Friday, February 14, 2014

Jim Fregosi, 1942-2014; Tom Finney, 1922-2014

Remember "Laugh-In Weddings"? You know: "If Cyd Charisse married Julius Caesar, she'd be Sid Caesar."

Well, Sid Caesar died this week. And now, so has Jim Fregosi, who was the subject of another: "If Bella Abzug married Jim Fregosi, she'd be Bella Fregosi." (A play on "Bela Lugosi.")

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James Louis Fregosi was born on April 4, 1942, in San Francisco. He attended Junipero Serra High School, Class of '59, in nearby San Mateo, named for the man who, essentially, was the founding father of California.

That same school has produced many other great sports personalities: John Robinson '54, legendary USC coach; Danny Frisella '64, a member of the '69 Mets; Tom Scott '69, a member of the Canadian Football League's Hall of Fame; Lynn Swann '70, who played for Robinson at USC and won 4 Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers; Bob Fitzgerald '84, Golden State Warriors broadcaster; and Gregg Jefferies '85, whose role with the Mets was nearly as dubious as Fregosi's. Also, Barry Bonds '82 and Tom Brady '95 -- the cheating bastards. From outside sports: John Shields '50, former CEO of Trader Joe's; Bill Keller '66, New York Times columnist; Michael Shrieve '68, drummer for Santana; Peter Barsocchini '70, creator of the High School Musical franchise; Michael Trucco '88, actor on the new Battlestar Galactica and Fairly Legal.

Fregosi was signed by the Boston Red Sox, but they left him unprotected in the 1961 expansion draft, and the Los Angeles Angels took him. (They became the California Angels in 1965, the Anaheim Angels in 1997, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2004.) He made his big-league debut on September 14, 1961, at Metropolitan Stadium in Minnesota. Batting 8th and playing shortstop, he went 0-for-3 against Jim Kaat and made an error, and the Minnesota Twins beat the Angels, 3-1.

Things got better, though. He came up to the big club for good in 1962, and was named to the American League All-Star Team in 1964, '66, '67, '68, '69 and '70. He wasn't a sensational hitter, but his OPS+ was at least 108 every year from 1962 to 1970, topping out at 127 in 1970, and in 1968 he led the AL with 13 triples. His fielding also improved, and he won a Gold Glove in 1967, not an easy thing to do with Luis Aparicio and Rico Petrocelli also in the AL. In 1971, an injury limited him to 107 games. Still, he was the greatest player in the first decade of the Angels' franchise, and to most observers he is still the team's all-time shortstop.

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On December 10, 1971, the Mets sent pitchers Nolan Ryan and Don Rose, outfielder Leroy Stanton and catcher Frank Estrada to the Angels, for Fregosi.

Estrada played 1 game with the Mets in 1971, and never played again, for the Angels or any other team. Rose had also played just 1 game in the majors before the trade, washed out with the Angels in '72, and ended up pitching only 19 times. So giving them up was no loss for the Mets.

Giving Stanton up was another matter. He hit 47 home runs with 242 RBIs in 5 years with the Angels, and provided some veteran stability on the expansion 1977 Seattle Mariners. Not a great player, but the Mets sure could have used him.

As for Ryan: If you don't know what he did after leaving the Mets, you're either under the age of 25 and don't know your history, or you're reading the wrong blog. He turned from a pitcher with great speed but little control into the greatest strikeout artist in pitching history. He broke Walter Johnson's longstanding record for strikeouts in a career, broke Sandy Koufax' much more recent record for strikeouts in a season, and tied Steve Carlton's even more recent record for strikeouts in a 9-inning game (since surpassed by others). After leaving the Mets, Ryan had 295 wins, 5,221 strikeouts, and 7 no-hitters. He also reached the postseason 4 times before his career came to an end; the Mets, over that same period, 3. Think the Mets could have used Ryan, in his greatest season, in the 1973 World Series? Or, still throwing BBs at age 41, in the 1988 NLCS?

So giving up Stanton wasn't good, but giving up Ryan turned out to be a boneheaded move for the Mets. So they'd better have gotten something out of Fregosi, right?

Trading for Fregosi did make a little sense: Their shortstop, at the time, was Bud Harrelson: Good field, no hit. In the off-season of 1971-72, there was nothing wrong with wanting a healthy Jim Fregosi to play shortstop for your team.

