Saturday, February 15, 2014

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

As I sit here, writing up scouting reports for the Top-50 Angels Prospects, I know I’m getting old. When I type in their birthdates, and realize I know exactly where I was in high school or college on the day they were born. While I was taking some test, or on a date with some girl, they were just coming into this world.

In my time, I have seen a lot of Angels play over the years. Thousands really, when you add in the Minor Leaguers. To be honest, sometimes the names or faces do blur a little bit.

But I’m not so old as to be able to say I’ve seen every Angel play. I was born in 1972, and my first game was either 1975 or 1976 (there’s some debate in the family about it). I never got to see Jim Fregosi play. I’m not so young, though, that I don’t know about him and what he meant to this franchise, especially in its early days.

Although I never saw him on the field, I did get to meet him off the field. My time with him came last year in early May. On a Thursday night, my step-dad and I went to an Angels game. We only have 2 seats, on the aisle. Usually, sitting next to us are scouts from other organizations.

Sitting next to scouts can be quite fun or can be quite tedious depending how buried they are in their work. They take up a lot of space with all of their gear such as radar guns, charts, and assorted items. But, it can be quite educational about the game. Most are friendly, and over the years I’ve gotten to know quite a few. Usually they are a bit coy about their playing careers, and it’s always fun trying to figure it out based on their clues.

When my step-dad and I arrived at our seats that Thursday night, we saw that there were two scouts already next to us. My step-dad took the aisle and I sat in-between him and the scouts figuring I’d get a chance to learn something new about the game. I can always learn from scouts.

Right off the bat, I could tell that there was something different about the scout sitting immediately to my left. I’d never seen him before, but he seemed to know everyone at the stadium. And, they all seemed to know him. Old-time fans, long-time ushers, they all were yelling out to him during the game and he was yelling out back to them. He was holding court.

He didn’t take many notes, like the other scout did. I asked him where his clipboard was to record the action and he said “I’ve got all the notes I need up here” while pointing to his head.

Because everyone seemed to know him, I asked him “Did you play for the Angels before becoming a scout?”

He said “Yes.”

I asked him “Would I have heard of you as a player?”

He said “Probably not.”

I then said “What position did you play?”

“That’s too easy. It might give it away.”

“What years did you play?”

“Lots of them.”

“What was your number?”

“Again, too easy.”

Clearly, he wanted to make this a challenge so I said “Would Clyde Wright have told me a story or two about you?”

“I sure hope so!”

As I sat there trying to figure what to ask next, the Angels gave up a couple of runs on some really sloppy play. He cringed at the way the Angels were playing. I asked him how he would handle play like that if he were the manager.

He said “I’ve been the manager. It’s not that easy of a job.”

At that point I put it all together and said “You’re Mr. Fregosi!”

“Please, call me Jim.”

From that point on, I kept asking him questions about the teams he played on, the teams he managed and the Angels greats. There’s just something about the old-timers that makes their stories so much better. The subject matter, the storylines, the timing are all much better from old-timers than from today’s players. If you ever get a chance to listen to them spin some yarns, pull up a chair and do so. You’ll learn a lot and wonder where the time went.

Jim had a very self-deprecating sense of humor. But I soon learned that it was truly based on a sense of humility because he soon started asking my step-dad and me about what we did for a living. When I told him that I was a teacher and my step-dad had been a professor and dean of a medical school, he started asking us questions about our jobs. He said that what he on the field did wasn’t much compared to teaching people and healing people. He had a real admiration for us.

For the rest of the game,  it became a bit of tit-for-tat, in which he would ask us for a story about teaching kids and we would ask him for a story about baseball. We had a good time swapping stories and it made an otherwise horrible loss more interesting.

At the end of the game, I told Jim, I would be back on the Sunday game with my son, who also played shortstop and would love to introduce them. He asked me my son’s name, and said he’d look forward to it.

That Sunday, I brought my son to the game. Already sitting in the seat was Jim Fregosi. I put my son in between us and Jim greeted my son by name saying “Michael, are you the one who likes to play shortstop?” My son grinned and got bashful.

I told my son “This is Mr. Fregosi, the Angels greatest shortstop.”

“Please, call me Jim.”

I am a stickler on manners for my sons, so I had him call him Mr. Fregosi.

My son asked him “Are you really an Angels shortstop?”

Jim played with him for a bit “Well not now . . . “ Then he pointed up to the #11 out in right field and said “that’s me.”

Throughout the game, Jim told my son some tips about playing shortstop. He would point out good things that either team’s shortstops were doing. He’d ask my son where the play was and where the easy outs were. Jim pointed out things that the batters were doing. He seemed to enjoy sharing the way the game should be played with my son, and my son loved learning from a legend. It made the game special. 

As an organization, the Angels are over 50 now. That means that the original players are in their 70s at the very least. It’s sad to think that from now on, many of them will be leaving us. When they go, the history of the franchise goes with them.

As fans, we are very lucky to have Rob Goldman writing about the history of the team. He did a masterful job in his book “Once They Were Angels.” Whether you are a new Angels fan or a veteran, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of that book and read about the history of the team.

In thinking of Jim’s passing, I have a sense of tragedy. I know all about today’s stats and video services and technological advances in the game. But, I still believe that there is a lot more to baseball than what can be recorded by numbers and machines. They can’t tell you about the character of a player or how he’d react under the pressure of a playoff run. Only a scout can do that.

Players during Fregosi’s era were undoubtedly underpaid. Before free agency, they didn’t make anywhere near what they should have made. I’ve talked with enough of them to know about the struggles of playing for a contract every year and the difficulties of their negotiations. So many of those players had to stick around the game as scouts, coaches, and managers because they needed the money as much as they loved the game. But, by doing so, they preserved the wisdom and knowledge of the game was so complete that they could keep notes, like Fregosi, in their head.

Today’s players, by comparison are so well paid that most of them do not need to stick with the game after they retire. When they leave the game, the knowledge they learned over the years will mostly go with them. There’s no doubt that it will change the nature of baseball as we move into the next generation of baseball.

The passing of Jim Fregosi marks the beginning of a new era in Angels baseball. While our greatest days are still in front of us, from now on, we will be forced to look backward as our former great players leave us. 

I’ve heard from many that Jim Fregosi was one of Gene Autry’s favorite players. I met the cowboy on several occasions. I have a feeling that when Jim gets up to heaven, Gene will be waiting for him saying “We got a spot on our field waiting right here for you.”

Love to hear what you think!
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