BOZICH | Celebrating Jim Fregosi's Marvelous Baseball Life - WDRB 41 Louisville News

BOZICH | Celebrating Jim Fregosi's Marvelous Baseball Life

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Former Louisville Redbirds' manager Jim Fregosi died Friday in Florida. Former Louisville Redbirds' manager Jim Fregosi died Friday in Florida.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Jim Fregosi knew how to play shortstop in the big leagues. Shawon Dunston did not – not yet.

Sounded like a perfect summer column.

As I did often when the Redbirds were in town during the early days of the team's return to Louisville, I arrived at Cardinal Stadium hours before the first pitch. I searched for Fregosi, the team's marvelously charismatic manager who died Friday in Miami after suffering a series of strokes while on a MLB Alumni players cruise. He was 71.

He had a booming voice, disarming charm, energizing wit – and endless interest in talking baseball to anybody who loved the game as much as he did. I quickly learned not to take it personally when Fregosi greeted me by yelling, "What the hell do you want again?" across the team's clubhouse as his players laughed in agreement.

I shared my column idea: Fregosi played shortstop at an all-star level in the major leagues, breaking into the California Angels' lineup when he was 19. Now the Chicago Cubs were trying to force a young shortstop – Dunston – into their 1985 lineup, a year after the team made the playoffs with Larry Bowa.

It didn't work. Dunston wasn't ready. The Cubs sent Dunston back to Triple A in mid-May when he was hitting .194. At some point he arrived in Louisville with the Iowa Cubs.

Fregosi was happy to talk. He was always happy to talk. It was his third season as the Redbirds' manager. It was his first managerial job after he had been fired by the Angels not long after he won the 1979 American League West title.

He said he needed to learn how to handle a pitching staff and manage a clubhouse with younger guys. He arrived in 1983, which was the best season to manage baseball in this town. That was the season the Redbirds became the first minor-league franchise to draw more than 1,000,000 fans. They were the talk of the town.

I loved talking to Fregosi – and his endless string of stories about playing in the big leagues against Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson, Al Kaline and others.

He loved living and working here. Fregosi met his second wife, Joni Dunn, during his 3-½ seasons with the Redbirds. Players like Vince Coleman, Andy Van Slyke, Terry Pendleton, Todd Worrell and Joe Magrane all learned from Fregosi.

But now we were talking about what it took to play in the big leagues as a young kid. He gave me the usual 15 minutes of insight and funny stories, and then sent me on my way to talk to Dunston.

Except Dunston didn't want to talk. Not the first time I asked him in the clubhouse. Not the second time I asked him around the batting cage. "I told you the first time, I ain't doing no interviews, man," Dunston said.

No big deal. I still had a column.

Except it was a big deal to Fregosi. He was sitting in the Redbirds' dugout on the third base side of the field as I headed toward the press box.

"How'd the interview go?" he asked.

"He didn't want to talk," I said.

"WHAT?" Fregosi said. He might have added a few expletives. He often did. I've told friends that Fregosi held the record for the most times using the f-word in the same sentence – seven.

He asked what happened. I gave him the story. Fregosi turned to a clubhouse guy and told him to bring that night's starting pitcher into the dugout.

Oh, my.

When the pitcher arrived, Fregosi told me to share my story. I did. Fregosi was not pleased. But he had a plan – one he quickly shared with the pitcher. "That's baloney," Fregosi said. Or something like that.

"That guy hasn't done anything in the big leagues and now he's acting like that? The first time he comes up, I want you to knock him on his butt."

Oh, no.

Fregosi wasn't kidding. I hoped he was. But he wasn't. I didn't say a word to anybody as I made the long walk down the left field line, into the grandstand, up the steps, across the catwalk and into the press box that hung from the roof at the top deck of the stadium. Good thing Twitter wasn't available then.

I believe Dunston was Iowa's first hitter. He might have been second. I am sure of this: Dunston stepped into the box, dug in, eyed the pitcher and then quickly hit the dirt when the first pitch sailed over his head.

I looked at the Redbirds' dugout. Fregosi was in his usual perch on the top step. He looked toward the press box – and flashed a thumbs up.

Friends across baseball shared Jim Fregosi stories Friday when the news spread that he had died. He played for the Angels, Mets (after a trade for Nolan Ryan, another running Fregosi joke), Rangers and Pirates. He managed the Angels, White Sox, Phillies (into the 1993 World Series) and Blue Jays.

But for the last 13 seasons Fregosi had worked as a scout for the Braves. Some said he was the best evaluator of talent in the game. Everybody said he was the best storyteller in the game.

I usually saw Fregosi during my annual summer trip to U.S. Cellular Field. He enjoyed hanging out in the pressroom, sharing the latest gossip on trades and managerial moves.

Last summer we met accidentally in the buffet line at a hotel in downtown Chicago. Fregosi was holding court with scouts from the Dodgers, Rangers and Red Sox. I was scooping scrambled eggs onto my plate.

That's when I heard a familiar voice roar from across the room:

"Are you still writing those horse-bleep columns in Louisville?"

I didn't have to turn to know who it was. It was Jim Fregosi, ready to talk more baseball.

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