Braves special assistant Jim Fregosi died last Friday. He was 71 years old and had spent 54 of those years employed in professional baseball.
Fregosi became one of the rare baseball "lifers" to spend time in all three phases of the game. Since 2001, he had worked in the Braves front office.
Braves General Manager Frank Wren told the Los Angeles Times that Fregosi "was involved in every player decision we made. He was a real valuable member of the team, and just a wonderful guy."
Before joining the Braves front office, Fregosi managed the Angels (1978-81), White Sox (1986-88), Phillies (1991-96) and Blue Jays (1999-00.) He led the Phillies to the World Series in ’93, beating the Braves in the NLCS. He also managed the Angels to the AL West title in ’79.
"You never like to use the term ‘players’ manager," Don Baylor, the 1979 AL MVP, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday. "But he was one. He knew when you needed a day off. He had the pulse of the club right away. He was up front with you, honest. He made it fun to play. He had ‘Angels’ written on his chest, his forehead, everywhere."
Fregosi’s career as a players manager followed a fine career as a player. He was picked up by the Angels in the 1961 expansion draft, having played one year in the minors. After a September call-up, the New York Times wrote during spring training, 1962, "The San Francisco Italian Colony, incubator of superb baseball talent, seems to have produced another prodigy: James Louis Fregosi, shortstop extraordinaire."
As the Angels regular shortstop from 1963-70, Fregosi made six all-star teams. He won a gold glove in 1967, the year he hit a career high .290. He hit 22 homers in 1970. Over his 11 seasons with the Angels, Fregosi hit .268 with 115 homers and 546 runs batted in.
But it was the move that ended Fregosi’s tenure with the Angels that merits a special place in baseball lore. On Dec. 10, 1971, Fregosi was involved in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
Fregosi went to the Mets in exchange for Francisco Estrada, Don Rose and Leroy Stanton. And a hard-throwing young right-hander with control problems by the name of Nolan Ryan.
The Mets already had Bud Harrelson at shortstop. Their master plan was for Fregosi to stop their revolving door at third base, despite the fact that he had never played a game there. In their first 10 seasons, the Mets had deployed no less than 46 different players at third, all with minimal success.
The original Mets used nine different players at third, led by Felix Mantilla. He hit .275 with 11 homers and 59 RBIs in 95 games. Believe it or not, that would set the standard.
1963 saw 11 Mets attempt to play third, led by Charlie Neal (.225, 3, 18 in 66 games). Charley Smith actually kept the job for two years (.239, 20, 58 in 1964 and .244, 16, 62 in 1965).
Ken Boyer (.266, 14, 61) took over in 1966, just two years removed from his MVP season but far removed from that level of prowess. In 1967, it was Ed Charles’ turn, and he fit right in (.238, 3, 31). Charles improved dramatically in 1968 (.276, 15, 53).
The Amazin’ Mets won the World Series in 1969 despite no production from their third base tandem of Charles (.207, 3, 18) and rookie Wayne Garrett (.218, 1, 39). Despite playing on a good team, they were every bit as futile as their predecessors.
The Mets tried to solve the problem in 1970 by installing Joe Foy as their third baseman, but got .236, 6, 37 for their trouble. They turned to Bob Aspromonte in 1971, and received another stellar performance (.225, 5, 33).
This doesn’t include the three dozen others who failed to even win the job on a regular basis. The list includes such immortals as "Hot" Rod Kanehl, Don Zimmer, Pumpsie Green, Bobby Klaus, Ed Bressoud, Jerry Buchek and Bobby Pfeil.
This explains why the Mets were eager when Fregosi became available after his first sub-par season in 1971. Slowed by nagging injuries and a broken thumb, Fregosi fit right in. He hit .232 with 5 homers and 32 RBIs in 101 games.
On July 11, 1973, the noble experiment ended when the Mets sent Fregosi to the Rangers for cash. Garrett took over at third and produced a career year: .256, 16, 58.
And Nolan Ryan? In his first year with the Angels, finally getting a chance to pitch regularly, he won 19 games and struck out 329. In eight years with the Angels, Ryan led the league in strikeouts seven times and won 138 games.
By the end of his career, he had won 324 games and set the all-time unbreakable career record for strikeouts with 5,714. He threw 61 shutouts, seventh on the all-time list, and a record seven no-hitters. And among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings pitched, he holds the record for fewest hits allowed per nine innings (6.6.)
There aren’t many players who can say they were traded for one of the best pitchers in baseball history. Jim Fregosi, who had a nice career on the field and off, is one of them.