By Bill Campbell
The newspapers have carried a lot of baseball news lately which has been surprising, at least for me. I really didn’t realize that spring training camps were opening so soon, because I have been “off the beat” for the past few weeks. But Jim Fregosi’s recent death due to a stroke while on a pleasure cruise caught me completely by surprise– and yet I immediately understood it and identified with his family. You see, I lost my wife, Jo, to a stroke on January 20th.
Jim Fregosi always has represented the typical baseball guy to me. Most of my knowledge of the game came from people much like Fregosi. In the 1990’s, the period when Jim managed the Phillies, I learned a lot from him. Baseball, it was easy to see, was close to his heart. It was to mine as well. He lived it, thought it, talked it, relived the last game and anticipated the next. When you love baseball, it’s fun to be around a guy like that. When he was playing for the Los Angeles Angels, Jim was traded to the New York Mets for Nolan Ryan. Jim fizzled with the Mets; Ryan went on to become one of the greatest pitchers of all time. The deal always baffled Fregosi. He never understood how he and the great pitcher could have been swapped, because Jim was on the downturn of his career at third base while Nolan was starting to peak on the mound. The fact that the people involved in the trade didn’t know he was pretty much done was a classic example to Jim of inadequate scouting. In his opinion, the Mets’ staff should have known. They didn’t and the Mets paid the price for it. Jim, who went on to manage the Angels, White Sox and Phillies, remembered that lesson. He scouted for the Phillies, the Pirates and Baltimore when it was a new organization. He also served as special assistant to the GM in Atlanta over the last 15 years. He worked for a lot of good baseball people and savored pieces of information from them all along the way. Whenever I had a question about a player, I made it a point to ask Jim Fregosi and he always responded and shared his knowledge as well as his humor. He was a pleasure to deal with every day.
Winning in any sport is always fueled by leadership, pride and motivation. Jim Fregosi brought those characteristics to every team he was a part of, whether as a player, scout or manager. There is one other quality that Jim had which I really admired: gratitude. He knew he was a lucky guy to have been involved in baseball, the game he loved, all his life – and he was grateful. For those of us who worked alongside Jim, we were grateful to have known him.
In Phillies history, 1993 is regarded as a “miracle season”. It was Jim Fregosi’s second year as manager. The previous season, the Phillies has lost 92 games. Only 2 teams had lost more. Expectations were pretty low at the start of spring training in 1993. Outside of the Phillies’ club house, no one believed the team would perform any better than the previous year But 7 months later the Phillies capped a memorable season by playing in their 5th World Series in the 111 year history of the franchise. They lost to the Toronto Blue Jays but Fregosi was the leader of the team, taking a last place team to a pennant in one year. An unforgettable season with him at the helm. Remembering Fregosi last week, Lenny Dykstra said of him, “Jim Fregosi was not [just] one of the most respected men in baseball. He was a great man. He had the special gift as a manager that made you want to get to the field and play your ass off for him. Jim Fregosi was the reason that 1993 was one of the most exciting years in Philadelphia sports history.” Dykstra was so right.
Because Jim Fregosi was respected, admired and just plain loved, it was somber inside the Carpenter Complex in Florida last week when his sudden death was announced. Larry Bowa, third base coach under Fregosi, could only say, “This is a tough day for me. Jim gave me an opportunity to come back and play here. He was a great person.” Phillies’ general manager, Ruben Amaro Jr., played for Jim early in his career. He said, “[Jim] was a special person. He’ll always be in our hearts.” For the last 15 years, even though Jim had been working for the Atlanta Braves, he was a regular at Bright House Field in Clearwater where he would turn up to talk, advise, laugh. He always was treated as one of the team’s own.
I can’t help but reflect upon team president David Montgomery’s words when he learned of Jim Fregosi’s death. “I think for all of us, it is a shock. When you think about these kinds of people, you react with shock.” Montgomery is right. He said the same to me when he came to pay respects to my wife, Jo, at her viewing a few weeks ago. It’s always a blow when such good people are with us one minute, gone the next. We have to remember and find comfort in the warm memories they leave behind. Jim Fregosi left us with a lot of them.
