On his way to Cooperstown, Pat Gillick’s journey was Southern California centric

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The 1954 Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks varsity baseball team included Pat Gillick, top row, far left.

Gary Lane and Ron Mertus already have a small claim to fame – they can boast of having played together on the same Van Nuys High varsity baseball team with Don Drysdale nearly 60 years ago.

“He started off as a second baseman, and we called him ‘Porky,’” said Lane of the Dodgers’ eventual Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher.

Pat Gillick didn’t have any kind of similar nickname when Lane and Mertus hung out with him growing up in the San Fernando Valley.

“I know they called him ‘Yellow Pages Pat’ because he had this incredible memory for phone numbers,” said Mertus.

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But after Sunday, these two Gillick boyhood friends will be calling him a Hall of Famer as well.

The bronze plaque that Gillick receives this weekend in Cooperstown, where he will be inducted with Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, can only hold so much information. The raised lettering will highlight how, as a general manager, he built four different franchises into playoff teams over four decades, including two World Series titles with Toronto in the early ’90s and another in Philadelphia three seasons ago. He meshed a Seattle franchise 10 years ago without Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez that tied a big-league record with 116 wins.

But guys like Lane and Mertus know the rest of the story — Gillick’s days as a left-handed catcher, graduating from Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks, playing a year at L.A. Valley College and then heading over to pitch at USC where he was part of Rod Dedeaux’s first national championship team in 1958.

“He’s a real Valley kid,” Mertus said.

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Right: Pat Gillick’s senior high
photo from Notre Dame High of
Sherman Oaks in 1954.

Chico, north of Sacramento, was actually Gillick’s birthplace, in 1937. The son of minor-league pitcher Larry Gillick, he bounced around living in many of the California League cities.

When his parents divorced, he was sent to live with his grandparents in Van Nuys. His grandfather, a military man, made sure Pat enrolled at the Ridgewood Military Academy in Woodland Hills.

“It was a very structured childhood, not much deviation, and I think that got me pointed in the right direction,” Gillick said the other day from his home in Seattle. “It was a very kind of rigid program that we had. They gave you a lot of responsibilities. I liked it.”

Lane, also with divorced parents and living with his aunt and uncle as he attended the military school, met up at the school with Gillick in the fourth grade.

“We played every sport together – we practically lived together,” said Lane, retired after a career as projectionist at Technicolor.

“We’d be on our bikes every weekend, I’d be coming from Balboa and Ventura and he’d be coming from Victory and Havenhurst, and we’d meet up at the Van Nuys Park (on Vanowen), play all day, think nothing of it.”

Lane remembers a time when they were about 13, when “we did something we should never have done . . . it was so stupid.” It involved sneaking through a fence at the Sepulveda Basin Dam and climbing up to the pillar waterfall.

“We’re looking straight down at the falls, and it was either sink or swim,” Lane said. “There was no other way out. How dumb can you be?”

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Lane pulled up a clipping from the Valley Green Sheet, the predecessor to the Daily News, with a story that featured him as the up-and-coming pitcher with Gillick as the equally hard-throwing catcher — even though Gillick was a lefty.

“I really never let that one out,” admitted Gillick. “I had the best arm on the team, and they didn’t want to waste it in the outfield, so I caught when I wasn’t pitching.”

Lane and Gillick became Eagle Scouts together, went on double-dates, worked together at Christmas tree lots.

“Pat was just a real fun guy, everyone liked him,” said Lane. “You knew he was already very smart, but he was also super ambitious. He worked his tail off. You name it, he did it all.

“Even when we were in military school, you’d get ranked as a sergeant and so forth. He went right up to commander.”

Lane ended up at Van Nuys High to start the ninth grade, but Gillick stayed at Ridgewood until it closed its high school after his junior year – one where he was on the football team playing center, while the quarterback was Bobby Beathard, who would go on to be the general manager of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers.

Gillick could have joined Lane and Mertus at Van Nuys High with Drysdale, but his grandparents wanted him to stay at a private school. Despite being raised Presbyterian, Gillick landed at the Catholic-based Notre Dame High of Sherman Oaks.

“With those Holy Cross brothers, there was no foolishness,” said Gillick.

Gillick graduated cum laude at just 16 years old, playing on a varsity baseball team that went 6-11 with future USC and NFL player Walt Gurasich.

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When Mertus met up with Gillick at L.A. Valley College in 1955, they had also been playing a local Valley baseball team coached by Earl Gilpin called the CDD Gainers at Van Nuys-Sherman Oaks War Memorial Park.

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“The name stood for ‘confidence, desire and determination,’” said Mertus. “I thought that was pretty cool. Earl was really kind of a father figure for Pat at that time.”

