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Hagen: Fregosi's big presence will be missed

Former skipper's passing leaves a huge void in Phillies organization

The lunch room at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., will be a little quieter before Phillies home exhibition games this spring. Braves special assistant to the general manager Jim Fregosi will not be in the house, as he almost invariably was, holding court at one of the little round tables, telling stories, offering opinions and handing out grief while longtime baseball scouts listened raptly.

Fregosi was sure.

That's a simple declarative sentence that could be applied in almost any situation. The former Phillies manager, who passed away Friday morning after a series of strokes, was always sure -- about the strengths and weaknesses of whatever player might be under discussion, about politics, golf, the stock market, handicapping horse races, fishing and the best way to cook the grouper that was part of the day's catch, the weather; whatever subject happened to be on the table.

Fregosi's passing leaves an uncommonly large void in the fabric of the Phils, even though he hadn't worked for them since being dismissed following the 1996 season after six years on the job.

Part of that is because of Fregosi's outsized personality. He dominated almost any room he walked into.

And part of it was that although Fregosi had only one winning season while wearing red pinstripes, that exception was the magical 1993 season, when a group of throwback misfits went all the way to the World Series after finishing in last place in the National League East the season before. Some Phillies fans remember that year more fondly than the World Series championships in 1980 and 2008.

I covered Fregosi for his entire Phillies tenure as beat writer for the Philadelphia Daily News and also briefly at the end of his playing career with the Texas Rangers while at the Dallas Times-Herald. And at first, he came across as an intimidating figure. When he wanted to be stern, his laser eyes burned into anybody foolish enough to ask a question he didn't care for.

After awhile, though, it became obvious that was a front. Behind the bluster, Fregosi was a fun-loving guy. Sure, he could crack the whip when he needed to. But he had an uncanny ability to both be friendly with the players -- he played cards with them in his office before games -- and to discipline them when he had to. Fregosi walked that fine line better than any manager I've ever covered.

Catcher Darren Daulton and first baseman John Kruk were two of Fregosi's favorites. One night, during a game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Fregosi had a bad night. Every move he made backfired and the Phils lost to the Pirates. Long after everybody else had left the clubhouse -- or so they thought -- the two players sat around and dissected what they believed had gone wrong.

Before the next night's game, they were summoned to Fregosi's office and told in no uncertain terms that they were never to second-guess him again.

More often, though, Fregosi took a more subtle approach. If a player was quoted saying something he didn't like, he'd walk up to him and say in a loud, sarcastic voice, "Well, I see you're the spokesman for the ballclub now."

Fregosi protected his players, as most good managers do these days, but he had his ways of making it clear when he was unhappy. If a pitcher he wasn't overly impressed with shut down the Phillies' offense, his analysis was occasionally succinct. "Well, I guess Lefty Grove [or some other Hall of Fame pitcher] just had his really good stuff tonight."

The thing is, Fregosi liked and respected players. He never forgot how hard the game is to play. But as a six-time All-Star whose number has been retired by the Angels, Fregosi wasn't intimidated by even the biggest stars. And he had lived large off the field, too.

"They can't try anything on me that I haven't already tried," he'd say with a laugh.

Occasionally, Fregosi couldn't help himself. Right-hander Mickey Weston got a spot start at Montreal's Olympic Stadium in 1992. He allowed five runs on seven hits and a walk in 3 2/3 innings and didn't strike out an Expos batter. Asked after the game what Weston's biggest problem had been, Fregosi replied bluntly: "Too much contact."

One year, Fregosi privately referred to two of his better players as "Cuddles" and "Precious."

Fregosi also had a playful, self-deprecating side. After signing with the Rangers as a role player, he once found himself playing three straight games. "Bench me or trade me," he demanded.

Another time Fregosi made a costly error and one of the beat guys wrote that he had botched a routine play. The next day Fregosi approached the writer, seemingly angry, finger in his face. "Just remember one thing," Fregosi said, before breaking into a grin. "With me, there's no such thing as a routine play."

Fregosi's candor could get him in trouble at times. The local sports talk radio station had been on him. One night, in his office after a game, Fregosi vented with an off-color commentary on the people who worked at the station and those who listened to it. It was supposed to be funny and off-the-record. It leaked and the station jumped on the indiscretion, manufacturing a furor that Fregosi was forced to respond to.

His pregame meeting with the media the next day was painful and uncomfortable. After it broke up, he caught my eye. "First time I ever got the front and back of your [tabloid]," he said with a thin smile.

Fregosi wasn't always right. Nobody is. But he was never at a loss for an opinion and was always willing to share it. Fregosi's absence this spring will be all the more noticeable because of that. It will be the silence that gives it away.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for
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