Final farewell for Jim Fregosi, baseball man

Posted: March 07, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Behind the backstop, the baseball lifers gathered; the scouts and crosscheckers from nearly two dozen major-league organizations, more than normal for an average midweek exhibition game between the Phillies and the Braves.

On the aisle in row 8, section 111, amid all the stopwatches and radar guns and notebooks that recorded the rising and falling fortunes of veterans and prospects, a wide-brimmed straw hat had been placed on the empty seat.

Jim Fregosi should have been sitting there. That was the message. He should have been watching the game over the reading glasses tip-tilted far down his nose, loudly giving his opinions on the proceedings which, in his mind, were never merely opinions.

"He always had a way of telling you you're full of [stuff]. That was what got the conversation going," said former Phillies coach and manager Lee Elia, who met Fregosi when both were playing in 1966 and became lifelong friends and offseason fishing buddies.

All of Fregosi's friends showed up on Wednesday, or so it seemed. All that could fit in Bright House Field - family, former teammates, men who played for him as a manager, scouts, front-office colleagues - as the Phillies and Braves paid tribute to Fregosi, who passed away in February at the age of 71. Fregosi, the manager of the Phils' team that went to the 1993 World Series, spent more than 50 years in the professional game in every capacity, and that is a baseball lifetime not easily summed up in an afternoon.

Even by the standards of a baseball lifer, Fregosi was something special, funny and demanding, preening and generous, sure of his elevated place in the cosmos of the game, but connected enough to amble into the clubhouse and join a card game with the players.

"It wasn't always about baseball. It was about life. He cared about us as people, not just as players," said former first baseman John Kruk. "To a man, any of us would agree we couldn't have gone to a World Series without him. He gave us the freedom to be ourselves. He didn't make us cut our hair or get sleep at night. People talk about that team and the antics off the field, but from batting practice to the end of the game, it was business, and that's what he expected. When the game was over, it was fun and pleasure."

Fregosi had fun, too, and, on Wednesday, the pregame ceremony presented a travelogue of all the places he pursued it while serving the game. Teammates or friends from his past were introduced one by one, wearing the uniform tops of the Angels, Mets, Rangers, Pirates, Angels, Louisville Redbirds, White Sox, Phillies, Giants, and Blue Jays. Atlanta president John Schuerholz represented the organization for which Fregosi scouted the last 13 years of his life.

"Thousands more would be here today if everyone from the extended baseball family Jim touched were here," Schuerholz said. "He taught me how to listen. Of course, I really had no choice when I was with Jim. He taught me it was better to be passionate than passive, and I learned from the many opinions which he comfortably shared."

Opinions were not lacking from Fregosi, and the ones he shared with the team that made him beloved in Philadelphia turned out to be among the best.

"The first meeting of spring he would say, 'My office is always open, but you might not like what you hear when you go in there,' " former outfielder Milt Thompson said. "He was a great general. He was stern and expected you to perform. Even though we had a lot of police on that team, when he needed to do it, he would do it. He was a guy who played the game and knew what it took to play the game."

What it takes to last more than 50 years in baseball is something entirely different, though. Loving the game is a given. Living the game is the trick. Fregosi had it down.

"Use any word you want. Lifer, whatever," Elia said. "He knew the game. He felt things. He had a gut feeling that was perfect."

Those closest to him said Fregosi instructed that there would be no funeral to mark his passing, but a party instead. There have been several, including one Wednesday after the game at Bright House Field. There were family, friends, teammates, players, scouts, all of which Fregosi had been during his time in baseball.

"Our relationship moved from manager-to-player to father-to-son. It was like speaking to my father. He didn't tell you what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear," Kruk said. "When I found out Jimmy died, I knew it would never be the same. We had the 20-year reunion last year, and if we make it to 30 years, it's going to be different because Jimmy's not going to be there."

The seasons come and go, springs arrive and the autumns depart, and the ones who make the game their lives devote themselves to the rhythms of baseball and know those will continue long after their own departure. The rhythm is disturbed this spring training, however, because Jim Fregosi isn't around for the first time in a half-century. The hat will eventually be removed from the empty seat, and the hole will close over, as it does for everyone. This one will take a while, though.


comments powered by Disqus