By John Perrotto
My wife and nephew had attended the All-Star Fanfest at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh earlier in the day in July 2006, and I asked if they'd had a good time.
"It was fun," my wife responded. "Some guy kissed me, some guy who used to play ball and was a manager."
She did not grow up as a baseball fan and has little knowledge of former players. Thus, she did not know the name of this kissing bandit. However, she was able to produce an autographed picture of this would-be Romeo and all I could do was burst into laughter rather than be upset about someone possibly trying to hit on my wife.
The man in the picture was Jim Fregosi.
It's safe to say that not many people in baseball had more fun than Fregosi. He was the perpetual life of the party with his larger-than-life personality and a booming laugh that filled the room. He always had a gleam in his eye and a funny comment to make.
Fregosi died on Friday at 71 in Miami following complication from a stroke he suffered six days earlier while on a baseball alumni cruise.
The news was sobering for Fregosi's multitude of friends in the game because he was seemingly in fine health as he was set to embark on his 14th season in the Atlanta Braves organization as a special assistant to the general manager and 54th in professional baseball. In December, he was his normal jovial self at the Winter Meetings in Orlando as he held court in the lobby of the Swan Hotel and Resort at Walt Disney World. It figured Fregosi, who lived in Tarpon Springs, Fla., would be doing the same later this month in lunch rooms in ballparks around the Tampa/St. Petersburg area while scouting Grapefruit League games.
It was little wonder so many of the tributes from around baseball Friday made mention of Fregosi's personality.
"He lit up a room and had just great relationships throughout the game," Braves GM Frank Wren said.
"He'll be remembered for his vibrant personality, wisdom and love of the game," Philadelphia Phillies president David Montgomery said.
"His personality was infectious, his love of the game legendary, and his knowledge endless," the Los Angeles Angels said in a statement.
Fregosi even made those who didn't necessarily have a great relationship with him think they did. As he once said about a player he managed -- his name has been omitted to protect the innocent -- "You know why he's a good player? Because he doesn't know I hate him."
It was impossible to hate someone as cheerful and upbeat as Fregosi, though. It was no wonder Fregosi always had such a positive demeanor because he might have had the most wonderful life this side of George Bailey.
He was a four-sport star at Serra High School in his native San Francisco, winning a combined 11 letters in baseball, football, basketball and track. The Boston Red Sox signed Fregosi to a $20,000 contract -- then a huge figure for an amateur player -- following his senior year in 1960. Fregosi's career took a wild turn that winter when the Angels selected him in baseball's first-ever expansion draft, even though he had played at the Class D level in his lone season in the Red Sox's organization.
Fregosi played 11 games with the Angels late in the 1961 season and that began an 18-year career in the major leagues that included stints with the New York Mets -- he was dealt for Nolan Ryan and three minor-leaguers in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history -- Texas Rangers and Pittsburgh Pirates. Fregosi's best days came during his 11-season run with the Angels that ended in 1971 as he was selected to play in six All-Star Games. They retired his No. 11 in 1981.
There was plenty of media speculation following the '71 season that Angels owner Gene Autry would appoint Fregosi as player-manager. Instead, the Angels traded him to the Mets, where Fregosi's career went downhill because of a benign tumor in his foot. He went from the first face of the Angels' franchise to the answer of a trivia question as the player traded for Ryan.
However, Fregosi's career had a second act that began early in the 1978 season when he was playing for Pittsburgh. Autry called the Pirates and asked if they would release Fregosi from his contract so the Angels could hire him to replace Dave Garcia as manager. The Pirates agreed and Fregosi was making out the lineup card two days later.
Fregosi would end up managing in the major leagues for 15 seasons, also skippering the Chicago White Sox, Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays. While he was admittedly too demanding on his players during his time with the Angels and White Sox, Fregosi mellowed and became the perfect manager for a 1993 Phillies team that won the National League pennant before losing to the Blue Jays in the World Series. It was the only time Fregosi reached the Fall Classic as a player or a manager. Like their skipper, those '93 Phillies had plenty of outsized personalities on their roster with players like Lenny Dykstra, Darren Daulton, Curt Schilling, Mitch Williams and John Kruk, but Fregosi made it work.
"The word that defines him best is trust," said Williams, then an erratic nicknamed "Wild Thing" and now an analyst for MLB Network. "He trusted everyone to do their jobs. I was a manager's nightmare, but Jim trusted that I would get the job done. He made all his players better because his trust gave us confidence. He would hand me the ball in the ninth and go up the tunnel and smoke and say 'let me know when it's over.' He trusted me."
Fregosi was fired by the Blue Jays following the 2000 season despite leading them to winning records in both years on the job. He never managed again, though he continued to yearn for another chance until he was on his death bed.
Fregosi became a very trusted scout and adviser, first for the San Francisco Giants and then with the Braves. In 2010, he received the prestigious George Genovese Lifetime Achievement Award in Scouting from the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation.
"Jim played a vital role in our club over the last 13 years," Wren said. "As a senior adviser he was someone you could always pick up the phone and get a feel for the players in the game. He covered all 30 teams for us and was such a positive, knowledgeable resource. When I first became GM, one of the things that made the transition so easy was having Jim as close as a phone call for advice and help or encouragement."
Fregosi is survived by his wife, Joni, and five children, the oldest of whom, Jim Fregosi, Jr., followed in his father's footsteps and is a special adviser to Kansas City Royals GM Dayton Moore.
"I loved Jimmy and Joni," Williams said. "They both lived to be happy. I can't express the sorrow I feel for Joni, and Jimmy's five kids. He was like a father to me, and I was just a player. I can only imagine the kind of father he was to his own kids. He was just a wonderful man."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.