By DENNIS DEITCH
CLEARWATER, Fla. – Twenty-one years ago, on these same fields where the Phillies are getting their bodies ready for the long journey that is a major-league baseball season, Jim Fregosi took his team on one of the most extraordinary journeys in franchise history.
They were miserable in 1992, going 70-92 and finishing dead-last in the six-team National League East. But from the moment the 1993 team arrived in Clearwater, there was something different.
“I know that the key guys, the core guys on that team, started out the first or second day of spring training by going out after practice and kind of making a pact that they were going to do everything possible to win,” Phillies chairman Bill Giles said Friday morning. “We played harder in the spring games of ’93 than any spring training I’ve ever seen. I remember (Darren) Daulton and (John) Kruk and these guys, particularly when we played the Yankees, played like it was the seventh game of the World Series.
“I’ve never seen a team play as hard as they did in ’93 and it set the tone for the season.”
The Phillies did get to that World Series, ultimately losing in dramatic fashion to the Blue Jays. Yet that Fregosi-managed team remains the favorite of Giles and countless others in Philadelphia who came to appreciate the fact that never had a team gone so far with so little expected of it.
Jim Fregosi died early Friday in Miami, four days after suffering the first of a series of strokes. The loss stunned those who knew Fregosi as a big man with an aura of indestructability, one with a barrel chest and a quick-trigger sense of humor.
Ruben Amaro Jr., who went from a utility player often ribbed by Fregosi in 1993 to the team’s general manager, wept openly as he tried to describe what the man who won 1,028 games as a manager and made six All-Star appearances as a shortstop before he turned 29 meant to him.
“These last couple days have been very difficult for the Phillies organization, the Phillies family and me on a personal basis,” Amaro said. “Baseball lost a great person and a great baseball man today.
“I’m indebted to him for a number of reasons, personally … Jimmy gave me an opportunity to come back and play here in Philly.”
It is the latest tragedy to befall a member of that team. Fregosi’s right-hand man, bench coach John Vukovich, died seven years ago after a long battle with brain cancer. Catcher Darren Daulton and pitcher Curt Schilling are battling cancer; first baseman John Kruk, pitcher Danny Jackson and backup catcher Todd Pratt had bouts with cancer, as well.
“It’s tough,” Larry Bowa, Fregosi’s third base coach in 1993, said. “You start thinking about playing at the Vet and this stuff happening. Yeah, it’s tough. This one caught a lot of people off guard.”
“It’s awful,” Amaro said. “I have a lot of close friends – obviously Darren with his health issues, losing Vuk several years ago – and those are all things that bring back really rough memories. All we can do is hope and pray Dutch works through it.
“I told my Mom this morning that maybe it’s good that Jimmy and Vuk are together.”
Bowa, who has returned to the organization this season as Ryne Sandberg’s bench coach, recalled how Vukovich ribbed Fregosi for the fact that he superstitiously wore the same heavy coat in the dugout all season.
“Vuk used to call him Jimmy Jackets,” Bowa said. “In ’93, it was a hot summer, it would be like 100 degrees out there and he would have that big jacket on. We’d say, ‘Are you crazy, managing with that jacket on?’ He said, ‘Hey, as long as we keep winning I’m wearing this jacket all year.’
“He was old school … He’d play cards with the players. He and I were partners. We’d always get two players and normally when you play cards with a manager or coach, you’re in trouble. We used to take some advantage of that and make some money in the summertime … We’d win about 10 in a row and then we’d lose, and he’d say, ‘Bow, you’re the dumbest card player I’ve ever seen.’”
The 1993 Phillies were loaded with card players, cigarette smokers, tobacco chewers, oddballs and outcasts. Long before the Red Sox ever broke Babe Ruth’s curse or grew out their facial hair, the 1993 Phillies had set the bar for baseball players who had just rolled out of a moving boxcar. And yet Fregosi had complete authority over the clubhouse, with Daulton serving as his conduit.
“He was very straightforward and honest with the guys,” Amaro said. “He would jump Pete Incaviglia as fast as he would jump Ruben Amaro. It was very, very easy for him to do that, yet at the same time he also tried to pump you up. He was always available. I think he had a really good feel from being on the field as long as he was. He had a really good feel for people, just a big personality, big ego, great to be around. He knew a lot about the game – and would tell you he knew a lot about the game. But you loved that about him.”
There was an unsightly ending to Fregosi’s career, as the veteran players who had their career seasons in 1993 started to break down and decline swiftly. In 1994 he had unflattering off-the-record comments about those who listen to and host shows on WIP leaked to the station, putting a strain on his relationship with the city. He was fired after the Phils collapsed to a 95-loss season in 1996. Fregosi would manage the Blue Jays in 1999-2000, then spent the remainder of his career as a special assistant to the general manager with the Atlanta Braves. That hardly meant he spent his time sitting in an executive box. Fregosi was a regular behind the backstop at Bright House Field, scouting the Phillies.
“I had a phone conversation with (Braves president) John Scherholtz,” Phillies president David Montgomery said, “and he said that was Jimmy Fregosi – everywhere he worked he kept in touch and was such a friend of so many people. Spring training is obviously a place to remember him because in that scout section or press room, there was always a corner and there was some homage paid to Jimmy.”
“He had that great knack of projecting what a guy might be able to be,” Bowa said. “He could see a player in the minor leagues and tell you if he would be in the big leagues and most of the time he was right. I heard him say a lot of times, 'This guy won't play in the big leagues.' You looked at him and said, 'Are you crazy?' And the guy never got to the big leagues.”
Fregosi had gone directly from the playing field to a manager’s job in 1978, retiring from the Pirates and taking over the Angels, the franchise where his best playing days took place. The next season, the Angels won the A.L. West.
Yet the 1993 Phillies brought him the most amount of notoriety.
“We had a guys that bought into what Jimmy was trying to do,” Bowa said. “He always told those guys, ‘I don’t care how old you guys are, or what you did last year, I believe that you guys can win.’
“Let’s face it, we caught lightning in a bottle. But he had those guys believing they could win. That’s hard to do sometimes. Players know when you’re pulling the wool over their eyes. They started believing.”