-old free agent in 1981 on the recommendation of Thrift, who had spotted him while conducting a baseball clinic. After moving up through the farm system, Bonilla was left unprotected in the major league draft and selected by the Chicago White Sox in 1985. But Thrift remembered the young switch-hitter's talent, and engineered a trade to get him back the next year.
The result: Last year Bonilla hit .300, with 15 homers and 77 RBIs. And this spring he has been the talk of the town, leading or close to the lead in most offensive departments, with a .350 batting average, nine homers, 26 RBIs, 25 runs scored, 42 hits, 11 doubles, and 4 triples.
Thrift also swung the trade that sent catcher Tony Pena to St. Louis for three little-known players who have come on to make major contributions to the Pirates - pitcher Dunne, outfielder Andy Van Slyke, and catcher Mike Lavalliere.
Despite their improvement, however, the Pirate brass is not under any illusions that the team as now constituted can really match the Mets on paper.
``There's no way that any team in our division, including us, belongs with the Mets,'' Leyland explained. ``Unless something unforeseen happens to New York's pitching staff, it is probably going to dominate all season. But if for any reason the Mets should stumble, we'll be ready. Instances like that have happened before in baseball, and if it did maybe we'll get some breaks, because we need something like that to win.
``Anyway, our situation now is nothing like it was in 1986, the first year I managed the Pirates,'' Jim continued. ``I felt then that if we played the very best we could and our opponents played the very best they could, we would lose every time. The difference in talent was that great. But I don't feel that way now, and neither do my ballplayers.''
Asked about his relationship with Thrift, who seldom misses a road trip and who keeps in touch every day of the season either in person or on the telephone, Jim replied:
``Thrift is a great guy to have on your side, because he knows so much about every part of the game. He's seen it all as a player, a scout, a farm director, and as a general manager. He has this uncanny ability to look at a young man only once or twice and know whether he can play this game.
``I think some people might have a problem with Syd because he doesn't do things like everybody else,'' Jim continued. ``But while he wants to know everything that's going on, he doesn't interfere with you on the field. He lets you operate. He lets you be yourself.''