Fregosi left lasting memories for Phillies fans

Posted: February 16, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. – The bad times far outweighed the good during Jim Fregosi's managerial tenure with the Phillies, and even then he was able to make you believe he was the smartest man in the room. He had weaknesses, but he still made you think he was as strong as his opinions. His ego was so immense that it became one of his nicknames – "Ego" instead of "Frego" - and still, he was a human magnet.

Fregosi, 71, died Friday morning in a Miami hospital after suffering multiple strokes Sunday during a Caribbean cruise. It made for one gloomy day at Bright House Field, a place where Fregosi would have been holding court with all his scout friends when the Grapefruit League games begin later this month.

The tributes came from all over, because Fregosi had been all over during his long baseball life. There were four stops as a player – the Los Angeles Angels, New York Mets, Texas Rangers, and Pittsburgh Pirates – during an 18-year career, and four more as a manager – the Angels, Chicago White Sox, Phillies, and Toronto Blue Jays – over 15 seasons.

His final baseball job was with Atlanta. He was about to begin his 14th season as a special assignment scout for an organization that is one of the best in baseball.

Philadelphia ranked third among his longest stops, but he left a warm and lasting imprint on the hearts of Phillies fans because of the magical 1993 season, when the team went from 92 losses and last place in 1992 to 97 wins and a World Series appearance.

His brilliance, many have said, was letting the players police themselves that season, forcing them to answer to team leader Darren Daulton who knew exactly what Fregosi wanted from the team.

The groundwork, however, had been laid two seasons earlier, Fregosi's first with the Phillies after replacing Nick Leyva in mid-April of 1991. Fregosi sent up Ricky Jordan to hit for Daulton a number of times late in games that season, because the catcher was hitting below the Mendoza line.

Furious after one particular game, Daulton stormed into the manager's office and told Fregosi he was tired of being hit for in clutch situations. Fregosi informed Daulton that if he wanted to be a regular and a leader, he had a lot of work to do.

Daulton worked. He led the National League in RBIs in 1992 and made his first all-star team. By '93, there was no question who was in charge on the field and in the locker room. Fregosi had pushed the right button.

The manager was the voice of calm late in the 1993 season, when Montreal closed an 11-game deficit to four with 13 games to play. The folks who remembered 1964 went into full panic mode, and closer Mitch Williams rearranged the visiting clubhouse in Montreal after a loss to the Expos.

Fregosi said everything would be all right and told everyone to stop thinking about '64.

He always seemed to say the right thing, even when things were going so wrong.

Thirteen days into Fregosi's tenure with the Phillies, he faced a daunting challenge. Lenny Dykstra, with Daulton riding shotgun, crashed his red Mercedes Benz into two trees along a road in Radnor Township, leaving the new manager without two of his best players.

Dykstra, an all-star the year before, did not return until mid-July and was lost again before September. He played in just 63 games.

Fregosi also was stuck with a rotten rotation during that first season, but the Phillies went 74-75 under their new manager, producing a sense of optimism.

Fregosi went into that offseason with a personal goal: quit smoking. He showed up for spring training and proclaimed he had kicked the habit. Six weeks of camp passed, and Fregosi never touched a cigarette. Opening day arrived, Dykstra settled into the batter's box to face Atlanta's Greg Maddux in the bottom of the first inning, and the Phillies' best player took a 0-1 pitch off his left wrist. The X-rays revealed a fracture. The ashtray in Fregosi's office revealed he was chain smoking again.

Cigarettes were an enemy he'd face throughout his life, and he didn't mind a good, stiff drink, either. Regardless of the vices, he was almost always in control of the conversation, whether it was a one-on-one meeting with his players, a group media session, or one of those pregame scout clusters that he always led during his time with the Braves.

"Realistically," he'd begin, and a fountain of knowledge on a variety of subjects would follow. Many of the stories are unprintable; almost all of them were entertaining.

He could talk about running around with Hollywood stars during his playing days with the Angels and how he was done when California traded him to the New York Mets in the infamous Nolan Ryan deal. He once yelled at a Texas Rangers beat writer for suggesting he had botched a routine ground ball.

"None of them are routine for me anymore," he told the writer.

Fregosi could be brutally honest, too. Mickey Weston made only one start for the Phillies, but I remember him as well as Mickey Morandini because of how the manager described the journeyman pitcher's biggest problem after that game in Montreal.

"Too much contact," Fregosi said.

His strong opinions didn't always go over well when times were tough, and they eventually led to his dismissal by his close friend, Lee Thomas, after the 1996 season.

The manager left and worked other places, but he never lost contact with his friends in Philadelphia or his players from that magical 1993 team. He also never lost control of a conversation.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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