The sad news that former major league shortstop and manager Jim Fregosi passed away Friday morning after suffering multiple strokes during a baseball alumni cruise really hit home for this Southern California kid who grew up an Angels fan and would have the privilege of covering his hometown team as a very young beat writer in the early 1980s.
Fregosi was one of my favorite players, of course, since he was the best player on that fledgling American League expansion team in the '60s. He also happened to be the manager by the time my baseball writing career began, which only added to the thrill for a kid taking over his first major beat.
It didn't go well at first.
Fregosi was a young manager at the time, but he was decidedly old-school and he had no time for a kid with a smart mouth who hadn't really paid any dues. Throw in my having to compete against future Hall of Fame baseball writers Ross Newhan and Tracy Ringolsby and, quite frankly, the 1980 season was – to put it very mildly – a learning experience.
That was my only season covering Jim and I left it thinking the man disliked me intensely. I wasn't too high on him either, to tell the truth. But I had totally misread the situation, as I found out a few years later when I traveled to Louisville to do a story on him when he was managing the Triple-A Redbirds.
I was still young and I was apprehensive about the interview, but it went really well and I got comfortable enough to ask him why he was so hard on me in Anaheim. His explanation shouldn't have surprised me, but it showed how green I really was when I was promoted to the Angels beat and it gave me an understanding of Fregosi that I wished I'd had when he was my first manager.
In his world, you had to earn respect, and I hadn't. In his world, rookies (even rookie baseball writers) kept their heads down and their mouths shut, and I didn't. In his world, tough love wasn't an overused cliché on some touchy-feely cable show.
My problem was that I could never pass up a wisecrack, and I was too obtuse to know that I was seriously testing Jim's patience.
It all started when I told him during a casual conversation at spring training that I was a local kid who loved the Angels.
"So, who was your favorite player,'' Fregosi said, apparently confident of my reply.
"Roger Repoz,'' I quipped. (You'll have to look him up.)
Let's just say I learned a few new words before Fregosi walked away shaking his head. And there were a few more uncomfortable moments before Angels public relations director Tom Seeberg pulled me aside.
"The manager wanted me to tell you that he doesn't appreciate your sense of humor."
That said, Fregosi was a man's man with a quick wit and a sparkle in his eye who loved baseball and lived the game for almost his entire life. He was, as a player and manager, what Davey Johnson used to call "a foxhole guy."
He was an original Angel, taken from the Boston Red Sox in the 1960 expansion draft, and would be one of the team's top stars formore than a decade, making the All-Star team six times and winning a Gold Glove in 1967. He was a natural leader and he was tough as nails, which was obvious even to an 11-year-old hanging over the railing at the old Big-A.
He was sent to the Mets in 1971 in the deal for Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, but returned to the Angels immediately after his playing days were over to manage the team. He led the Angels to their first-ever playoff appearance (against the Orioles) in 1979 and would go on to lead the Phillies to the World Series in 1993. His 15-season managerial career also included three seasons with the White Sox and two with the Toronto Blue Jays.
Though he didn't have a trophy cabinet full of championship rings, his managerial ability was widely respected. Just recently, Orioles manager Buck Showalter mentioned that Fregosi – even in his late 60s -- would have been high on his list to manage the O's if Showalter had come to Baltimore in a different capacity.
Fregosi spent the past 13 years as a special assistant and scout for the Atlanta Braves and passed through Baltimore frequently. The last time I saw him, he was at Camden Yards on a scouting trip with his son, Jim Jr., who followed him into baseball and is a scout for the Kansas City Royals.