DENVER—Jim Fregosi was walking down a street in Manhattan a few years ago when a passerby glanced at him and shook his head.
“The Angels got Nolan Ryan,” the man mumbled, “and we got Jim Fregosi.”
Fregosi—the shortstop the Angels sent to the Mets in December 1971 in the trade that brought Ryan to Anaheim—laughed.
“These fans never forget,” said Fregosi, who was on the back side of his career at the time of the deal. “It wasn’t like it was my fault. I didn’t volunteer for that duty.”
Until Fregosi’s death in February, he would insist that his claim to fame in baseball was being traded for Ryan.
That wasn’t really true, though.
Fregosi’s claim to fame was how he distinguished himself in a 53-year career as a player, manager and scout.
An expansion draft choice of the Angels in December 1960 from the Red Sox, Fregosi was in the big leagues the next season at 19 and played 18 seasons, during which he was a six-time all-star. Fans voted him as the No. 1 player in franchise history during MLB’s 100th anniversary celebration in ’69, and his No. 11 was retired by the Halos in 1998.
Fregosi’s playing career ended and a 15-year managerial run began without transition. He was in uniform for the Pirates in Houston on June 1, 1978. The next morning, he flew back to Orange County and was introduced as the manager of the Angels.
Fregosi led the Angels to the first postseason appearance in franchise history in 1979, and later managed the ’93 Phillies to the National League pennant, losing to Toronto in the World Series. He also managed the White Sox, replacing Tony La Russa in ’86, and finished his managerial career with the Blue Jays from 1999-2000.
Fregosi underscored his commitment to being the best after the Angels fired him 47 games into the 1981 season. He spent a year assessing his future, and in 1983 accepted a job managing the Cardinals’ Triple-A Louisville affiliate. “It was something I had to do to get better,” he said. “I needed to learn to handle pitching.”
And he learned. In his later stops, Fregosi became known for his insight into pitching.
Fregosi got his first taste of scouting after the Phillies fired him, when he served as a special assistant to Giants general manager Brian Sabean.
After leaving the Blue Jays, he became a special assistant to the GM for the Braves, a role he continued until the time of his death. He was the top confidant of both John Schuerholz and his successor (and current Braves GM) Frank Wren.
Fregosi wanted one more shot at managing. He felt he still had something to offer. But the opportunity never came. He had such a strong personality that those close to him felt he intimidated club officials.
Fregosi would talk tough, but his actions belied his bluster.
After the Angels lost the 1979 American League Championship Series to Baltimore, Pat Reusse, a writer with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, wrote a story saying that Fregosi had so much talent that all he did during the ALCS was sit on the bench and pick his nose.
The Angels were the opponents in the Twins’ home opener in 1980, and Fregosi took his coaches and local media to dinner after the game. He asked one of the writers to invite Reusse, who saw one empty seat at the table when he arrived, right next to Fregosi. Fregosi was a gracious host, to the point that Reusse finally looked at him and pleaded, “Would you just yell at me and get it over.”
Fregosi smiled, then hugged Reusse. He made a statement, loud and clear, without uttering a word.
Not that Fregosi was afraid to speak his mind. Heading into that ’79 ALCS, Fregosi was asked why he was starting rookie Jimmy Anderson at shortstop instead of veteran Bert Campaneris, who had taken himself out of the lineup in September, complaining of tired legs. “The kid was there when we needed him,” Fregosi said. “He earned the opportunity.”
After that season Fregosi had his first confrontation with GM Buzzie Bavasi, over Ryan, who was a free agent and would eventually sign with Houston. Ryan went 16-14 in 1979 with the Halos, and Bavasi announced, “All I need are two 8-7 pitchers to replace him.”
Fregosi shook his head. “All Nolan does is set your whole staff up for you,” he said. “He makes everybody else better. When he starts, you tell (closer) Dave LaRoche to just wear tennis shoes and sit in the dugout. You know if the game is on the line, Nolan’s going to close it out. He gives your bullpen that needed break.”
Fregosi started to laugh years later when he was reminded of that incident in Manhattan. “I guess the Angels really did get a steal in that trade for Ryan,” he said.
That was Fregosi. Honest, sometimes to a fault.