Jim Fregosi, Braves exec and former All-Star, dead at 71

The word special was right there in his title with the Braves front office, and those who knew Jim Fregosi would say it was appropriate. He was special, as a baseball man and as a man, period.

Fregosi, an All-Star shortstop and pennant-winning manager before becoming a top scout and Braves special assistant, died early Friday in a Miami hospital after suffering multiple strokes four days earlier. He was 71 and known for his gregarious personality and baseball accumen.

“It’s a sad day,” said Braves president John Schuerholz said, who was friends with Fregosi for 45 years, and hired him 13 years ago as a special assistant to the general manager when Schuerholz held that role.

“Just shocking,” said Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, who played for him when Fregosi managed the White Sox. “He’s bigger than life, he really is. I already miss him.”

Fregosi was taken off life support and sedated Thursday at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and died just after 2:30 a.m. Friday with his family by his side. He had been flown to Miami from Grand Cayman on Wednesday, after having strokes Sunday during a major league baseball alumni cruise near the Cayman Islands.

“Just tragic. Devastating,” Braves senior advisor John Hart said. “I’ve known the guy forever. Tremendous friend. Spectacular guy.”

Schuerholz said organizations throughout baseball would mourn the loss of Fregosi, whose infectious personality and unmistakable physical presence were fixtures at ballparks throughout the sport.

“You lose a man like Jim Fregosi, who’s such a dear friend to all of us, and meant so much to so many of us on a personal basis, and also meant so much to this game,” Schuerholz said. “This guy had a personality and such a love for the game of baseball and his life, and the people in his life that he loved and admired, that he filled the room. That’s the best way I can describe this man. He’s a dear friend of mine, and it’s a tough loss.”

After an 18-year playing career that included six All-Star seasons with the Angels, Fregosi managed parts of 15 seasons in the majors and had a 1,028-1,094 record with the Angels, White Sox, Phillies and Blue Jays.

“Just an unbelievable person,” Walker said. “A charismatic person. He was a leader of men. He was a manager that you loved playing for, but he was more of a friend than anything. I was really looking forward to spending time down here with him this spring.

“I thought about different ways of sitting around and using his brain, his knowledge, because he’s a great baseball man. But he’s an even greater person. If you put Jim Fregosi in a room, he was the star in about any room he was in. He’s just that good. People who played for him loved him, and now that he was in this role, I talked to him every chance I’d get to be around him, and try to squeeze as much as I could out of him.”

He guided the Phillies to a 97-65 record and 1993 World Series berth after beating the Braves in the National League Championship Series.

Fregosi’s outsized personality and sense of humor were a perfect fit for that colorful “Macho Row” Philadelphia team that featured catcher Darren Daulton, first baseman John Kruk, center fielder Lenny Dykstra and pitchers Curt Schilling and closer Mitch Williams.

“Jimmy was one of those guys that had such a career that you don’t see anymore, where he was a great player that went right into managing, and then dovetailed into being a phenomenal evaluator,” Hart said. “He was the essence of what you really like an evaluator to be, because he ‘got’ the players, he understand the dynamic of what a staff went through and how you put clubs together, and he brought such a diversity of skills to his jobs. Along with it, obviously everybody that knew him knew of his personality, this big personality of his. Self-deprecating, as talented as he was.

“He’d just light up a room. He was that guy.”

James Luis Fregosi was born April 4, 1942, in San Francisco, and raised in nearby San Mateo, where he was a four-sport high school star in football, basketball, baseball and track. He received multiple college football scholarship offers but opted to sign with the Red Sox for a $20,000 bonus.

After his first full minor league season, Fregosi was selected by Los Angeles Angels with the 31st pick in the 1960 expansion draft, at age 18. He became the Angels’ first star and is still regarded as one of the top players in franchise history.

A six-time All-Star with the Angels, Fregosi in 1967 won a Gold Glove, batted .290, and was seventh in the MVP balloting. Detroit superstar Al Kaline once called him “the best shortstop in baseball.” He had a league-leading 13 triples in 1968 and career-highs of 22 homers and 82 RBIs in 1970 – big power numbers at the time for a middle infielder.

After being slowed by injuries, he played mostly first and third base in the last seven seasons of his career with the Mets, Rangers and Pirates. Fregosi was a Pirates backup in 1978 when he was released at the request of Angels owner Gene Autry, who wanted to fire mild-mannered manager Dave Garcia and replace him with the fiery Fregosi.

That’s what Autry did, turning over a veteran-laden team to a 36-year-old with no coaching or managing experience. Among the players on that Angels squad was Nolan Ryan, who’d been acquired by the Angels in a 1971 trade that sent Fregosi to the Mets in exchange for Ryan and three minor leaguers.

In Fregosi’s first full season as manager in 1979, the Angels won 88 games and the AL West title. His last managerial job was with Toronto in 1999-2000, but he was a finalist for several more managerial openings in subsequent years.

He was hired by the Braves in 2001 and was a top scout whose opinions carried a lot of weight.

“He had such a wealth of knowledge, and was such a positive force,” Braves GM Frank Wren said. “He scouted all 30 teams for us. He had great knowledge of putting teams together, and he was one of those guys that you call and you felt encouraged. You would see him walk into the pressbox, and nobody could hold court like Jim. Nobody could entertain like Jim. And he loved the game. He loved being at the ballpark. He loved every part about it.”

Fregosi is survived by his wife, Joni, and five children: Jim Jr., Jennifer, Nicole, Robert and Lexi. Jim Jr. is a special assistant to Royals general manager Dayton Moore.

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