Friday, February 14, 2014

Remembering an All-Star Friend

              By Ross Newhan

              I met Jim Fregosi in that first Palm Springs camp in the first year of the American League's newly created Los Angeles Angels.

              He was 19, a shortstop selected out of the Boston Red Sox organization in baseball's first ever expansion draft. I was 24, on my first beat assignment for the Long Beach Independent, Press Telegram, and in over my head--unlike Fregosi, who would make his big league debut in September  and become the Angels fulltime shortstop in 1963 at 21.

              No surprise to Manager Bill Rigney, who would brag about him from the first day of that first spring, often telling the story of how longtime San Francisco Giants' scout and executive Tom (Clancy) Sheehan had come to him soon after that draft and scoffed, "Hell, Rig, you can find a player like him under every rock in Arizona."

              Rig knew differently, of course, and so did and does most every scout who keeps turning over rocks in Arizona and elsewhere, looking for players of Fregosi's young skills and, if they look hard enough, perhaps, the inate traits that would quickly enable him to become a leader on and off the field, the full blown personality that was on display for 54 years as player, manager, scout.

              Jim died Friday morning at 71 after suffering multiple strokes while on a cruise with his wife, Joni, and other MLB alums.

              I hope it is not corny, on this Valentine's Day, to say that he lived his baseball and family life with a big heart, and I am saddened (how trite is that?) to think I will not be bumping into him in Anaheim and other ballparks, no longer exchanging phone calls, often just to say hello or listen to his latest story.

            He was good at that, telling stories from a vast storehouse, and enjoyed interacting with the baseball scribes, his and my early years being a different time in the game, fewer microphones and cameras, no cell phones and internet, an easier breeding ground for trust between players and the men who covered them.

           For Fregosi and teammates on those early and often zany Angels there was no pressure to rush from the clubhouse after the game. I would frequently finish my story on deadline and still find Fregosi and Joe Adcock and Lou Burdette and Buck Rodgers talking ball in the clubhouse, joining them for a beer there or at a bar--the House of Serfas at Stocker and LaBrea during the L.A. years or at Adamo's in Anaheim after the move.

          One night at Adamo's I introduced him to a girl I was dating, the young Connie Fisher, and the next night at the park Jim pulled me aside and said, "if you're smart and know what you're doing you better marry her."

         Connie Fisher and I have been married for 46 years, and that's how good a scout he was even then, long before he spent the last 17 years on special assignments for Atlanta general managers John Schuerholz and Frank Wren.

         In fact, Jim would be a groomsman in our wedding, what would undoubtedly be considered crossing a line in the player/writer relationship now but not so much then, and he loved to relate how we had a cocktail party BEFORE the ceremony and how the late columnist, Bud Tucker, assigned to light candles down one side of the temple aisle and a bit tipsy, found the task overwhelming as he (Fregosi) waited patiently on the other side for Bud to catch up.

        A different time for sure, and while those personal touches will linger longest, I will always carry visions of the six-time All-Star shortstop who would team with Gold Glove second baseman Bobby Knoop from 1964-'68 to form one of the best double play combinations I have ever seen.

        "They were as good as there was and probably as good as there has been," recalled a saddened Buck Rodgers, the young catcher who also came out of the expansion draft, by phone Friday.

       "Bobby was pure gold defensively, and Jimmy, while probably recognized more for his offense, wasn't far behind defensively."

       For both Rodgers and Fregosi there was more groundwork to their time with the Angels than what happened on the field.

       "Rig told us often that we each had a chance to manage," Rodgers said, "and he made it a point to explain the intricacies and technicalities of the things he did, why he handled some player differently from others. He was great with us, whether it was sharing time on the plane, in the clubhouse or over coffee on the road."

      Rodgers would enjoy managing success in Milwaukee and Montreal before a disillusioning tenure at the helm of the Angels during one of the many periods in which it was difficult to tell in which direction the organization was heading.

      Fregosi, traded in 1971 to the Mets for four players, including Nolan Ryan ('my biggest contribution in Anaheim," he was fond of saying), would return as well, hired off Pittsburgh's active roster in 1978 to be the Angels manager in what was portrayed as the return of the prodigal, having long been portrayed as one of owner Gene Autry's favorites.

     It was a charmed move and looked to be the start of a renewed and lasting relationship when Fregosi led led the Angels to their first division title in 1979.

     But, as always, there would be no guarantees under the Cowboy's ownership. Autry and a revolving cast of general managers had gone through seven previous managers in the '70s alone, and then, in two huge mistakes:

   Ryan was allowed to leave as a free agent before the champagne had dried following the '79 playoff loss to Baltimore, and Carney Lansford (arguably the best position player produced by the franchise to that point) was traded after the 1980 season. The Angels spiraled backwards, leading to Fregosi's firing in mid-season of strike ravaged 1981.

        Gene Mauch took over, and Fregosi blasted Autry privately.

        "Prodigal my ass," he told me. "They brought me back as a 36 year old man and treated me as if I was still 19. I'll never work for them again."

        He would manage again, leading Philadelphia to 97 wins and a National League pennant in 1993 before ending his managerial career with Toronto in 2000 after finally deciding that enough time had past, enough bitterness in regard to his relationship with the Angels had been swallowed.

       He returned in 1998 to have his No. 11 retired and be inducted into the club's Hall of Fame.

       And the last time I saw Jim was in the Anaheim press box in 2012. I was working on a freelance story and he was on an assignment for the Braves.

      We took a minute before the game to have a cup of coffee together, and he said, wistfully almost  for a man whose voice usually boomed and whose passion was as large, "I don't think anyone will have as much fun as we did in those early years. It was just another time, and I'm glad I had a chance to experience it."

       Me, too. RIP, Jim Fregosi.