Baseball Now and Then
Once the Super Bowl had been played, I was getting involved in basketball, both college and pro, as the winter wrapped itself around us. But now spring training has begun down in Clearwater, Florida, and baseball news is back in the air. So is a little baseball history.
Seventy years ago in 1943, thanks to the restrictions placed on nonessential travel during World War II, the Phillies held spring training in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at the local high school. In November of that year, the baseball commissioner banned Phillies owner and president, William D. Cox, from the game for betting on the team’s games during that season. Cox was forced to sell the team and it was purchased by Bob Carpenter, Sr. who made his 28-year-old son, Bob. Jr., the team president. The Phillies trained in Wilmington, Delaware, which was the Carpenter family’s home state, in 1944 and 1945. But they decided to train in Clearwater, Florida, in 1947, starting out in an old ballpark called the Clearwater Athletic Field. By 1955, a new ballpark was erected and named Jack Russell Stadium in honor of Russell, a 15-year major league veteran who settled in Clearwater, became a successful businessman and city commissioner and big supporter for the construction of a new park. The team still trains in Clearwater today.
There have been 1,934 men who have worn the Phillies uniform since their first season 130 years ago. Ryne Sandberg is the 52nd manager and just the 7th man who played both played, coached and now will manage the team. Three managers have had interim tags and some have become household names in their day – such as Irvin “Kaiser” Wilhelm, Gavvy Cravath and Hans Lobert. Cravath may have been a surprise for many. He was a pitcher who became a player-manager at age 47. He went on to manage a few other teams after leaving the Phillies. John Vukovich played and coached for the Phillies for 17 years, ending in 2004, which was a record. If you’d like to read more about the Phillies’ history, you can find a lot of interesting information in the following literary efforts:
The Mouth that Roared – Dallas Green
The Phillies Experience – Tyler Kepner
Philadelphia’s Top 50 Baseball Players – Rich Westcott
Just tell Me I Can’t – Jamie Moyer
Almost a Dynasty – William Kashatus
If These Walls Could Talk – Larry Shenk
Shibe Park & Connie Mack Stadium – Rich Westcott
More than Birds, Bullies –
View from the Booth – Chris Wheeler
A Way Out: Faith, Hope and Love – Billy Wagner
Game of My Life – Bob Gordon
This Date in Phillies History – Larry Shenk, Allen Lewis, Don Bostrom and Skip Clayton
I guess you know what I’ve been doing during the winter – catching up on some sports history! But all this reading has gotten me ready for a new Phillies season and a new cast of characters. I’m looking forward to hearing the ump say, “Play ball.”
The Phillies – Looking Ahead
Almost every baseball fan thinks the Phillies are going to have rough sailing getting back to the glory days of yesteryear when they were the in hunt for the pennant every season. Roy Halladay has retired. Chase Utley’s knees are always a concern. Ryan Howard is still trying to come back on two healthy legs after tearing his Achilles heel and medial meniscus. He does still cover the mound and may have to continue to do so if GM Ruben Amaro’s latest pitching find, A.J. Burnett, can’t do it for himself. Burnett’s acquisition cost the Phillies $16 million for the year. At the Clearwater press conference introducing Burnett to the media, a smiling Ryne Sandberg commented, “He’s a belated Christmas present and Valentine’s present that I’ve been waiting for. It’s a little late but I’ll take it. He’s a difference maker for us. He’s a big piece. I couldn’t be happier.”
A.J. Burnett is a ground ball pitcher in a fly ball park. That should be helpful. The Pirates, Burnett’s former team, had offered him $12 million to stay but the Phillies kicked in a few more to nail the deal down. Burnett also was given a limited no-trade clause and a mutual/player option for next season from the Phillies. He said that only two teams are closer to his home in Maryland that the Phillies — Baltimore and Washington. Neither showed any interest in him in the off-season. He had considered retiring after pitching for Pittsburgh last year, but the new deal offered by the Phillies allows him to do what he loves: pitch and have a regular family life. Explaining his move to the Phils, Burnett said, “For the first time in my career, I made a decision that wasn’t about A.J. Burnett,” he said. “It was about my wife. It was about my kids. It was about playing somewhere where I’m at home, and I can still do what I love. And that feels good. It was a no-brainer for me.”
