Remembering Jim Fregosi
For Philadelphians around my age, the 1993 Phillies are the first great Philly team we remember. We weren’t born yet in 1980. The title-winning Sixers in ’83 or the conference champ Flyers in ’87. People in their 20s probably don’t remember Buddy Ryan’s Eagles defenses, unless it’s from Tecmo Super Bowl. Yes, the 1993 Phillies are the First Great Philadelphia Sports Team of Millennials.
Some teams are defined by history — as much as sportswriters are historians — by their managers, like Buddy Ryan’s Eagles. The ’93 Phillies were always a team defined by the players — the chest-pounding, beer-swilling, pennant-winning bunch that went from 70 wins the previous year to 97 in 1993. “Fat, drunk and endearing,” was how Philadelphia magazine described them in a retrospective in 2012.
But it’s Jim Fregosi, who died this morning at the age of 71, who was somehow able to manage this team to two wins of the World Series. He was a sarcastic, wise-cracking ex-ballplayer whose attitude seemed to fit the team perfectly.
Fregosi was a guy who, while a player with the Angels in the 1960s, partied hard and played harder. “We would go out and have a couple of beers and play cards,” then-Phillies GM and Fregosi teammate Lee Thomas told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “but there was an unwritten rule that no matter what you did, you got up in the morning and played hard, stayed off the training room table and kept everybody else off that table.” It worked for Fregosi: He played 18 seasons, 11 with the Angels, and was named to six All-Star teams at shortstop.
With the Pittsburgh Pirates, Fregosi retired so he could take a job the next day managing the Angels he once starred for. He led them to their first division title in 1979 (they lost the ALCS to the Orioles, 3-1). After being fired in 1981, he managed three straight fifth-place White Sox teams in the mid-1980s. He replaced Nick Leyva 13 games into the 1991 season. He managed “by the book”—he did whatever the consensus decision of Old Baseball Wisdom was in 1993.
Fregosi didn’t seem to talk to reporters about much else but baseball. “That’s a personal question,” he told a reporter who asked him how much he smoked, per the Palm Beach Post. “I won’t answer personal questions, only baseball questions.” In a March 1996 profile of him in Philadelphia by Loren Feldman, Fregosi talks only briefly about a topic other than baseball—golf (another sport where you stand around and hit a ball with a stick), hunting, fishing, money. He waxes poetic about baseball throughout—and is funny and direct about it, too. “If they played in the National League, with turf, they couldn’t catch a fucking ground ball,” he says of Baltimore’s infield.
Stories from the time show he basically let his players do whatever the hell they wanted to do off the field in 1993. “”He is really one of the guys,” Darren Daulton told the Times. “He plays cards with us. He drinks beer with us. He talks shop with us, but there is a fine line there. He is definitely the one calling the shots. He lets us do what we want and there are no rules. All he wants us to do is to show up and play hard.” There are no rules! Could you imagine a manager getting away with this now?
But did he ever get away with it. The Phillies opened 17-5. On June 14, they were 45-17 and had an 11.5 game lead. The division lead never dropped below three games, and the Phillies clinched the NL East on Sept. 29 after a Mariano Duncan grand slam in Pittsburgh. The Phillies were a baseball dork’s dream: The led the league in runs (by 69!), walks (by 77!) and on-base percentage (by .010!). Daulton, John Kruk and Lenny Dykstra all walked more than 100 times and were in the league’s top-10 in getting on-base. It may not be exciting, but I posit that there is no more Philadelphian way to win a baseball game than by simply waiting for the pitcher to screw up.
Who knows how much influence a manager really has. But people thought he was instrumental in the Phillies’ success. “Jimmy might be the only guy around who could have managed this bunch,” Lee Thomas told the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. When the Phillies fired him in 1996, after a last-place 67-95 season, Phillies president Bill Giles called him “the best manager I’ve been around in my 47 years in baseball.” Friends remembered him the same ways this week.
He had a personality, too. Here’s a great exchange from that 2012 oral history by Mike Bertha:
Mike Missanelli: The king rat, and I don’t really mean that affectionately, was Jim Fregosi.
Howard Eskin: Fregosi and I didn’t see eye-to-eye. If there’s anyone on that team that held a grudge, it was Fregosi. He didn’t like the media, and he let us know it.
Jim Fregosi: I really never had any problem whatsoever with the print media. A lot of the writers are still my very good friends. As for the other media, I don’t think there’s anyone that hasn’t had a fucking problem with the other media in Philadelphia. I don’t think anyone has to put up with that type of aggravation.
(Eskin, incidentally, prematurely reported Fregosi’s death last night.)
Here’s how Fregosi celebrated the Phillies winning the NLCS in 1993:
So cool! After the success of the late 70s and early 80s, the Phillies were bad for about 20 years — except one weird season where everything seemed to fall their way. Jim Fregosi somehow steered the team that made Philadelphians stand on Broad Street and chant “Whoomp! (There It Is)” (4:20 mark):
Now that’s a man who did some good for the city.