P.J.R.: Fregosi will remain an unforgettable baseball man
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The Los Angeles Angels were a long-standing Pacific Coast League team that played in the L.A. version of Wrigley Field. You still can see the old yard occasionally when the "Home Run Derby'' series from 1960 shows up on a cable network.
Walter O'Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, bought the PCL franchise and the ballpark from Phil Wrigley before the 1957 season for $3 million. It became official what Walter was up to May 28, 1957, when it was announced that National League owners had approved a move of the Dodgers to Los Angeles and the New York Giants to San Francisco.
The Angels' nickname and Wrigley Field went dormant as a home to professional baseball, with O'Malley choosing to have the Dodgers fit baseball into the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum while his new stadium was being completed at Chavez Ravine.
By 1960, Calvin Griffith and his family were going broke as the owners of the Washington Senators. He wanted to move to Minnesota. Major league baseball feared vacating Washington for political reasons.
Griffith was allowed to move his team to Minnesota. And the new Senators in Washington and a franchise in Los Angeles became the ninth and 10th teams in the American League for 1961.
Owner Gene Autry bought the Angels' nickname from O'Malley and announced the intention to play the first expansion season in Wrigley Field. When Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, the Angels spent four seasons playing there before moving to a new ballpark in Anaheim in 1966.
On Dec. 14, 1960, the expansion draft was held, with only AL teams involved. The Angels used their 35th pick on Jim Fregosi, an 18-year-old shortstop who had played one season for the Alpine [Tex.] Cowboys in the Class D Sophomore League.
Fregosi was in the big leagues nine months later, making a mid-September debut in 1961 as a 19-year-old. In 1962, both the second-year Angels and the Twins were surprise contenders in the 10-team AL. The pursuit of the Yankees was futile, of course, as the Twins finished five games back in second (91-71), and the Angels 10 games back in third (86-76).
The Angels had called up the 20-year-old Fregosi in early July, sent him back for a couple of weeks, and then called back this hot prospect and put him at shortstop for the stretch run.
"That rookie season was the time of my life,'' Fregosi said.
Fregosi became a favorite of Angels fans and of Autry. He was a six-time All-Star. Even when he left, Fregosi rewarded the Angels. The trade that sent him to the Mets on Dec. 10, 1971 brought four players in return, including pitcher Nolan Ryan.
He was a bench player and contributing little for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1978. Dave Garcia was on the ropes as the Angels' manager and it was made known to Fregosi that Autry wanted him. The Pirates released Fregosi on June 1 and he soon became the 36-year-old manager of the Angels.
Fregosi led an expensive Angels team to the AL West title with an 88-74 record in 1979. The Orioles, with a team that won 102 games, beat the Angels 3-1 in the ALCS.
I don't know why this should have surprised a newly-minted, five-days-a-week sports columnist for the afternoon St. Paul Dispatch, but apparently it did so. I wrote something very disparaging about Fregosi's work as manager in that series.
My friend Tracy Ringolsby was covering the Angels for the Long Beach newspapers. Long Beach was a brethren of St. Paul in the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. Ringolsby saw my slander of Fregosi on the Knight-Ridder wire. Agitator that he is, Ringolsby showed a copy to Fregosi.
The Twins opened the 1980 season with a 12-game road trip to the West Coast. The home opener was April 22 vs. the Angels.
Ringolsby called before the Angels' arrival and said, "Fregosi wants you to join us for dinner.''
I said: "You ratted me out, didn't you? I think I'll pass.''
"The Cowboy [Autry] will be getting the bill,'' Ringolsby said.
"Where?'' I asked.
"Charlie's,'' Ringolsby said.
"Charlie's? I'm in,'' I said.
I showed up at Charlie's Cafe Exceptionale in downtown Minneapolis. Ringolsby, the other Angels' beat writers and Fregosi's coaches were in attendance. I tried to take a seat at the far end of the table.
"Oh, no, we have a spot for you right up here,'' said Fregosi, sitting at the head of the table with an open chair at his left.
The whiskey and the wine flowed, and Charlie's staff kept delivering the exceptional fare. There were stories and laughs and what had to be an enormous check was handed to Fregosi.
Finally, I looked at Fregosi and said, "OK, when are you going to tell me I'm an a--h---?''
"Right now,'' Fregosi said, and he laid into me for a couple of minutes that were both profane and hilarous, and after that, I considered Jim Fregosi to be a friend for life.
He died on Thursday at 71, after suffering a stroke on a cruise.
I remembered the night at Charlie's, the joy of covering Fregosi and his dead-end collection of Phillies through the '93 postseason, the conversations of insight and agitations when he would show up in Minnesota as a super scout for the Braves, and I was able to smile through the sadness.
--PATRICK JAMES REUSSE.