If you think Jim Fregosi feels sort of embarrassed about managing in the minor leagues, then you don't understand what's been happening in Louisville. Last year the newly relocated Redbirds drew 868,418 fans, easily a minor league record, while finishing second in the Class AAA American Association Eastern Division. This summer they're far ahead of that pace both in the stands and the standings. At week's end the Redbirds were first by 6½ games, and owner A. Ray Smith's prediction of a million customers looked as good as a 1-to-5 favorite at nearby Churchill Downs.
No wonder Fregosi, 41, the former division-winning manager and All-Star shortstop of the California Angels, says, "I'm having one of the most enjoyable years I've ever had in baseball." Oh, sure, he would like another crack at the majors, and chances are he'll get it. Now, though, Fregosi is delighted to be managing the top farm of the world-champion St. Louis Cardinals.
The only thing small about the Redbirds is their mascot, Doyle Harris, a 4'2" midget who endeared himself to Fregosi during a late-inning brawl against Oklahoma City on June 4. Asked if he had hit anybody, Harris said, "No—but if they'd had a midget, I'd have kicked his butt."
This is typical of the sassy attitude that prevails in Cardinal Stadium. It's almost as if the Redbirds and their fans don't really understand that Louisville is minor league—and wasn't even that from 1973 until last year. A favorite pastime in Louisville, where the season's top crowd is last Sunday's 31,272 and the average is 14,589, has been checking the box scores to compare attendance figures with the big league parks. Indeed, the Redbirds are averaging more fans per game than four major league teams this year. "To me, this isn't minor league baseball," says Fregosi. "If the right big league opportunity came along, I'd take it—but it would have to be an awful good opportunity."
The current Louisville team includes eight players who have been with the Cardinals for at least a cup of coffee, while the 25-man St. Louis roster has nine who have played in Louisville. Already this season three Redbirds have been called up to St. Louis, and one—Outfielder Andy Van Slyke—is thought to be destined for stardom.
Louisville was a charter member of the National League in 1876 (dropping out after two seasons) and had professional baseball off and on until 1972, when public interest lapsed so badly that the Boston Red Sox moved their Class AAA team, the Colonels, to Pawtucket, R.I. The loss wasn't mourned because a lot of Louisvillians were driving 100 miles to see the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati.
The catalyst of baseball's return was Dan Ulmer, president of the Citizens Fidelity Bank and a lifelong Cardinal fan. He talked Smith into moving his Redbirds in from Springfield, Ill. and led a fund-raising drive that generated $4.5 million to renovate the stadium at the Kentucky state fairgrounds.
The stadium has had as much to do with the Redbirds' success as Smith's prices (a family of four can park the car, see the game and have a hot dog and soda apiece for $13). Indeed, it combines the old-fashioned coziness of, say, Wrigley Field with such modern features as new plastic reserved seats, artificial turf, a bright concourse with 15 concession stands, a lively beer garden built around a gazebo, and a posh Stadium Club for VIPs.
Fregosi was Smith's initial choice to manage the team in Louisville, but the offer came too soon after California owner Gene Autry had shot him out of the Angels' saddle in 1981. Fregosi used the time out of baseball to think, evaluate, analyze, get back in touch with his family and his feelings. So, last summer the Redbirds broke the attendance record without much p.r. help from last year's manager, Joe Frazier, a former manager of the New York Mets (1976-77). He was a solid baseball man, but no great communicator with either the fans or the players.
When Frazier didn't show a lot of enthusiasm about coming back. Smith turned to his original choice, Fregosi, who was ready to get back into the game—but not so ready that he would jump at anything. Before taking Smith's offer, he interviewed for a couple of big league managerial jobs ("Either they didn't want me or I didn't want them," he says) and flatly turned down chances to be a big league coach.
Fregosi gives his Louisville players the freedom to swing away and run almost at will, with the result that the Redbirds have been a high-scoring team built around the bats of outfielders Gene Roof and Tito Landrum, who both began the season in St. Louis, and such promising young players as Catcher Tom Nieto, Outfielder Jim Adduci and Shortstop Jose Gonzalez. The pitching has been only adequate, but Fregosi expects improvement from former Cardinals Eric Rasmussen and Andy Rincon (now on the disabled list), and young fireballer Todd Worrell, who Fregosi says has the best arm he's seen since he managed Nolan Ryan.
To a man, the players seem delighted with Fregosi and his firm belief in playing hard, both on and off the field. When he got a look at the new beer garden on the stadium's lively concourse, Fregosi cracked, "I might have to arrange to get kicked out just so I can come up here and drink beer." Instead, when he was first ejected, he went to the Stadium Club for a nightcap, as is his wont, and got a standing ovation led by owner Smith.
Both Fregosi and some of his players will make the majors before Louisville will, the attendance numbers notwithstanding. The economics at the big league level are so different as to be almost prohibitive for a city of Louisville's size (just under one million in the metropolitan area). If Smith had to meet a big league payroll, he couldn't afford to charge the low prices—the best seat in the house is $3.50—that help make the Redbirds so attractive.
Even so, the Republican candidate for governor, a state legislator named Jim Bunning (yes, the Jim Bunning), has talked about trying to get a big league expansion franchise for Louisville. And Smith has orchestrated the renewal of the Little World Series, to be played in Louisville in September among the champions of the three Class AAA leagues—American Association, International League and Pacific Coast League. It should be another crowd pleaser, especially if Fregosi prods the home team into it.