The Blue Jays have had some great managers over their history.
Cito Gaston led them to back-to-back World Series titles and one day will be in the Hall of Fame. Bobby Cox guided the Jays to their first American League East title and post-season appearance in 1985 and will be enshrined in Cooperstown this summer.
Yet, if you ask Toronto media types of a certain vintage which manager was the most intriguing, challenging, but engaging to deal with, the answer is invariably Jim Fregosi.
He was irascible, cantankerous, funny and, at times, profane. He was a walking encyclopedia of baseball stories, warm and generous and had a kind of charisma that made him the centre of attention whenever he walked into a room.
Jim Fregosi, a baseball lifer, passed away in the wee, small hours of Friday morning in a Miami hospital after being removed from life support only hours earlier. He had suffered multiple strokes while on a baseball alumni fan cruise last weekend in the Bahamas. He was 71 years old.
Fregosi came to the Blue Jays in the spring of 1999 under difficult circumstances. He was brought to restore credibility to an organization that had just fired skipper Tim Johnson during spring training after just one season on the job. Johnson, though keeping the team in contention for a playoff spot until the final couple of weeks in 1998, effectively "lost" the team after his stories of war heroism in Vietnam proved to be total fabrication.
Fregosi was a no-nonsense skipper, who was also a player's manager as he showed during his years with the Philadelphia Phillies that peaked with the World Series loss to the Blue Jays in 1993. What I loved about him was his ability to take and give shots in a good natured way without letting things develop into an adversarial situation.
That spring of 1998, I left my tape recorder running after a brief interview, as I knew he would continue answering questions from the beat writers from the Toronto papers. It was old school to talk with the writers separately. Fregosi looked at me and asked what I was still doing with the microphone in his face. I jokingly said "Because you always give the best stuff to the writers after the recorders are shut off." He shot me a glance that made me think I had crossed a line, but after a short pause, he just laughed and kept on talking.
We seemed to get along well partly because I enjoyed hearing stories from his playing days when he was a star with the expansion California Angels or just getting his take on certain current-day players or changes he'd like to see in the game. One time after leaving what was then Skydome, I was making the trek back to a parking lot about a mile or so away. Suddenly, a car started honking at me. It was Fregosi, wanting to know if I wanted a ride. Though I was about halfway to where I was going and it wasn't raining or anything, I jumped right into his car, just for an opportunity to share one of those "real" moments.
Another time in Spring Training, on a drive to Fort Myers, I was driving along the Interstate at a pretty good clip when another car passed me. It was Fregosi laughing and waving, having opted to take his own car on the trip that day rather than the team bus. He was just fun to be around. He told me once about his huge collection of baseball memorabillia. He told me he didn't even know how much he had, just that he often donated items to different charities to auction off.
There was one point during that 1999 season that I thought I had upset Fregosi. His attitude towards me seemed to change. He wasn't laughing and joking with me as much and his answers became curt and serious. After a couple of weeks of this, I mustered up my courage and went to his office at the ballpark to find out what was wrong. After I stated my case, he got up out of his chair, put his arm around my shoulder, laughed and said "Nothing is wrong, I just like messing with people." Well, he put it in much more graphic language than that. I laughed, too, and felt an immense sense of relief.
Though the Blue Jays only finished third in each of Fregosi's seasons and their combined record was just 167-157, they were at least in the conversation about making the playoffs, especially in 1999. After the 2000 season, with Rogers coming in as owners, Jim Fregosi was fired. In later years, it kind of reminded me of the way MLSE got rid of Brian Burke. It was Jim Fregosi's last job as a Big League skipper.
Fregosi really had a remarkable career. He was a six-time All-Star third baseman with the Angels after being selected from the Boston in the expansion draft in 1960. He won a Gold Glove and, though ultimately becoming a journeyman bench player, he stuck it out in the Majors for 18 seasons. Fans voted him the greatest Angel of all-time in a poll conducted in conjunction with MLB's 100th anniversary.
One day after the Pittsburgh Pirates released him in 1978, he was hired to manage the Angels by their owner, the legendary "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry. With Fregosi at the helm, the Angels won their first division title in 1979. He also managed the Chicago White Sox, the Phllies and the Blue Jays. He had worked in the front office of the San Francisco Giants and for the past 13 years as an advisor to the general manager with the Atlanta Braves.
It was a shame that, as a player, he was often defined by the trade that sent him from the Angels to the New York Mets on December 10, 1971. The Mets gave up four players in that swap. Three didn't really pan out, but the other, Nolan Ryan, turned into one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. But Fregosi could even joke about that in his self-deprecating way, saying he was the key player in the deal and actually, at the time, the Mets thought he was.
Jim Fregosi was not a Hall of Fame player, but when you look at his entire body of work, as a player, a manager and a front office type, I believe one day he deserves to find a place in Cooperstown.