Integrity key to Fregosi's success in baseball
All-Star shortstop and pennant-winning manager spent 53 years in pro ball
Jim Fregosi was walking down a street in Manhattan a few years ago when a passerby glanced at him and shook his head.
"The Angels got Nolan Ryan," the man mumbled, "and we got Jim Fregosi."
Fregosi -- the veteran shortstop the Angels sent to the Mets in December 1971 in the trade that brought Ryan to Anaheim -- laughed.
"These fans never forget," said Fregosi, who was on the back side of his career at the time of the deal, hastened by a tumor in his foot that led to assorted injuries. "It wasn't like it was my fault. [Former Angels general manager] Harry Dalton is the guy who sent me [to the Mets]. Blame him. I didn't volunteer for that duty."
Until Fregosi's death in the early morning hours on Friday, he would insist that his claim to fame in baseball was being traded for Ryan, who built the foundation for a Hall of Fame career with the Halos, becoming baseball's all-time strikeout leader and throwing a record seven no-hitters.
That wasn't really true, though.
Fregosi's claim to fame was how he distinguished himself in a 53-year professional baseball career as a player, manager and scout.
An Expansion Draft choice of the Los Angeles Angels in December 1960 from the Boston Red Sox, Fregosi was in the big leagues the next season at the age of 19 -- the start of a playing career that covered 18 seasons, during which he was a six-time All-Star.
Fregosi's playing career ended and a 15-year managerial endeavor began without transition. He was in uniform for the Pittsburgh Pirates in Houston on June 1, 1978. The next morning, Fregosi flew to Orange County, Calif., and was announced as the manager of the Angels -- whose fans voted him as the No. 1 player in franchise history during MLB's 100th anniversary celebration in '69. His number 11 was retired by the Halos in '98.
Fregosi led the Angels to the first postseason appearance in the franchise's history in 1979, and later managed the '93 Philadelphia Phillies to the National League pennant, losing to Toronto in the World Series. He also managed the Chicago White Sox, replacing Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa in '86, and Fregosi finished his managerial career filling out the lineup card for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1999-2000.
What underscored Fregosi's commitment to being the best he could be was that after being relieved of his duties by the Angels 47 games into the 1981 season, Fregosi spent a year reassessing his future, and in 1983, he accepted a job as a manager of Louisville, the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.
"It was something I had to do to get better," said Fregosi. "I needed to learn to handle pitching."
And he learned. During his tenures with the White Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays, Fregosi was known for his insight into pitching.
Fregosi got his first taste of scouting after being let go by the Phillies and serving as a special assistant to San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean. After being let go by the Blue Jays, Fregosi became a special assistant to the GM for the Braves, a role he continued to hold at the time of his death. He was the No. 1 confidant of both John Schuerholz and his successor Frank Wren, the Braves' current general manager.
Fregosi wanted one more shot at managing. He felt he still had something to offer. The Blue Jays, after all, had a winning record in both his seasons as manager. They have had only five in the 13 years since.
The opportunity to manage one more time never came. Fregosi had such a strong personality that many of those close to him felt he intimidated club officials.
Fregosi would talk tough, but his actions belied his bluster.
When the Angels lost the 1979 American League Championship Series to Baltimore, Pat Reusse, a writer with the St. Paul Pioneer-Press at the time, wrote a story in which he said Fregosi had so much talent on his roster that all he did during the ALCS was sit on the bench and pick his nose.
The Angels were the opponents in the Twins' home opener in 1980. Fregosi planned to take his coaches and the media covering the Halos to dinner after that day game, and he asked one of the writers to invite Reusse. Reusse at first thought it was a joke, but being assured Fregosi was serious, Reusse accepted the invitation.
When Reusse arrived a bit late, he saw one empty seat at the table. Fregosi had saved a spot, right next to himself for the Minnesota writer. Reusse sat down and Fregosi was a gracious host, making sure Reusse had the proper liquid refreshment, ordering him an appetizer, patting Reusse on the back.
Finally, Reusse looked at Fregosi and pleaded, "Would you just yell at me and get it over."
Fregosi smiled, then hugged Reusse. He made a statement, loud and clear, without uttering a word.
But Fregosi wasn't afraid to speak his mind, and he wasn't afraid to put the burden for success and failure on his shoulders, which endeared him to his players.
On the eve of Game 1 of the 1979 ALCS against Baltimore, Fregosi was asked why he was starting rookie Jimmy Anderson at shortstop instead of veteran Bert Campaneris, who had taken himself out of the lineup in September, complaining of tired legs.
"The kid," said Fregosi, "was there when we needed him. He earned the opportunity."
It was after that season that Fregosi had his first confrontation with then-Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi.
Ironically, it was over Ryan, who was a free agent and would eventually sign with Houston, which made him the first $1 million-per-year player in Major League history. Ryan was 16-14 in 1979 with the Halos, and Bavasi announced, "All I need are two 8-7 pitchers to replace him."
Fregosi shook his head.
"All Nolan does is set your whole staff up for you," said Fregosi. "He makes everybody else better. When he starts, you tell [closer] Dave LaRoche to just wear tennis shoes and sit in the dugout. You know if the game is on the line, Nolan's going to close it out. He gives your bullpen that needed break."
Fregosi started to laugh years later when he was reminded of that incident in Manhattan.
"I guess the Angels really did get a steal in that trade for Ryan," he said.
Hey, that was Fregosi -- honest, sometimes to a fault.