Scouting Legend Bill Lajoie Goes to Heaven as a Pirate

Photo of Mr. Lajoie taken from Google Images

Editor’s note: This article was first published on Bucs Prospects HERE on December 30th.

As far as Pirates fans should be concerned, the biggest mistake Bill Lajoie made was joining the organization 20 years too late. You Bucco fanatics have no idea what you missed and what Detroiters like me gained.

Allow me to explain.

Hired by Neal Huntington after the 2008 season, Lajoie was a senior advisor for the Pirates until his passing on Tuesday. Universally respected as one of the greatest baseball minds of his time, Lajoie had never failed to make any of his clubs a winner until now. He had a small impact on the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, was the architect of the 1984 World Champion Detroit Tigers, and a driving force behind both the 1990s Atlanta Braves and the mid-2000s Boston Red Sox, all of whom were dominant in their eras. The recent success of the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers have also come along with Bill Lajoie’s fingerprints.

But regretfully, in his mid-70s, Lajoie was relegated to a much more marginal role during his final stop in Pittsburgh. His health prevented him from scouting too far outside of his Florida gulf coast home and his “old school” scouting and player development background just wasn’t a natural fit for Huntington’s system. Still, Huntington was wise enough to send his interns and young scouts Lajoie’s way to have them watch games together and learn from the master.

Lajoie still made his impact, but instead of having a leading role like he did with the Tigers, Lajoie worked from the grassroots up.

If this rebuilding project succeeds and the Pirates become winners in the near future, it can be said that Lajoie was at least a small part of the effort. But had the Pirates succeeded in hiring him as their GM in 1988, it’s my belief that the entire recent history of the franchise would be unrecognizable compared to what it is today.

After the 1988 season, Syd Thrift had just been fired after three years as GM despite a miraculous rebuild that both loaded the farm system and improved the big league record by 28 wins. Personality issues were given as the cause and the Pirates knew that Bill Lajoie, who had just finished his fifth season as the Tigers’ GM, was the best in the business.

Lajoie was also grossly underpaid and rumored (correctly) to be increasingly disenfranchised with the Tiger organization, who were becoming much stingier under the ownership of Tom Monaghan and presidency of Jim Campbell.

The Pirates took the initiative and asked permission from Campbell to speak with Lajoie, but Campbell denied them. Lajoie ultimately stayed on as his hometown team’s GM for three more seasons while the Bucs promoted Larry Doughty.

Lajoie was the epitome of the hardcore baseball man whose first-hand knowledge of playing, scouting, coaching, player development, and trade making were rivaled only by Hall of Fame inductee Pat Gillick. Like the modern day “Ivy League” GM, Lajoie was plenty book smart and got excellent grades in high school and college, but Lajoie’s intelligence was much more practical when it came to baseball. He was exceptionally versed in every baseball operation because he’d been through every one and was keen enough to learn from what he saw.

I have no question, no doubt whatsoever, that had Lajoie come to Pittsburgh after 1988, they would have won at least one World Series during their 1990-1992 run of N.L. East titles. Nobody, absolutely nobody was better at putting his team over the top, at getting that late-season pickup, even on a budget. The Detroit Tigers dominated the 1984 World Series with a middle-third payroll largely because Lajoie traded for a journeyman reliever named Willie Hernandez who went out and won both the Cy Young and MVP awards. Superb backupDave Bergman was also acquired and Lajoie later picked up released players like outfielder Ruppert Jones and lefty specialist Bill Scherrer who fulfilled important supportive roles in their championship run.

Doughty and later Ted Simmons were hardened baseball men themselves who did what they could as the Pirates GM. This is not to put them down, only to speak on how exceptional Lajoie was because most mortals would have been dealt with the same results. Bill Lajoie, on the other hand, never could have watched his team get knocked out of the NLCS three years in a row. Unfortunately for Bucco Nation, Lajoie was on the other side helping John Schuerholz’s Braves, knocking the Pirates out of the NCLS in heart-breaking seven-game fashion both in 1991 and 1992.

As good as Lajoie was with big league transactions, he was just as good at loading up a farm system. He ranks as one of the greatest scouting directors of all-time for what he did for the Tigers from 1974-1978 in building the core of the future champs despite the 25th highest scouting budget of the 26 teams. If Syd Thrift had gotten the ball rolling in Pittsburgh, Lajoie was going to put it into hyper-drive.

Having done that, I’m certain the Pirates would have won beyond 1992 and significantly cut into the current 18 losing-season streak whether he could have re-signed Barry Bonds or not.

I wish Pirate fans could have experienced first hand what I did as a Tiger fan in the 1980s, watching the great skill and class with which Bill Lajoie operated his ballclub. He was a man so different from the modern GM, one who had no desire for attention or power or even to be a GM, one who just loved baseball and knew he was good at it and didn’t care who got the credit. Lajoie was fiercely competitive, but competitive to win, not just to make it “look like” he was doing a good job to the media. There was no political savvy, no charm, no spin.

Bill Lajoie would never be portrayed by Brad Pitt like Billy Beane. He wouldn’t be able to do radio like Jim Bowden or Jim Duquette or TV like Steve Phillips or John Hart. There was nothing poetic or photogenic about him, he was the polar opposite of his manager Sparky Anderson.

I’ve never come across a baseball man with intentions so pure. It was never about Bill Lajoie, it was never about climbing the ladder, being loved by the media, or telling the world how smart he was. Bill Lajoie’s only concern was winning and making his ballclub better but doing it while living up to his scruples and standards of integrity. He was taken advantage of by slick colleagues time and time again, by people who took credit for things he did and even betrayed his trust and generosity for their own gain. It made Lajoie more careful of friendships, but it never changed the way he operated, which was committing himself to the fans to make their hometown team as outstanding as possible.

Had Lajoie taken the Pirates over before 1989, you’d better believe he’d have kept Jim Leyland aboard as manager. Not only was Leyland proving himself to be the best young manager in Baseball, but he and Lajoie grew up in the Detroit Tigers organization together and had both a nice friendship and tremendous mutual respect. To have Lajoie and Leyland running your show would have been so wonderful, you don’t even know.

Of course, I am thankful for selfish reasons that Bill Lajoie stayed in Detroit. I dreamed of one day working for Bill Lajoie, a dream which never came to fruition though he became a great mentor for me and a co-writer just the same for the book we published last January (Character is Not a Statistic: The legacy and wisdom of baseball’s godfather scout Bill Lajoie). Bill regularly read this very blog and though he couldn’t talk business with me as a member of the Pirates front office, he clearly enjoyed the material and remained a diehard baseball fan to the end. This will be the first article on that Bill won’t read.

You weren’t able to get Bill into the black and gold twenty years ago, but you should take pride that he literally died a Pirate. He died while he was doing everything he could in his power to help Neal Huntington’s noble endeavor to restore the pride in Pittsburgh for their long-suffering fans. Regardless of what the last 18 years have brought, few professional sports teams can boast the historical prestige of the Pittsburgh Pirates and even though Bill Lajoie could only stick around for two years, the organization and their fans should take pride in the fact that he was a part of their history. With his tireless mentoring of the organization’s young employees, you can be sure that his influence on the Pirates will be felt many years from now when they will hopefully be champions again.

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