Mertus played a lot of first base and remembers Gillick has having “one of the greatest pickoff moves ever – probably illegal the way he picked me off so many times with it.”

After a year together at LAVCC, Gillick nearly went back north to play at Fresno State before he took up Dedeaux on an offer to come to USC.

Although Gillick’s pitching records as a Trojan were hardly Hall-worthy – a 0-1 record with a 6.55 ERA in five appearances his senior year for that title team – he graduated as a 20-year-old with a business degree, which probably meant more to him in the long run. Dedeaux’s emphasis on preparation and having a strong foundation made the greater impact.

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USC archives
Senior Pat Gillick, back row third from right, is part of the 1958 USC championship team. Sophomore Ron Fairly, who went on to play for the Dodgers, is front row, fourth from right.

“Probably not only in my collegiate career, but also my professional career and even after I became a GM, the best fundamental teacher of baseball that I was ever exposed to was Rod Dedeaux,” said Gillick. “They can talk about pitching and they talk about our hitting, but really what it was our defense and our execution day in and day out.

“He was a phenomenal teacher and one that could really motivate the students. Not only on the field, but motivate them to reach other goals.”

Before Mertus (minor league records linked here) and Gillick both ended up in the Baltimore Orioles’ minor-league system, they played together for several teams in Canada in the late ’50s.

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In 1957, they found themselves together in Granum, Alberta, a town of just 350 people.

“We had to eat with the ranch hands, we let a pig out of the pen by accident one time, even drove a pickup truck with a ladder lying wrong-way across the back through a fence and hit the cross section of a bridge and split it all up,” Mertus said with a laugh.

Before they enlisted in the Army reserves together in 1960, Gillick and his future wife Doris introduced Mertus to the women who would become his longtime spouse, Beverly. Both were American Airline flight attendants.

While Mertus’ minor-league career didn’t go far past the B-class, Gillick bounced from places such as Stockton, Little Rock, Rochester and Vancouver to the Triple-A level, and playing for manager Earl Weaver in Elmira, before he put away his professional dreams.

But only as a player.

A year later, in 1964, Gillick made it into the Houston Colt .45′s organization as an assistant farm director. He emerged as a scout, and then the head of scouting, in Houston, and moved onto the New York Yankees.

The expansion Toronto Blue Jays hired him and he became their general manager from 1977-’94 – taking on Mertus as an associate scout. That eventually paid off in a strange way.

Mertus, who worked fulltime as a dolly grip pulling cameras for TV sit-com productions in the Valley, found himself talking to Dave Winfield one day on the set.

Winfield, who just turned 40, finished a season with the Angels and was making a cameo in the TV show that Mertus was working on.

“I asked if he’d ever consider playing in Toronto and he said, ‘yeah, sure,’” said Mertus. “After that day’s shoot, I couldn’t wait to call Pat and tell him about it. And he said, ‘that’s interesting because we have an extra million in the budget and we are looking for a DH.

“I kind of forgot about it until a month later I was listening to the radio and sure enough, the Blue Jays signed Winfield.”

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Winfield ended up fifth in the American League MVP voting that 1992 championship year, hitting .290 with 26 homers and 108 RBI. That was his only year in Toronto.

But that was pretty typical of Gillick’s out-of-the-box thinking. This was someone who once drafted players such as BYU basketball star Danny Ainge (1977, making it to the big leagues in ’79) and UCLA quarterback Jay Schroeder (third overall in 1979, as a catcher out of Palisades High).

In the mid-’90s, Gillick nearly got a group together to buy the Angels from Gene Autry before he sold it to Disney. Gillick’s travels took him to Baltimore for three years (two playoff appearances) and Seattle for three more (two more playoffs) before Philadelphia lured Gillick to be their GM in 2005. It was magic all over again.

After the Phillies won the 2008 championship, Gillick retired. But he stayed on as an advisor to GM Ruben Amaro - even helping to persuade the team to select Notre Dame High outfielder Kelly Dugan as its top choice in the 2009 amateur draft, while convincing Dugan to forgo a scholarship to Pepperdine.

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Gillick is only the fourth GM to be elected to the Hall, after Ed Barrow, Branch Rickey and George Weiss.

Lane, whose daughter Vicky is married to PGA golfer Duffy Waldorf after they met at UCLA, will be watching the ceremony at home in Northridge today.

“We’re just so proud and excited,” said Lane. “He’s such an awesome guy.”

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Mertus, retired and living in Chatsworth, will make the trek to New York with his daughter to see Gillick’s induction ceremony.

“I can’t miss this,” he said.

Gillick says having his friends with him at this point in the journey – and it may not be over, since he’s reportedly being courted to be the next president of the Chicago Cubs – means a lot to him.

“Ron and I go back over 60 years,” said Gillick. “To see some of those people like him that were involved in my early life, and then getting into professional baseball, and them taking the time to come back, I’m really touched deeply by that.”

