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Jim Fregosi, Hawk Harrelson's hire

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The choice to replace Tony La Russa as the White Sox manager in 1986 immediately became an odd fit once Larry Himes took over

Richard Mackson-US PRESSWIRE

Over the last four months of the 2013 season, we tracked 122 different Hawk Harrelson superlatives. Jim Fregosi, who died on Friday at the age of 71, earned one of the longer ones: "Possibly the best baseball person who's not managing a major-league ballclub."

Give Harrelson points for consistency. In 1986, Fregosi wasn't managing a major-league ballclub, and Harrelson, then the White Sox's general manager, remedied that.

Unfortunately, it took the firing of Tony La Russa to free up a post. That move earned a superlative from Jerry Reinsdorf, calling it his biggest mistake in sports.

Harrelson selected Fregosi after the stormy relationship with LaRussa finally cracked. Throughout the first 2½ months, the players stood firmly behind LaRussa and he and Harrelson argued over the Sox's slow start and all the extra coaches Harrelson crammed into the clubhouse. Up until mid-June, the manager and GM basically engaged in a prolonged game of chicken. Harrelson made some concessions, but when neither the team's performance nor their relationship improved, he had to make a call. It came to an end on June 19, 1986, when Harrelson fired La Russa at a Lisle restaurant.

Fregosi, hired three days later, was Harrelson's attempt at midseason mulligan. Harrelson said that he should've hired Fregosi the previous October and let La Russa walk then -- in hindsight, the arrangement was never going to work out, and perhaps by bringing in a new manager, certain factions in the leadership structure wouldn't have existed.

Furthermore, Harrelson erased one of his idiosyncratic rules by allowing Fregosi to hire his own coaches (which La Russa couldn't do), and he said that he wished he could've eliminated one of his other policies. Harrelson said in the Chicago Tribune from Sept. 28, "If I had one thing to do over again, it would have been to change my policy on one-year contracts and add a couple more years to Jimmy's contract."

Fregosi had the enthusiastic support of Harrelson, which gave the manager enough authority to survive a possible mutiny from the La Russa loyalists. Problem was, Harrelson didn't last past the season. In came Larry Himes, and then Fregosi found himself in the same situation as La Russa.

Himes was brought in to bolster the Sox's player development system, which had taken a big step backward under Harrelson hire Alvin Dark. Unlike Harrelson, who thought he was a player or two away from competing, Himes accepted the Sox's fate and went about a complete rebuild, paring down to White Sox payroll to "bare bones." The reduced depth and a string of injuries forced the front office to foist a bunch of young players on Fregosi and let baseball sort it out.

Fregosi wasn't the best guy for that job (ask Kenny Williams: Third Baseman about that), and the philosphical differences created natural tension. However, he did keep the Sox playing hard despite a ton of inexperience and the stadium/relocation questions hanging over the franchise. The 1987 White Sox pulled off a 43-34 second half, which restored a measure of pride to the product and improved Fregosi's negotiating position. Himes could have -- and probably should have -- changed leaders before the 1988 season, but three managers in three seasons just looked unseemly.

Fregosi used his leverage to negotiate a multiyear extension, but he only lasted through one of them. After a 72-90 finish and the Sox no closer to churning through youth, Himes decided to find his own guy. Like La Russa, Fregosi met his end as White Sox manager in a restaurant (Dickens Pub in Sarasota, Fla.).

And like La Russa, his best managing days were still ahead of him. The Phillies came calling midway through the 1991 season, and in 1993, he led one of baseball's craziest rosters to the National League pennant. He couldn't sustain his peak like La Russa did, and he eventually slipped into retread-managerdom. Still, though Harrelson made a mistake by firing La Russa, he didn't compound it with the Fregosi hire. That's about the most anybody could have asked from him by then.


Additional reading

Fregosi was popular with the media for his outspoken personality and accommodating nature, although players didn't appreciate it the same way. In Richard Lindberg's Total White Sox, he writes that Fregosi had a habit of issuing criticisms about a player through other channels besides directly to the player.

Friend to scouts Mark Gonzales writes about Fregosi's reputation as a talent evaluator.

Before he ascended into the managerial ranks, Fregosi was a tremendous shortstop who was on a Hall of Fame track before a foot tumor threw him off.

Saving the best for last, veteran Los Angeles baseball writer Ross Newhan wrote the most heartfelt and entertaining obituary for Fregosi. A sample:

For Fregosi and teammates on those early and often zany Angels there was no pressure to rush from the clubhouse after the game. I would frequently finish my story on deadline and still find Fregosi and Joe Adcock and Lou Burdette and Buck Rodgers talking ball in the clubhouse, joining them for a beer there or at a bar--the House of Serfas at Stocker and LaBrea during the L.A. years or at Adamo's in Anaheim after the move.

One night at Adamo's I introduced him to a girl I was dating, the young Connie Fisher, and the next night at the park Jim pulled me aside and said, "if you're smart and know what you're doing you better marry her."

Connie Fisher and I have been married for 46 years, and that's how good a scout he was even then, long before he spent the last 17 years on special assignments for Atlanta general managers John Schuerholz and Frank Wren.

In fact, Jim would be a groomsman in our wedding, what would undoubtedly be considered crossing a line in the player/writer relationship now but not so much then, and he loved to relate how we had a cocktail party BEFORE the ceremony and how the late columnist, Bud Tucker, assigned to light candles down one side of the temple aisle and a bit tipsy, found the task overwhelming as he (Fregosi) waited patiently on the other side for Bud to catch up.