But two things went wrong. One of them, the Mets could control, and handled badly: Instead of putting Fregosi at short, and keeping the decent if unspectacular Wayne Garrett at 3rd base, the Mets moved Fregosi to 3rd. (It's generally forgotten now, but 3rd base had been a point of embarrassment for the Mets at that point, and remained so until Howard Johnson came along in 1985.) Fregosi had become a good shortstop, but he was not a good 3rd baseman.

The other thing that went wrong, which they couldn't control, was that he got hurt. He broke his thumb that season, but played on, anyway. On May 19, he was batting .304, but went into a 4-for-44 slump that dropped him to .240. A 1-for-15 to end the season dropped him to .232.

On July 11 of the next year, the Texas Rangers made the Mets an offer, and they took it. Fregosi bounced back a little in 1974, like many of his teammates responding to manager Billy Martin, as the Rangers finished 2nd to the Reggie-Catfish Oakland A's. But it was a false comeback, and his injuries continued. The Rangers traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1977.

On June 1, 1978, when the Angels offered him their managing job, he asked the Pirates for his release, got it, and retired as a player.

Lifetime batting average, .265. On-base, .338. Slugging, .398. OPS, .736. OPS+, 113. Hits, 1,726. Home runs, 151, although he was never really a power hitter, topping out at 22 in 1970.

From age 21 to 28, he was an All-Star-caliber player. After that, he was just another injured player, and was done at age 36.

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But it will be for his managing career that Fregosi is best remembered. In 1979, his first full season at the helm, with Don Baylor winning the MVP, big seasons at the bat also from Rod Carew, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich, Carney Lansford, Joe Rudi, Dan Ford and Willie Aikens; big pitching seasons from Ryan and Dave Frost, and a good righty-lefty bullpen combination of Mark Clear and Dave LaRoche, the Angels won 88 games and won the AL Western Division title, their first postseason appearance -- and did it in the only year between 1977 and 1981 that the Dodgers didn't at least reach a Game 163, thus momentarily taking the L.A. market away from the O'Malleys.

(Indeed, from 1977 to 1988, at least 1 of the L.A.-area teams got to at least a Game 163 every year except 1984 and 1987. It was also a good time for the Rams, the Raiders, the Lakers, and football at both USC and UCLA.)

There were a couple of oddities about that time. Frank Tanana, a workhorse who formed a good lefty-righty tandem with Ryan for a few years, was hurt and didn't do so well. And the Angels' most-used shortstop was Bert Campaneris (like Rudi, a star on those 1970s Oakland teams). He and backups Rance Mulliniks and Jim Anderson, between them, batted .229 and had only 4 homers and 46 RBIs. At age 37, not having played since the previous June, Fregosi might have been the best shortstop in the organization at the time!

The Halos were not expected to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the AL Championship Series, and didn't. But they could have: Game 1 went to extra innings, and lost Game 2, 9-8, before winning Game 3. They could have put the O's in a hole, but the O's won 102 games that year with just the kind of resilience they showed in the first 2 games. They won Game 4 in a blowout, and then nearly beat the Pirates in the World Series.

Injuries, and the loss of Ryan to free agency, hurt the Angels badly in 1980, and they went from first to worst. Fregosi was fired before the 1981 strike could be resolved. However, for his service to the franchise as both a player and a manager, his Number 11 was retired by team owner Gene Autry. The board of directors had retired 26 for Autry, as "the 26th Man," but Fregosi was the first actually-uniformed man to get his number retired by the Angels.

(Don't blame the Singing Cowboy for letting Ryan get away: Ryan wanted to be the majors' first $1 million a year player, and Autry was always willing to spend big money if he thought he could get big results. But Ryan also wanted to pitch in his hometown of Houston, and the Astros, at the time, had the money to spend. Autry couldn't offer Ryan home.)

Fregosi went on to manage the Triple-A Louisville Redbirds, winning regular-season American Association Pennants in 1983 and 1985, and winning the AA in the Playoffs in 1984 and 1985. That was all the Chicago White Sox needed to see to hire him, but his 3 seasons at Comiskey Park were undistinguished.

The Philadelphia Phillies gave him a chance in 1991, and for the first 2 seasons, not much happened. At that time, the Phils were regularly breaking the First Commandment of Team Sports: Thou shalt not allow thyselves to become boring.

