CLEARWATER, Fla. — Pat Gillick is back in his element.
Standing in deep left field on Mike Schmidt Field — with Mike Schmidt himself not far away, working with prospects in the batting cage — Gillick watched intently as the Philadelphia Phillies ran through a mid-morning workout.
He got an injury update from the trainer and talked a little business with Mike Arbuckle, one of his top personnel advisors. A young player caught his eye, and Gillick called to one of the coaches to ask who he was.
Gillick, 68, is back doing what he loves best and has done as well as any general manager in history over the past 30 years — evaluating talent, forging relationships and concocting the master strategy to put his team in the playoffs.
He's also back doing what he doesn't love so much — dealing with the administrative headaches that come with managing a $95 million payroll.
"There's things you miss and things you don't miss, just like in any job," he said.
The unsavory aspects of the job may have been part of the reason he stepped down as GM of the Mariners after the 2003 season, having guided them to four 90-plus-win seasons (including a record 116 in 2001) and two playoff appearances — but no World Series, to Gillick's everlasting regret.
When he stepped down, Gillick said it was someone else's turn to "take a kick at the can." Cynics have speculated that he got out because he sensed the rough times ahead, which materialized into 192 losses the past two seasons under his successor, Bill Bavasi, for whom Gillick served as a "special consultant."
Gillick doesn't want to get into his theories of the Mariners' decline, except to say he sees brighter times ahead. He did, however, offer a fascinating second-guess of his first major decision after taking over from Woody Woodward in 1999, a revisionist slant that would have dramatically changed the course of Mariners history.
Imagine if Gillick hadn't acceded to Ken Griffey Jr.'s trade request after the 1999 season and made the epic deal that sent the franchise icon to Cincinnati. Imagine, instead, if Gillick had dealt the Mariners' other superstar, Alex Rodriguez, who later walked away from Seattle after the 2000 season to sign a $252 million contract with Texas.
Gillick dropped that provocative bombshell earlier this week on Dave Mahler's KJR radio show, and he elaborated on Wednesday.
"I possibly traded the wrong guy," he said. "If I had to do it over again, I should maybe have traded Alex."
Griffey had a no-trade clause, severely limiting Gillick's options. Eventually, Junior agreed to be traded only to Cincinnati, which put the Mariners over a barrel. The deal Gillick made with Reds GM Jim Bowden brought Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Antonio Perez and a long-forgotten minor-league pitcher, Jake Meyer.
Only Cameron, Griffey's center-field replacement, was useful for the Mariners — exceedingly so, becoming an All-Star, a team leader and fan favorite before signing with the New York Mets after the 2003 season.
"Even though he was only one year away from free agency, I probably could have gotten more for Alex than we could for Griffey," Gillick said.
In fact, Gillick believes retrospectively that the Atlanta Braves would have been willing to give up shortstop Rafael Furcal — then a minor-league prospect, now a star — in a package for A-Rod.
Furthermore, Gillick believes Griffey would have been content to stay in Seattle if he didn't have to share the spotlight with A-Rod.
"I wasn't there, but what I kind of understood is that maybe there was a little tension between A-Rod and Griff," Gillick said. "I don't know if you want to call it jealousy, tension — there was a little bit there.
"So I think if I had to do it over, I probably would have told Kenny, 'Yeah, we'll respect the fact you want to be traded, but we're going to keep you.' We probably should have moved the other guy."
How that massive reversal of strategy would have affected the course of Mariners history will forever remain a mystery. With A-Rod and without Griffey, the Mariners made the playoffs as a wild-card team in 2000, beating the Chicago White Sox in the division series before losing in six games to the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
That postseason memory evoked another regret from Gillick — the fractured kneecap suffered by 13-game winner Jamie Moyer when struck by Chris Widger's line drive in a simulated game after the division series. That injury knocked Moyer out of the ALCS.
"Who knows what would have happened if Moyer would have been healthy?" Gillick mused. "I'm not saying it would have, but it might have been a different series if he had been healthy."
The next season brought those 116 wins — and another ALCS loss to the Yankees, this time in five games.
"That time, they kind of beat up on us," Gillick said.
In both 2002 and 2003, the Mariners won 93 games but missed the playoffs amid criticism that Gillick was unable to pull off a needed stretch-drive trade.
"If we could have done something we thought made sense, we would have done it," he said, shrugging. "We couldn't do it."
Those are yesterday's problems, however. Gillick has a whole new set of issues and tensions as he tries to figure out a way to close the Phillies' two-game gap on the Braves last year.
Pat Gillick is back in the game, back in pursuit of the prize. Back on his turf.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org