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WORLD SERIES / TORONTO BLUE JAYS vs. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES : They’re No Angels : But Phillies Are Clearly Fregosi’s Team, and They Bring Back Memories of ‘60s

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jim Fregosi lives in a hotel across the street from the ballpark. It’s not a fancy establishment by any means, but he has two rooms, a refrigerator, and he gets ESPN.

“What more can a person want?” he asks.

He eats most of his meals in the hotel coffee shop and normally walks in silence across the vacant parking lot to work. But on this day, a cold, blustery Philadelphia morning, thousands of fans are lined up outside Veterans Stadium to buy tickets to see his team play in the World Series.

For Fregosi, there will be no silence for days to come.

The man who managed a group of castoffs to a National League pennant hasn’t slept all night. Wearing blue jeans and a couple of sweaters, he leaves the sanctity of his office in the Phillies’ clubhouse and walks through a dark tunnel below the stadium to face reporters.

He is still thinking about that pennant-winning game against the Atlanta Braves, about how John Kruk played with a hole in one pant leg because the team was ahead.

“And how about those black tights Kruk had on underneath,” Fregosi says, laughing, shaking his head.

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Fregosi, 51, approaches the lectern. He is about to answer questions about the final stage of a career-long journey, one that could end here in the next three games of the World Series, resuming here tonight. The Phillies and Toronto are tied, 1-1.

Fregosi sees the cameras, makes a quick U-turn and puts out his cigarette. He is wearing loafers, but no socks, giving credence to the theory that this man is probably from California or Florida.

The answer is both.

Fregosi grew up in South San Francisco, where his parents, Margaret and Archie, owned an Italian delicatessen-grocery store. Archie, a short, bald man is often seen these days in a Phillie jacket, giving his son advice, second-guessing his moves.

“When I say Italian, I mean Italian,” said Buck Rodgers, Fregosi’s teammate in their playing days with the Angels and a lifelong friend. “I think every Italian for miles around bought their groceries at Archie’s. I went up to Jimmy’s house to eat one time and Margaret brought out this huge spread. After I finished eating, I said, ‘Thank you very much, Margaret.’ And she said, ‘That’s just an appetizer.’ ”

Fregosi used to work in the deli and even came back one winter after he had become a star player with the Angels to help run the store.

“At first it was like, ‘Oh, the player is back,’ ” Fregosi said. “But that lasted about a day.”

In Fregosi’s neighborhood, couples stayed married and life was about working hard. His parents have been married for 60 years. He likes to tell how, in his early playing days, he invited his father to spring training.

“But after being there a couple of days, he missed my mother so much, he flew home,” Fregosi says.

He attended Serra High, which produced, among others, such athletes as Lynn Swan and John Robinson, and, more recently, Barry Bonds.

“The second-best baseball player to come out of Serra,” Fregosi jokes.

Along with Dean Chance, Rodgers and Lee Thomas, Fregosi was on the Angel team in 1961 that set an expansion-club record with 70 victories. It might also have set a record for fun. The bus trips to the ballpark alone could be stand-alone chapters.

“I remember one time we were in Boston and when we returned to the hotel about 4:30 in the morning, the team was in the lobby in their underwear,” said Thomas, running mate of Rodgers and Fregosi, now Fregosi’s boss as the Phillies’ general manager.

There had been a fire on the floor many of the players were staying on.

“Buddy Blattner, the Angel announcer, had been overcome by smoke,” Thomas said. “And Rig (Manager Bill Rigney) looked up and said, ‘I knew I didn’t have to worry about you three guys.’ ”

It was Thomas, who played with Fregosi and Rodgers from 1961 through ’64, who brought Fregosi to the Phillies in 1991.

“We were kind of like the (Darren) Daulton Gang,” Rodgers said. “We would go out and have a couple of beers and play cards, 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.

“I see some comparison between our team and Jimmy’s team now. A lot of guys who were on that Angel team had been discarded and around the block with a second, third or fourth chance. We were all either young kids or has-beens. Jimmy and I happened to be young.”

Among veteran players such as Del Rice, Kenny Hunt and Rocky Bridges, Rodgers said the rookies learned quickly that if they were going to play hard after hours, they needed to play even harder between the white lines.

