(Originally published in the March 1996 issue of Philadelphia magazine.)
The first game is still months away, and the chain-link fence that separates the Philadelphia Phillies’ spring home from the surrounding pawnshops and junkyards and trailer parks is in desperate need of repair. Though the team’s first annual January mini-camp doesn’t open for 24 hours, coaches and players park, brace against the brisk Florida chill, and straggle into the clubhouse. It’s been three months since they’ve seen each other, three months since anyone’s had a reason to set an alarm clock.
The coaches gather in a small, windowless locker room tucked under the rightfield stands of Clearwater’s Jack Russell Memorial Stadium. It has cinder-block walls, a drop ceiling, scant ventilation but just enough space for two rows of lockers and a boardroom-size folding table. As usual, manager Jim Fregosi sits at the head. The table is empty except for his elbows, his Kools and his lighter. Starting tomorrow, he will see what kind of shape his players are in and give them a chance to get to know each other (only ten remain from the team that played in the World Series two years ago). For now, someone throws a videotape into a VCR, and suddenly Fregosi comes face-to-face with the almost perfect season of 1993. On a Samsung TV bolted to a wall, he has a 3-0 lead in the ninth inning of Game Five against the Braves-but Mitch Williams is stretching in the bullpen.
“Is he done now?” Glenn Brummer, a minor-league coach, asks about the Wild Thing’s current career.
“He was done then,” says Fregosi.
DURING THE REGULAR season, Fregosi and his coaches watch lots of videotape, most of it broken down to eliminate extraneous footage, which allows them to review four or five games before a series. Today’s show is recreational.
They watch Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams and defensive replacement Kim Batiste blow the lead. They watch Lenny Dykstra hit a home run that is stunning even two years later. And they watch Fregosi send 40-year-old Larry Andersen to the mound in the tenth to protect a onerun lead. Andersen was done then too, struggling valiantly to get by on a slider and a prayer. Nixon flies to right. Blauser strikes out. There’s a shot of Fregosi in the dugout. “Have another drag, Jim,” says Dave Cash, the former second baseman who will coach first this year. The manager picks up his Kools and now has two going, one in ’93 and one in ’96.
With power hitter Ron Gant coming up, Andersen takes some very deep breaths. “Larry’s hyperventilating,” says Fregosi. The first pitch is a hanging slider that, luckily for Andersen, hangs just a little too high for Gant to destroy. With two strikes, catcher Darren Daulton wiggles four fingers to signal a change-up. It will be, says Fregosi, the first time Andersen ever throws a forkball in a major-league game. Why would he do such a thing in the tenth inning of a playoff game? “He was out of ammunition.”
The pitch freezes Gant and drops into the strike zone for the final out. “Ball game!” calls Brummer, who slaps hands with Fregosi. They watch as Schilling is named player of the game. He will be the first pitcher to win MVP of a postseason series without winning a game.
“The dumb manager kept taking him out,” says Fregosi.
JIM FREGOSI IS one or the lucky few, a 53-year-old athlete who has not yet been outrun by fame. When the clubhouse man brings sandwiches, the coaches get generic tuna and ham; Fregosi gets an Italian hoagie that looks fresh from South Philly. He still makes big bucks ($5 oo,ooo a year through ’98), and he is surrounded by people who laugh at his jokes, suffer his barbs, and swallow his secondhand smoke without complaint. “That fucker knows everything,” says bench coach John Vukovich after Fregosi explains mutual funds.
One thing he does not know, however, is how to keep his team healthy. The Phillies are aging. Last year, many of them fell out of shape during the strike and then came back too quickly. Some of the injuries, especially those to the pitchers, may be the result of general manager Lee Thomas’ bargain-basement shopping. Faced with a barren farm system when he arrived, Thomas stocked his staff with other teams’ remainders. All have had great arms and all have had some problem—awkward pitching mechanics, an inability to lose weight—that has prompted another team to give up on them. A few have prospered briefly (Schilling, Tommy Greene, Bobby Munoz); others have just disappeared (Jose DeJesus, Ben Rivera, Jeff Juden); all have had injuries. Last year, the Phils started strong and then collapsed. “They all blew out,” says Fregosi. Which is why the Phillies are holding a mini-camp on the first weekend in January, six weeks before spring training normally begins.
The next morning, Fregosi assembles the team, some 20 of its players, anyway, for the first time in 1996. The veterans—Dykstra, Daulton, Jefferies, the hood of his sweatshirt pulled up over his head—sit against one wall of the locker room; the black players—Whiten, Webster, Battle—sit against another.
“This is a very important day,” says Fregosi, and the room gets quiet. He welcomes the new players and tells them they will enjoy Philadelphia, where the fans care deeply and regard them with awe. “I wasn’t happy with our performance last year,” he says, “and we want to start doing something about that. This is the start.” He talks about the new weight room, the new conditioning drills, the need to be in shape when spring training starts. “We have a good ballclub,” he says. “I like this ballclub. When we’re healthy, we can play with anybody.
“Is there any questions?”
As they file out, Fregosi grabs ahold of Tony Longmire. A young outfielder with a sweet swing, Longmire got an opportunity to play last year because of all the injuries and performed well—until he, too, went down. Surprisingly, he has shown up looking as if he’s in his fourth month. “What are you trying to be,” asks Fregosi, “a tight end?”