Jim Fregosi: The Rock

I remember that face so well. It was that poker face that steadily stared out at the players on the field. Cool, calm and a bit scary, Jim Fregosi looked like he might have been in the mafia. But if you saw him with his Phillies you would have witnessed a man truly at one with his players, with an understanding of what they needed-and didn't.

Jim Fregosi was an old buddy of Lee Thomas, who was the Phillies General Manager at the time and Fregosi was a kind of wandering pitching coach for awhile going on special assignments. When Fregosi was hired to replace the oft tempered Nick Leyva in April of 1991 everyone in Philadelphia knew he had his work cut out for him. The Phillies were 4-9 and had just come off of a season of injuries with Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton and Von Hayes out for large parts of the previous year. General Manager Lee Thomas had exercised his right to fire Leyva at any time he wanted to and that had been part of Leyva's contract extension in 1990.

In Fregosi's first four weeks on the job the team record went from 4-9 to 18-19. The staff ERA dropped from 4.15 to 3.48 in just two weeks. The Phillies also went 5-4 on a west coast trip, sweeping the San Diego Padres in the process. His gentle hands on approach would be a fine balance for the club and they responded immediately.

"The calm in the eye of the storm." – Chris Wheeler on Jim Fregosi.
Fregosi was the kind of manager that did not speak harshly or criticize angrily and the players established a sense of comfort and trust with him that carried over into the clubhouse atmosphere. The morale was boosted by his approach and harsh discipline would never have cut it with guys like Dykstra, Daulton or Mitch Williams. Though that year would see a great deal of frustration on the part of the players and more injury woes, Fregosi stayed positive and solid. First baseman John Kruk would go on to finish the season hitting a career high 21 homeruns and 91 RBI. Pitchers Terry Mulholland and Tommy Greene had outstanding years with Mulholland finishing with a 3.61 ERA and Greene finishing up at 3.38. The Phillies were indeed competitive that year and Dykstra would say that next year had to be better. Competitive was of course not enough for "The Dude". But Jim Fregosi never let his players feel pressure. He knew they were the kind of guys who would do that all on their own. And if he pushed that group in a way that turned them off it would certainly not further the cause of getting the Phillies to a World Series. Fregosi was also known for giving players their roles and sticking to that plan but no one was complaining. In his first year he had truly made an impact.

April of 1992 would be a month to remember in Phillies history, as pitcher Curt Schilling was brought on board. He would of course, become one of the most valuable players the Phillies had in the coming years. Fregosi's excellent rapport with the players would continue to be an asset as the hope of a better season would quickly begin to shrink when Lenny Dykstra would be injured after being hit by a pitch in the wrist in the first regular season game at the Vet in front of the largest crowd in franchise history at the time. This was a huge blow to the club and while everyone was worried, they hoped for the best. After all, when Dykstra was in the lineup the previous year the Phillies were 36-27 and when he wasn't, they were 16 games under .500. By June he would return to the relief of all, playing sometimes through lingering pain and a swollen thumb. Tommy Greene's "stress reaction" diagnosis was keeping him out though. "Offensively", Fregosi would say, "this team has done a helluva job. Now if our pitching staff can only keep us close". Pitcher Kyle Abbott was doing exceptionally well and Fregosi would comment that he seemed to be growing in confidence. A lot of pieces were coming into play for what would be the grand season of 1993 but it was an intense and grueling process getting there. The respect Fregosi had for his players and their dedication was obvious and he did his best to keep the team loose while also guiding them to stay focused. "You can set the tone in a lot of ways", Fregosi said of managing. And that outlook was certainly paying off. He had formed such a close relationship with players that sometimes the line was a bit blurred and he seemed to be one of the guys more than the man in charge.

Fregosi was the type of manager that put his faith in the players to help their confidence. He knew that the players would respond to this and that, hopefully, it would result in a better performance. This was especially clear in his relationship with closer Mitch Williams. In a particular game in June after blowing an eighth inning save "Wild Thing" Williams would be given an olive branch, something Phillies fans often wished he wouldn't get a hold of. Fregosi would put him in 18 hours later with the game on the line again-and as Fregosi saw it a way for Williams to pump his confidence back up. "He was still fighting himself a little, but this should leave him on a positive note". Mitch shakily saved that game and Fregosi's approach proved again to be effective. He simply believed in leading a team with a good measure of support along with a dose of discipline. Yelling and barking orders was never going to be Fregosi's style. That style fit those particular Phillies. The year would see many positive moments including Mulholland leading the league in complete games pitched (Nine) and catcher Darren Daulton becoming the first Phillie since Mike Schmidt to drive in 100 runs. The Phillies would finish ( ) however and once again the club had to look to the future and hope that their time would be in 1993. Not that they had t shirts made up or anything that could end up making them look well…. anyway.

In November, the Phillies would make official the five pitchers they were protecting: Kyle Abbott, Tommy Greene, Terry Mulholland, Ben Rivera and Curt Schilling. The Phils were still in negotiations with Mitch Williams and figured they'd be able to hang onto him since they couldn't see any team vying for a closer who would make 3.5 million the following year and 4 million the next year despite the fact that he had 59 saves. The Phillies also acquired Danny Jackson that month from the Florida Marlins who had drafted him only a few hours earlier from the Pirates. Though Jackson had been in a slump the previous year the Phils believed he could be a number two or three starter. And in December of course there was the signing of Phillies pitcher returned Larry Andersen, who had been released seven years before when the Phillies thought he was too old. No one would have said this was going to be a team to go to the World Series. But those same people didn't understand the value of heart, guts and the drive to, as Lenny Dykstra said, "Not take no for an answer".