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HIGHLIGHTS OF PAT GILLICK’S PRO CAREER:

== In five years of minor-league baseball with Baltimore and Pittsburgh, he got as high as Triple-A with a 45-32 record and 3.42 ERA in 164 games.
== 1963: Started a front-office career as assistant farm director with Houston and later director of scouting
== 1974: Moved to the New York Yankees system as coordinator of player development .
== 1976: Became the expansion Toronto Blue Jays first VP or player personnel and later VP of baseball operations.
== 1977: Became the Blue Jays general manager and orchestrated a roster that won five division titles in 1985, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1993, including the ’91 and ’92 World Series.
== 1995: Named GM of the Baltimore Orioles and built teams that made the playoffs in 1996 and 1997.
== 1997: Voted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
== 1998: Named GM of the Seattle Mariners and built a roster that got Seattle to playoff appearances in 2000 and 2001, the latter team finishing with a 116-46 record to tie the 1906 Chicago Cubs for the all-time major league record for most wins in a season.
== 2005: Named GM of the Philadelphia Phillies and retired after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series.

SIGNIFICANT MOVES:

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With Toronto:
== Drafted pitcher Dave Stieb (fifth round in 1978), pitcher David Wells (second round in 1982), first baseman John Olerud (third round in 1989), second baseman Jeff Kent (20th round in 1989) and outfielder Shawn Green (16th overall in 1991).
== Obtained Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar from San Diego for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez in December, 1990; obtained David Cone from the New York Mets for Jeff Kent and Ryan Thompson in late August, 1992; obtained outfielder Rickey Henderson from Oakland for Steve Karsay and Jose Herrera in late July, 1993.
== Signed key free agents Jack Morris (1991), Dave Winfield (1991), Paul Molitor (1992) and Dave Stewart (1992).

With Baltimore:
== Drafted catcher Jayson Werth (22nd overall in 1997).
== Obtained pitcher David Wells from Cincinnati for Curtis Goodwin and Trovin Valdez in 1995.
== Signed key free agents Roberto Alomar (1995), Eric Davis (1996) and Joe Carter (1997).

With Seattle:
== Traded Ken Griffey Jr. to Cincinnati for Brett Tomko, Mike Cameron, Antonio Perez and Jake Meyer in 2000.
== Signed John Olerud as a free agent (1999).
== Signed Felix Hernandez as an amateur free agent (2002).

With Philadelphia:
== Signed free agent outfielder Jayson Werth (from the Dodgers, 2006) and pitcher Tom Gordon (2005).
== Traded Jim Thome to Chicago White Sox for Aaron Rowand, Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Haigwood in 2005; traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees for Matt Smith, C.J. Henry, Jesus Sanchez and Carlos Monasterios in late July, 2006; obtained pitcher Jamie Moyer from Seattle for Andrew Barb and Andrew Baldwin in August, 2006; obtained reliever Brad Lidge and Eric Burntlett from Houston for Michael Bourn, Geoff Geary and Mike Constanzo in 2007.

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During a visit to the Hall of Fame last April, Pat Gillicks looks at the spot where his bronze plaque will be placed.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING ABOUT GILLICK:

== “Not only was he a great general manager, but he’s a great person. He wanted to sign me (as a kid), but I already had a commitment with the San Diego Padres. Five years later, he went back and got me for the Toronto organization. Those were great years in my career. I have a lot of respect for him.” — Second baseman Roberto Alomar, who will be inducted into the Hall today.

== “He deserves the honor and it’s good to see someone with his background get this honor because in a lot of ways he represents the scouts and represents the people who do the grunt work that don’t get the recognition. I think he believes that he represents all the people behind the scenes who we as GMs rely on to help make the teams better.” — Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr.

== “The secret to Pat is basically that he’s always given his people a forum in which to speak freely. Very rarely in a meeting will he inject his opinion. He will one on one, but he doesn’t want his opinion to outweigh the suggestions of the people that work with him. You don’t work for Pat. You work with Pat.” – Philadelphia Phillies director of major league scouting Gordon Lakey.

== “He’s a legend. It’s been just the one time (in a World Series) for me, and when I see all that it takes to get there, and to see his record, it’s amazing.” – Texas Rangers GM Jon Daniels.

== “He was arguably the best general manager of his generation. He’s extremely gifted, and we knew that. We didn’t want him to leave.” — Seattle Mariners president Chuck Armstrong.

== “Look what Baltimore has done since he left. He might be an architect and a genius in baseball, but he is a kind man. He’s a Hall of Famer.” – Howard Hart, a long-time beer vendor at Camden Yards whom Gillick personally invited to Cooperstown as his guest for the induction ceremony.

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