The best advice on parenting I ever received came from Jim Fregosi, the baseball lifer who died on Friday at age 71. This was in March 1994, about five months after the Philadelphia Phillies, the team he managed, had lost the World Series in six games to the Toronto Blue Jays. He was in his spring training office, a glorified closet in Clearwater, Fla. It was about seven in the morning. He was smoking and drinking black coffee and wearing a T-shirt, underwear that could maybe pass as bicycle shorts, rubber shower sandals and not much else. He had the hair of a movie star, thick, straight, with some gray, combed straight back but with no apparent effort. His eyes were electric. This guy had some presence. He was comically profane.
Before I get to the advice, a preamble. I was a sportswriter on the Philadelphia Inquirer then, and I was there to write up the manager for some sort of special preseason section. I had been around him, but never one-on-one. He'd seen a thousand writers in his day. This was nothing special, not for him. Still, the first thing he did was establish a certain bond between writer and subject, and a pecking order, too.
"You know, when I was breaking in, the players all had roommates," he said. That was in the early 1960s. Billy Martin and Mickey Mantle were famous roommates in that era. I'm going to clean up this next part. "But the writers, they had their own rooms. So if you wanted to be alone with a girl, you'd knock on the guy's door and say, 'Scribey, I need your room for an hour,' and the writer would leave and you'd go in and when you were done he'd get his room back." You see, the writers and the ballplayers were on the same page then. And this was the unspoken part: As you and I are now. Creating intimacy is a gift, and that's what he did with his players. That's why they all said he was a "player's manager." He was.
He was easy to talk to. He loved to talk baseball and he loved baseball clubhouses. One season with the Phillies, or maybe more, he lived at the Holiday Inn that stood on the edge of a Veterans Stadium parking lot. For Fregosi, the closer to work, the better. He was filling it up for me, and in the back of my mind, I'm thinking there's something I'd like to tell him, but of course I won't.
This was the thing: In 1973, my brother, who was 16 then, and I, at 12, skipped school on Opening Day, took the No. 7 train to Shea and watched the Phillies and the Mets. A guy in a trench coat named Steve Cady was reporting a story about truants at the ballpark, and in the next day's New York Times, under the headline SEAVER-CARLTON BETTER THAN GRANT AND LEE, David and I were quoted jointly: "Fregosi will never be a third baseman." The quote had to be David's, but Cady kindly included me. I already had the newspaper bug, but this episode sealed the deal. The point is, Fregosi had already shaped my life, and the parenting advice was still to come.
"Let's say I send up John Kruk to bunt in the eighth, no outs, tie game, and I want him to advance the runners," Fregosi said. "He strikes out. Is that his fault or mine?"
"Because he's a major leaguer and he should know how to lay down a bunt?"
"No. It's my fault," Fregosi said. "Because he's proven that he can't bunt. We've tried to teach him in spring training, but he can't bunt. He stands too far off the plate, whatever. John Kruk can't bunt. So what I've done here is put him in a position where he cannot succeed. And my job as manager is to put my players in positions where they can succeed."
Our first child was 15 months old at the time and our second was on the way, and the moment Fregosi said that, off went the bulb: That's how you raise kids. You try to put them in situations where they can be successful. School, sports, vacations, jobs around the house, whatever: Put them in places where they can at least make contact. Adult life will give you enough failure. Childhood will give you enough failure. If you have any drive at all, you're going to experience failure all on your own. But a parent-manager asking the child who likes to bunt to bunt? That could only be a good thing. Now they're in college, but for years there I thought about Fregosi almost every day, sitting there in Clearwater in his shorts, holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee, dispensing his genius. He was a player's manager, all right.