When 1993 started it was certainly with a bang. The club would go 8-1 the best beginning to a season since 1915 and the best in franchise history. Fregosi commented on the club saying, "Every beer drinker loved John Kruk. Every woman loved Dutch and every blue collar red neck loved Dykstra". They made Phillies fans happy and proud to be Phillies fans. We felt respected and related to them because they seemed a lot like us, working class, people who worked hard for what they had and didn't put on airs. This was Philadelphia's team. And Fregosi understood what he needed to do. He understood the concept of managing 25 different guys with very different personalities and how to handle each one, each of them would need to be treated differently and he got that. One might argue however that Fregosi was the manager in title but that the real manager of that clubhouse was Darren Daulton. Fregosi would explain that he had the kind of relationship with Daulton where he could tell him what he needed and Daulton would take care of it. "Because, let's face it", Fregosi said, "players get sick of hearing it from the manager and the coaches". The Phillies would mow down everyone in the National League that year and it was hard not to project that this really was going to be the team to take us to the World Series and, we truly believed if they did they would win. It was an amazing feeling. Of course there were those times when it looked shaky as John Vukovich acknowledged. "There was some panic in the back room with the coaches. We were worried at times. The guy that never changed his demeanor through the whole thing was Fregosi. He was a great rock". Fregosi felt strongly about his disposition and the positive affect it had saying, "That's the secret. Don't add to the pressure the players are feeling by showing them how worried you are".

It would take six games for the Toronto Blue Jays to take the Phillies down and in the end the pitching came up short. In that final game, in the eighth inning it went like this: Fregosi removed Roger Mason with one out and nobody on with the Phillies leading 6-5. David West would come in briefly walking John Olerud and be replaced by Larry Andersen who would put two on to load the bases. Mitch Williams came in. Joe Carter made history.

Fregosi however would not come down on Mitch the way the city of Philadelphia so viciously did. "I just told him we wouldn't have gotten this far without him", Fregosi said. That is a truth that bitter Phillies fans still don't want to admit. Fregosi had believed in all 25 of his players and that was his greatest asset, for better or worse. After that magical season ended though there was a mourning period. The fans, the players, everyone involved with the Phillies had to come down off of that high and get back to business. There were immediate concerns on the part of the players including John Kruk who was quoted as saying the Phillies had areas that needed some help and that "the bullpen was one". Fregosi would get some great news in the midst of all of it: He was named Manager of the Year by the Associated Press. Perhaps it was no consolation for the outcome of that World Series but the man deserved it. He had guided that club from the bottom of the totem pole to the very top.

In early 1994 Fregosi would declare that he liked the club they had at that point better than the previous year and he felt confident the team would have continued success. Schill and Greene had become premier pitchers and Danny Jackson had also proven himself as a winning pitcher. Dave Hollins was trying to fully recover from a wrist injury and would continue to contribute with power in the lineup. But by July things were looking bleak. The Phillies were then 12 and a half games behind the Braves and some reporters would suggest to Fregosi that the games were now meaningless. The manager would scoff at this and reply "They aren't meaningless to the coaches or the manager. And they shouldn't be meaningless to the guys out there". John Kruk would suffer a health scare to add to the Phillies growing list of concerns. By August they were playing rather listlessly with the threat of a strike upon them and their anger over management withholding a payment to their pension. Fregosi believed it was affecting the team's performance even though the players were not quick to admit it. The 1995 season would start off exceptionally well with the team going 17-6, leading the major leagues and third base coach Larry Bowa said that it was the best team defensively that they'd had since he'd returned; the bullpen was also strong with an ERA of just 1.74. But the starting pitching would be a source of struggle that year and Tommy Greene for one was not at his best something Fregosi would comment on with concern. That year they would finish second tied with the Mets in the National League East. 1996 would prove to be a colossal disaster and the ultimate undoing of Fregosi's tenure. The Phillies would finish fifth and the energy and competitiveness of 1993 seemed to have completely flamed out to nothing but a memory.

The downfall of Fregosi's career with the Phillies appears to be directly connected to the growing problems between him and old friend Lee Thomas. Fregosi also showed some uncharacteristic frustration when it was suggested in May of that year that the Phillies could maybe vie for the Wild Card. And the injuries to both centerpiece players Daulton and Dykstra that year certainly affected the team's performance. After a loss to the Mets in July Fregosi would say that "Right now the only thing we can do is get better players, to be very honest. And I don't have control over that". That was considered to be a direct insult to Thomas and the farm system. But Fregosi was only speaking the truth. It just wasn't the truth Lee Thomas wanted to hear. Fregosi had apparently also been bugged by the fact that when he had back problems Thomas was calling around to see if it was affecting his ability to manage. Thomas felt Fregosi wasn't exhibiting enough patience for the rebuilding process of the Phillies. They have been rebuilding ever since.

In October Jim Fregosi was officially relieved of his duties. Jim Fregosi's frustration with the way the club was being run and the things that he saw needed to be improved only say to me that he cared about the direction of the Phillies. That was clear from the time he got here until the time he left. It meant something to him and he'd done his best to guide his Phillies teams through an unbelievable number of injuries and down times. He expected the best and people like Dykstra and Daulton understood that kind of thinking. "He is the best manager I have ever played for", Daulton has said. The fact remains: He is the last manager to lead the Phillies to a World Series. He earned tremendous respect from his players and anyone involved in baseball and surely 1993 had a lot to do with that. Remember that he was the kind of man who managed with the attitude that you should not change who you are. He never lied. He is as much a part of the success of the 1993 Phillies as anyone and had he come back here to manage this year I would have gladly welcomed back that steady stare, the encouraging way he had with players and the dedication to winning that he had. And, you know, a little smoke in the tunnel never hurt us.

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