SPORTS WATCH

The man who built the Blue Jays

TRENT FRAYNE March 7 1994
SPORTS WATCH

The man who built the Blue Jays

TRENT FRAYNE March 7 1994

The man who built the Blue Jays

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Pat Gillick says this is his final spring in the sleepy little Florida town of Dunedin as the chief architect of the Toronto Blue Jays. After 17 years of building them into the best team in baseball, Gillick surprises people who ask why he’s leaving with a simple five-word sentence: “I just think it’s time.”

In moulding the Blue Jays into the first ball club to win back-to-back World Series championships since the New York Yankees of 1977 and 1978, Gillick has relied upon great patience and a truly impressive memory. Patience? For a time in the building process, he was so reluctant to make a deal that he became widely known as Stand Pat Gillick. A retentive memory? Well, as an illustration, what about a March afternoon in 1986 when Bobby Doerr was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame?

‘I’d like to learn to fly,’ Gillick says, ‘I’d like to sail a boat and I’d like to get involved with people who are having it tough’

A most likable man, Doerr had been the Blue Jays batting coach for five seasons through 1981. But then, five years later, the problem for the scribes covering the Blue Jays was to find him and talk to him so they could write about his election. Doerr had retired and was living in a small town in Oregon. For their part, the scribes were in West Palm Beach for an exhibition game involving the Blue Jays and the Montreal Expos. So how to contact Doerr? The PR man, Howard Starkman, was no help. “I’ve got his number back in Dunedin,” Howie said, “but there’s nothing here.” Then, he brightened. ‘You could try Pat.”

Pat was Gillick, already noted for his impressive memory. When he was a young lefthanded pitcher in the Baltimore chain, he’d sit in hotel lobbies during the long days before night games and amuse himself by memorizing the stock quotations in the newspapers, or, for variety, the names of ships and their expected times of arrival from overseas.

Anyway, this time at West Palm Beach, he was in the stands chatting with Curt Gowdy, a network broadcaster (once, while a relief pitcher trudged to the mound, Curt observed

for the folks at home: “This young fellah was bom originally in Idaho”). Seeking Gillick, I climbed up the aisle and asked if he knew where I could get Bobby Doerr’s phone number.

“Sure,” Pat said. And he instantly rattled off 10 digits, Oregon area code and all. Then, he said: “That’s his home. If he’s not there, you could try a lumber camp he’s often at.” And he recited that number, 10 more digits. I asked him when was the last time he had called Doerr. “Oh, I dunno, one day last winter,” he said in a matter-of-fact way. ‘Two or three months ago or so.”

No one respects Gillick’s memory more than his sidekick for all of the 17 Blue Jays years, Paul Beeston, a native of Welland, Ont., and now the team’s live-wire 48-year-old president and chief executive officer. “Pat’s recall when it comes to players is scary,” Beeston says. “It’s not just that he knows a kid’s stats or whether he’s left-handed or right-handed, no, he’ll play word association and then the whole thing comes back to him. He’ll give you the kid’s school and then the coach’s name and then the parents and a lot of times, like with the Bobby Doerr thing, he’ll come up with the phone number. You

wouldn’t believe how many numbers are stored away in his head.”

Gillick was hired in 1976 by Peter Bavasi, the team’s first chief executive officer, and within half a dozen years he had put together a contender. Now, in the team’s 18th spring in Florida, his blueprint has turned into baseball’s top team—or at least it is pending the outcome of charges against two pitchers on an already leaky pitching staff, Todd Stottlemyre and Dave Stewart. Both faced possible jail terms on battery charges involving a police officer in the wake of a night-club incident in Tampa on Feb. 20.

This development had nothing to do with Gillick’s decision to leave while he is at the top, of course. Even following the first World Series victory, he was thinking of other goals and of spending fewer hours away from his wife, Doris, and daughter, Kimberley, now 21. “The day-to-day pressure, nobody can comprehend that,” Beeston says of Gillick’s job. “For 24 hours a day, 365 days, the phone could be ringing from somebody. There’s no way you can isolate yourself from that job.”

So who replaces the man who built the powerhouse? “You can’t replace a Pat Gillick,” Beeston says. “What you do is try to take away the things he doesn’t like and retain his strengths. He’s still got to do some thing. A guy can’t just vegetate.”

Gillick turns 57 next August and isn’t contemplating vegetation. He thinks the theory that people slowly atrophy when they retire is baloney (his word isn’t baloney but it’s like baloney). “I’d like to learn to fly, I’d like to sail a boat and I’d like to get involved with people who are having it tough. I know this sounds weird, but I’ve thought of taking hockey to black kids in big cities. Why hasn’t somebody in hockey who has the money gone into the inner city and invested in a hockey program?” Gillick is liked and admired by practically everybody who has contact with him. He is the same person now that he was last week and last month and on the day he landed in Toronto. He isn’t particularly outgoing and he isn’t gregarious, but he is straightforward in his dealings with players and scribes and he always shares credit. Beeston says that when a Blue Jays player who has been recommended by a scout delivers a key hit or makes a great play, Gillick often hops on the phone to the scout and applauds him.

Still, it is partly because Pat is at the top of his game that he feels it is time to leave. He notes that most people don’t have control over their jobs, particularly in baseball where nearly everyone’s future is only as secure as last year’s production. “By doing it this way, I decide when I’ve had enough; they don’t.” Gillick is a Californian who has lived yearround in Mississauga, just outside Toronto, since he arrived there in 1976. When he retires from the Blue Jays, he won’t return to the States, he says. He is selling his Mississauga home and has bought a townhouse in downtown Toronto. “I’ve nothing to go back to the States for,” he says. “Only a few relatives are left, a couple of cousins, an aunt. No doubt about it, I’ll stay here.”