If anyone had told Syd Thrift a year ago that he would leave his thriving Virginia real estate business for the job as G.M. of baseball's worst team, well, says Thrift, "I'd have thought they were nuts."
But the 57-year-old Thrift is one part optimist, two parts planner-developer-salesman. A former scout and original director of the Royals' baseball academy, he pitches a lively sermon about his Pirates, one filled with upbeat aphorisms and Biblical allusions. These Bucs will play tight defense, hustle, dive, scrap, steal more bases, he says. That's the style of Jim Leyland, the team's gruff, canny and popular new manager, who has hired a staff of defensively accomplished coaches to help him prepare the Pirates. "The Bible talks of a full suit of armor," says Thrift. "You know which part—the shield, the helmet, the breastplate—is preparation? It's the shoes, the part that covers your feet." Thrift guffawed. "There sure are a lot of barefoot people around!"
The problem with the young Pirates, of course, is that they're wrapped in swaddling clothes, not armor, and have several bare spots—no power, no bullpen stopper, not much experience. They will again lose far more than they will win. They do, however, have Shoes: outfielder R.J. (Shoes) Reynolds, who hit .308 after coming over from the Dodgers in September and seems on the verge of a big year. Reynolds's nickname comes from his extensive footwear collection; he even has two tiny gold slippers dangling from his neck chain, one with a diamond, the other with an emerald.
Joining Reynolds in the outfield will be fast-developing Mike Brown (.332 after coming over from California) and injury-prone veteran Steve Kemp. Reynolds, Brown and hustling Egyptian shortstop Sammy Khalifa kept Pittsburgh playing at a .500 clip over the final six weeks of last season. The Pirates still match up well with any team in the league at catcher (Tony Pena) and second base (Johnny Ray).
Pitching coach Ron Schueler compares the raw talent on Pittsburgh's starting staff to that of the 1981 and '82 White Sox (Steve Trout, Britt Burns, Richard Dotson, LaMarr Hoyt), which Ron also coached. Schueler, needless to say, is an optimist.
"A job well begun is a job half done," says Thrift, and that's as much as the Pirates can hope for this season.
THE ELIAS ANALYST:
Has never walked in 76 career plate appearances with the bases loaded.
One extra-base hit in 43 career at bats against lefthanders.
Strikeout rate of one per 27.2 plate appearances was best in NL.
At 21, youngest everyday player in NL in '85, seven weeks older than AL's Ozzie Guillen.
Batted .264 in 55 games as a starter,. 188 in 37 games off the bench.
Loves to face Steve Trout (.727, 8 for 11), hates to face Kevin Gross (0 for 7).
One of three NL players to start at least 10 games at all three OF positions in '85.
Career batting averages: .271 with runners on base, .301 with the bases empty.
Allowed 11 leadoff homers in '85, to tie for most in the majors.
Could have had 20 wins: In his six no-decisions his ERA was 1.58.
Averaged 5.53 innings per start, 8th lowest in NL last season.
The Pirates had a 2-22 record in Winn's relief appearances.