Jim Fregosi and Nolan Ryan forever linked in Mets history
Judging from the way Jim Fregosi embraced life and his 53 years in professional baseball, he wouldn't have traded a minute of it. That was true even though "trade'' was a sore subject.
Fregosi, who died Friday at 71, was fully aware that many people identified him as the one on the wrong side of the Mets' legendary blunder on Dec. 10, 1971: acquiring him for Nolan Ryan, who went on to become a Hall of Famer and arguably the most dominating pitcher in major league history.
That never prevented Fregosi from winning 1,000 games as a manager, enjoying respect for his All-Star playing career and being a celebrated scout and raconteur. "Celebrated'' is the proper word. He never went long between quips, with the humor often directed in his own direction.
"The only thing he did say was, 'I don't know what the Mets were thinking. I was done when they made that trade.' He would always refer back to that,'' Larry Bowa, a coach on manager Fregosi's staff with the 1993 National League champion Phillies, told reporters at Phillies camp Friday.
Yes, Fregosi acknowledged that he fizzled with the Mets (batting only .233 with five home runs in 1972 and part of 1973) while Ryan went on to set records with seven no-hitters and 5,714 strikeouts. Ross Newhan, the venerable Los Angeles Times writer who covered Fregosi as a teenage phenom and became a close friend, wrote that Fregosi routinely called the trade "my biggest contribution in Anaheim.''
Fregosi had slipped in his final year with the Angels, batting .233 with five homers there, too. But the Mets still thought he could bolster their offense, so they acquired the six-time All-Star and former Gold Glove shortstop to be their third baseman. People who were around at the time say the Angels had been more interested in Gary Gentry, a pitcher more accomplished and less erratic than Ryan.
It was Fregosi's bad luck that the Angels "settled'' for a Texan who admittedly never was comfortable in New York. Who knows if Ryan would have flourished had he stayed with the Mets? Fact is, Fregosi sure didn't. He suffered a broken thumb during one of Gil Hodges' infield drills in spring training and never got untracked.
For years, Mets fans saw the deal as a double curse. While Ryan was prolific with no-hitters, no Mets pitcher threw one until Johan Santana broke through in 2012. And Fregosi's term fueled a spell in which third base was the team's chronically (almost comically) unstable position.
He took it all in stride. He had some productive years with the Rangers, who purchased him from the Mets in July 1973. He had his No. 11 retired by the Angels, whom he managed into the postseason for the first time in 1979. His ace pitcher? Nolan Ryan. Fregosi ultimately was fired two years after the Angels let Ryan go through free agency.
That didn't prove daunting, nor did the heartache of losing the World Series, with the Phillies, to the Blue Jays on Joe Carter's home run.
Fregosi eventually managed the Blue Jays, too. They were at Shea Stadium for an interleague game in 1999 when Benny Agbayani was injured as a ball caromed off the batting cage rim and hit him in the face.
Fregosi said of that cage, "It's the same one they had when I played here, in 1921.''
It seemed that long ago to Fregosi, a man able to put a bad memory way, way behind him.