“When you were a rookie in those days, you had to earn your way in,” Rodgers said. “You became a player. That was a tag the veterans put on you when you busted your tail. The worst thing in those days was to get out of the lineup. If I got hit in the hands with a foul tip, I would go back to the bench and the veterans would say, ‘Did he get a boo boo?’ If Jimmy got hit with a bad hop in the throat, they might say, ‘Does he want two or three days off?’ ”

Fregosi, then 18, took over the starting shortstop position during the 1962 season, when Joe Koppe was sidelined because of an injury. He played 11 years with the Angels, 18 in the majors, and was a six-time All-Star.

“Jim was a wild horse that had to be broken,” said Tom Ferguson, who was the first traveling secretary for the Angels. “But when they broke him, he had all that spirit in him and he produced.

“All those years in the Angels, if there was a problem, you went to Fregosi. He settled it. On or off the field . . . personal things. He was a star and the leader, a lot like Daulton is now, but he was one of them. He made that statement famous, ‘If you were a little bit hurt, stick it in the dirt.’ He is perfect for this team of Phillies. If Lee Thomas put it on a blueprint he couldn’t do it any better.”

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If Fregosi were still playing, his locker would be down at the end, with Inky and Dude and Bubba and Kruk and rookie Kevin Stocker, whom the clubhouse manager had to throw in there to get some balance.

He’s still a player at heart, and he manages the way he played, with grit and consistency. There are few surprises, his players say. He plays the percentages, platooning lefties against righties. Makes the same moves, calls the same plays. All very basic.

But Fregosi brought his team from a last-place finish last season to a pennant this year.

“He is really one of the guys,” Daulton said. “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.”

Tommy Greene, who came in a trade from the Braves, says that because Fregosi believes in you, the guys in the clubhouse do, too. Curt Schilling, who came in a trade from Houston, says Fregosi knew all season what was in store for the team.

“He never panicked,” Schilling said.

But perhaps no player demonstrates Fregosi’s patience better than Mitch Williams, who Fregosi says is turning his hair gray.

“Don Zimmer let me work out of my own trouble a lot at Chicago, but Jim has taken it the furthest,” Williams says. “For three years he has continually given me the ball with the game on the line, and for three years I have produced. He helped me know that I can do the job.”

Fregosi retired as a player on June 1, 1978, and the next day he was managing the Angels. It was a tough transition for him, but the record doesn’t show it that way. He led the Angels to a second-place finish in 1978 and to the club’s first division title the next. He was a favorite of Gene Autry and he thought he would manage there forever. But he was fired in May of 1981, replaced by Gene Mauch.

“They brought me back as a 36-year-old man and treated me like a 17-year-old kid,” Fregosi said years later.

In 1983, Thomas, then director of player personnel with the St. Louis Cardinals, hired Fregosi to manage the club’s triple-A team in Louisville. There, Fregosi said, he learned patience. In four seasons, his team won two American Assn. championships and he was twice voted manager of the year. Next came the Chicago White Sox, whom he managed to three consecutive fifth-place finishes before he was fired after the 1988 season .

The night Fregosi won the pennant, he did the obligatory interviews, then went into his office and shut the door. There he reflected on the season, and answered the phone. One of the calls was from Autry, who had watched the game at Mauch’s home in Palm Springs.

“I like to be by myself now,” Fregosi said. “That’s something I didn’t like before. I have become a private person. My idea of relaxing is to spend hours on a lake, fishing.

“I’ve had my share of the bright lights. You learn how to do that, but that is not what’s important. I’m a different person now than I was as a player. I look in people’s eyes, their faces, their feelings. When you are a player, you are more interested in yourself.”

What’s important now to Fregosi is his new family, which includes two young children to go along with two from a previous marriage. His wife, Joni, is pregnant.

“My family stays in Florida, and they come up on the weekends, but I don’t want to take them out of their environment,” Fregosi said. “That’s why I live where I do, across the street. It’s close to the park, and I’m always here. But I’m not a long-term manager. I have a contract and this is the last place I want to manage. But I want to watch my son play Little League. I missed growing up with my first two.”

Thomas extended Fregosi’s contract two years through the 1995 season with a third-year club option. But Fregosi said that wouldn’t stop him from retiring if he decided to.

Said Rodgers: “It’s been a long ride. Lee went his way to the front office and we went our way through the uniforms and the buses and the minor leagues.

“We all look back and say we have missed an awful lot. But I don’t think you can ever catch up. Well, maybe Jim has a second chance of doing things.”

During the playoffs, Fregosi watched the American League games on television with his father at home in the hotel.

“ ‘You’ve got to keep the Blue Jays off the bases, Jimmy,’ he’s been telling me,” Fregosi says.

And then, Fregosi smiles.


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