In 1993, the Phillies had one of the least boring seasons in Philadelphia sports history. This was the year of "Macho Row," or, as broadcaster Harry Kalas called them, "This wacky, wonderful bunch of throwbacks." Lenny Dykstra. John Kruk. Darren Daulton. Curt Schilling. Danny Jackson. Larry Andersen. Mitch Williams. As Garth Brooks might say, they weren't big on social graces. But they won. In just 1 season, they went from 70-92 to 97-65. (To put that in perspective, the only Phillies team to have won a World Series to that point, the 1980 squad, won "only" 91. The 1964 team, so often cited as a great failure, won 92. So did the much-celebrated 1967 Red Sox and 1996 Yankees.)

They were a team of improbable come-from-behind victories. They dethroned the 3-time defending National League East champion Pirates, and even clinched the Division on their turf at Three Rivers Stadium, after also outlasting a pretty good Montreal Expos team. Then, in the NLCS, they stunned the heavily-favored Atlanta Braves (in their last year in the NL West), to take only the 5th Pennant in the Phils' 111-season history.

(Lest we forget, Mitch Williams was on the mound for that final out, leaping high into the air and pumping his fist. Say what you want about how the Wild Thing pitched in the World Series, but they wouldn't have won the Pennant without him.)
The Phils couldn't quite finish the story, as Joe Carter and the defending World Champion Toronto Blue Jays smashed the glass slipper. Oddly, getting all the way to the World Series in their 1st year of contention might have been the worst thing that could have happened to the Phillies: If they had come close but not won the Pennant, they might have made the necessary moves to improve. Instead, they didn't do a good job of promoting young players, something that turned out to be necessary as injuries struck the ballclub. Fregosi, in particular, was accused of relying too much on veterans at the expense of younger players (a charge that would later be leveled against Joe Torre on the Yankees).

A lot of fans made angry calls to Philly's all-sports radio station 610 WIP. On May 21, 1994, Fregosi responded, and went a bit too far. According to the preeminent Philly sports blog, The 700 Level (named for the upper ring of the now-demolished Veterans Stadium):

Fregosi etched his name in Philly sports radio infamy when over heard making certain comments about WIP radio, which eventually made their way to well-known station personality Howard Eskin. The quote often varies in exact wording depending on the source, but reads something like:

“People who listen to WIP are a bunch of guys in South Philly that [fornicate with] their sisters and the people that work at WIP [fornicate with] their mothers.”

The comment, unsurprisingly, was deemed as offensive by many, and Fregosi had some answering to do for it. The manager did not deny that he made the comments, but sort of brushed them off as part of a “bull session” he was having pre-game, kidding around with a bunch of local reporters, and claimed that they had no bearing on his actual feelings about Phillies fans. “I sincerely appreciate our fans,” an impassioned and admittedly embarrassed Fregosi swore in a conference held on the matter.

Though it’s understandable why the comment drew the ire of many at the time, in today’s sports world of neutered press conferences and unremarkable quote-spewing, it can’t help but feel a little refreshing to think of a time when managers would offer vulgar, not-giving-a-rap off-the-cuff remarks like this. It’s probably the sort of thing that the great majority of notable Philly sportsmen have wanted to say about the shit-starting WIP at some point in their career, though it’s unlikely that many of them would have worded their thoughts quite so, uh, elegantly.

The Phillies let him go after the 1996 season, and he was hired by the San Francisco Giants' front office. His last managing job was with the Blue Jays in 1999 and 2000. The Phillies nearly hired him again in 2004, but hired Charlie Manuel instead -- and Manuel went one step further than Fregosi did, winning a World Championship.

Philly fans got over Fregosi's remark, and gave him a nice hand last year at the ceremony honoring the 20th Anniversary of the 1993 Pennant. He was also honored at the Angels' 50th Anniversary celebrations in 2011.

This week, he was on an MLB Alumni cruise in the Caribbean, when he suffered a stroke. Airlifted to Miami, he seemed to be stable, but took a turn for the worse, and died this morning. He was 71.

In Southern California, Jim Fregosi is the greatest Angel shortstop, and arguably the greatest Angel manager before Mike Scioscia.

In the New York Tri-State Area, he is a convenient symbol of the near-constant ineptitude of Met management.

In the Delaware Valley, he is the manager of Macho Row, the one Pennant won in Philadelphia in a quarter-century stretch.

Harry Kalas had it right about that team, and about Fregosi: He was a throwback. There aren't too many like him left in baseball, and I wish there were more.

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But Fregosi was not the best athlete to die this week. It just came over the wire that Sir Tom Finney has died as well.