A.J. Burnett will be wearing Number 34 when he steps on to the Phillies pitching mound. Let’s hope some of the magic we saw inside that other Number 34’s shirt is still there for Burnett this season.
Bubba Watson won the Masters in 2012 but, before last weekend, he hadn’t won a golf tournament in nearly two years. That’s forty-one tournaments. He got a remand last weekend when he birdied the 18th hole to win the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles by 2 shots. He played the last 39 holes at the Riviera Country Club without a bogey. Shooting 64 on the final 2 rounds, he made up a 4-shot deficit in 6 holes. He closed with the lowest round by a winner of this event in 28 years and he couldn’t wait to celebrate. Walking up the steps to receive his award, he saw his wife holding his son, Caleb, whom they had adopted shortly before the 2012 Masters. “When I won the Masters, family members were there but not my son who was just adopted at that point. Now he’s 2 weeks away from being 2 years old. We’ll have some pictures with him and my wife and the trophy. So it’s nice.” Nice indeed. Moments like that can sometimes even beat winning.
The American ice dancing pair, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, won a gold medal earlier this week after taking both the short and long program honors. The reigning World Champions earned an international personal best of 78.89 points in the short program and led 2010 gold medalists, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada, by 2.56 at the end of that first round. By the end of the long program the following night, Davis and White scored a total of 195.52, near perfect, after a 4 ½ minute routine that defied gravity. The Canadians, who scored 190.99 overall, took the silver and a Russian pair took the bronze. Both the American and Canadian teams trained with a Russian coach in Detroit for the last 2 years. In a classy moment following their win, skater Davis thanked their coach but also Virtue and Moir for pushing them daily and for pushing the sport. “We’re linked forever,” White said. “This moment, and all the moments that have brought us together, will keep us together forever.”
American Phil Kessel became the first Yank in more than a decade to score a hat trick in an Olympic hockey game. The last to do it was Flyer, John Le Clair, in 2002 against Finland. Kessel scored 3 goals in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament against Slovenia. The American team went on to defeat Russia in the next round on Saturday and, having defeated the Czech Republic on Wednesday, is now scheduled to play Canada on Friday night in the semi-final round.
American center T.J. Oshie, who plays professionally for the St. Louis Blues, scored 4 goals in an eight-round shootout against Russia that was as exciting as the game the preceded it. Oshie scored 4 times in the shootout and put the winner between the goalie’s legs in the eighth round, leading the US past Russia 3-2. As for the confrontation with Russian goalie Bobrovsky, Sochie said, “I was just thinking of something else I could do, trying to keep him guessing,” said Oshie, the St. Louis Blues forward. “Had to go back to the same move a couple times, but I was glad it ended when it did. I was running out of moves there.” U.S. coach Dan Bylsma admitted, “I aged a couple of years in that shootout.” But the final score, 3-2, told the tale and the Americans have moved on to confront their northern neighbors.
Oshie owned Sochi at the end of the match, single handedly blowing out the Russians and etching his name in the Olympic history books. He was a guest on the “Today” show the following morning, his jersey is flying off the sports store shelves and President Obama even Tweeted him. But his St. Louis and Olympics teammate, David Backes, who made significant contributions himself against Russia and the Czechs, said that his partner from St. Louis is taking it all in stride. “No one who knows him was surprised” at his accomplishment. Other than the Russians, that is.
Philadelphia Sports columnist, Stan Hochman, will be inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame in May. Hochman joined the Daily News in 1959 and was assigned to cover the Phillies. Over time, he covered every pro sport in town. Among many honors, he became a member of the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. He has been named Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year 3 times – in 1969, 1985 and 1987. He’s a great writer and good friend. Congratulations, Stan.
The American and Canadian hockey teams will face off on Friday in Sochi. The Phillies will open their spring training schedule against Toronto on Wednesday, February 26th, at 1:05 p.m. I know I’ll be tuned in to both. See you next week.