And if you're an American, you might never have heard of him.
Thomas Finney (no middle name) was born on April 5, 1922 in Preston, Lancashire, England, at his family's home, a few steps from Deepdale, the stadium of Preston North End Football Club. Soccer (or "football") had first been played on the ground known as Deepdale Farm in 1875, with the club being founded in 1878. No other site in the world has been used for the sport longer, continuously. By the time Sir Tom played there, the dates of the stands' openings were 1875, 1890, 1921 and 1934. Today, they're 1995, 1998, 2001 and 2008, so it's a modern stadium.

Tom's mother died when he was only 5 years old. He got good at soccer, and North End were interested in signing him. But his father insisted that, first, Tom complete his apprenticeship in the family plumbing business. Hence his nickname, the Preston Plumber.

He finished his apprenticeship, signed as a professional, and then had to go off to war. He fought under Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery as a tank driver in Egypt and Italy. He played for service teams, including a game against Egyptian actor-to-be Omar Sharif. He came home in 1945, and married Elsie Noblett. They had a son named Brian and a daughter named Barbara, and remained together 'til death did they part, in 2004.

Up until the George Eastham case in 1961, English football had not just an equivalent to baseball's reserve clause, but a maximum wage: £20 a week. As a plumber, he was making an additional £14 a week. And, since Preston weren't very good, they were often called "The Plumber and His 10 Drips." Another joke of English football in the 1950s: "Tom Finney should claim income tax relief, for his 10 dependents." And other was, "Tom Finney is a one-club man, and Preston are a one-man club." I wonder if anybody said, "The other players need to get the lead out for the plumber." (The Latin name for lead is plumbum, hence "plumber" and its atomic symbol, Pb.)

The 5-foot-8 winger, usually wearing Number 7, saw his League debut and his England debut both come early in the 1946-47 season. He said his goal on his England debut, in a 7-2 defeat of Northern Ireland in Belfast, was "my proudest day as a footballer." He would play for England in the 1950, 1954 and 1958 World Cups. But his 2 most notable England games were ignominious defeats: To America in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, and to Hungary's Mighty Magyars in Budapest in 1954, 7-1. (He was not selected for the 1953 match against them, when Hungary won 6-3 to become the 1st non-British team to beat England on home soil.) Still, he won 76 caps for England, scoring 30 goals.

But Finney's legend grew, and in 1952, Palermo offered Preston £10,000 to bring him to Sicily. The club turned him down. It was probably for the best: Except for John Charles, British players have tended to spectacularly fail in Italy: Joe Baker, Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne being the most notorious examples.

In 1953, Arsenal just barely edged Preston for the League title. In 1954, Preston reached the FA Cup Final, and Tom played despite not being fully fit. They lost 3-2 to Birmingham-area club West Bromwich Albion. (Preston haven't won the Cup since 1938.) Nevertheless, he was awarded the Football Writers' Association Footballer of the Year. 

In 1956, Preston visited Chelsea, and it poured before kickoff. At one point in the game, Finney beat 2 defenders, and won the ball, raising up a lot of water as he did. A photograph was taken, and named "The Splash." It is one of the iconic images of the game in that period.
"The match would not have been played today," he later said, "because there were huge pools of water on the playing surface. I was going past a defender and the ball ran in to a pool of water. It was a fantastic photograph and it won the Sports Photograph of the Year award."

He was awarded the FWA Footballer of the Year again in 1957, the 1st 2-time winner. Preston finished 3rd that year, and a close 2nd again in 1958. But they never won a trophy as long as Tom Finney was with them.

A persistent groin injury led him to retire in 1960, after 433 League appearances and 187 goals -- all for just 1 club. He was knighted in 1998. In 2004, a sculpture of The Splash, complete with a fountain -- perhaps fitting, giving his plumbing background -- was erected outside Deepdale. By that point, he was the club's honorary president. A new stand at Deepdale, and the street outside it -- Sir Tom Finney Way -- were named for him.
In front of his Splash statue

Tom died this morning at the age of 91. He had long outlived Bill Shankly, who had played on Preston's 1938 Cup winners and also had a new stand at Deepdale named for him, and later managed Liverpool to glory. Shankly had called him "the greatest player ever to play the game." Bobby Charlton of Manchester United, an England teammate at the 1958 World Cup, said, "His contributions to football are immeasurable."
In front of his stand at Deepdale

He didn't play for his club during its greatest era. He just gave it its greatest player, and its greatest personality. Sir Tom Finney was plumb great.

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