Rozner: Jim Frey's Cubs legacy looms large

When I saw Jim Frey at the Hall of Fame in 2005, for the first time in more than a decade, he pointed his finger at me and laughed.

Well, at least he was laughing.

Invited to Cooperstown by Ryne Sandberg, he uttered the same words then that he had in October 1991 when he was relieved of his duties as general manager of the Cubs.

“Congratulations,” Frey said. “You got us all fired.”

Hardly my intention, Frey had long since absolved me of blame.

We had the conversation again in 2014 when his friend of 70 years, Don Zimmer, died, but last summer when we spoke it was mostly about golf, and how he continued to push his bag down the fairway, how he loved being outside on a weekend morning with his friends.

It would be his last summer of golf. Jim Frey died Sunday at the age of 88, another baseball lifer who accomplished so much.

A terrific player himself — winning two batting titles in the minors — Frey and Zimmer became teammates in Knothole Baseball when they were 13 years old in Cincinnati.

Only Zimmer would reach the majors as a player, and later become Frey's third base coach when the Cubs won their first title of any kind in 39 years in 1984. As GM of the Cubs, Frey hired Zimmer to manage the club, the pair again winning a division title with “The Boys of Zimmer” in 1989.

Both would say it was their greatest year ever in baseball.

“We did everything together, even started dating our wives at the same time, and still married to the same girls,” Frey said in 2014. “We worked well together because we were friends. Also, I had been a manager and as GM I never told (Zimmer) what to do as manager.”

Among so many other baseball jobs over so many decades, Frey had been a hitting instructor in the Orioles' system for 10 years, was the Mets' batting coach for two seasons, won a pennant as manager of the 1980 Royals and a division as manager of the 1984 Cubs, spending a year in the Cubs' radio booth after being fired, before being named the Cubs' general manager.

And in 1991, I was sitting with Zimmer in Houston when I asked him about his contract situation, since he was in his final year. That wasn't unusual or a big deal in those days.

It was early May and Zimmer wasn't worried about 1992.

However, when I asked Cubs president Don Grenesko about it, he said Zimmer would be evaluated at season's end, just as would all in the organization.

Zimmer read that story, bristled at seeing the quote, marched up the stairs at Wrigley Field to Grenesko's office, threw the Daily Herald on Grenesko's desk and told the team president that if Grenesko didn't give him a “yes” or “no” by June 1, he would manage the rest of the 1991 season, but would not return in 1992 regardless of Grenesko's decision.

For many days and nights, Frey begged Zimmer to reconsider. He would not. Grenesko ordered Frey to fire Zimmer 10 days later in New York.

“The Tribune Co. told me if I didn't fire him, they would fire him,” Frey said in 2014. “They told me the same thing the year before, but this time I couldn't talk them out of it. Bad day for me, bad day for him, bad day for the Cubs.”

I was merely doing my job, but nevertheless stunned by the results. After the 1991 season disintegrated due to injuries and oddities, Grenesko, Frey and Zimmer replacement Jim Essian were all fired.

For years, Zimmer would begin every conversation with, “Thanks for getting me fired,” but he would ultimately insist that it was inevitable because of the Tribune Co.'s corporate culture that could never embrace Zimmer's style.

“We had so much fun working together, and winning together with the Cubs,” Frey said in 2014, breaking down in tears. “Don, to me, was a unique guy. His life was all baseball. He loved the game and he wanted it played a certain way. He had great respect for how things should be done in baseball.

“He lived his life the way he wanted to live it. I was privileged to have spent so much of my life with him.”

Those of us who worked or lived with Frey would pay the same tribute to him.

He was good at every job he had, though as a hitting coach he had few peers, and it was in spring training of 1984 that he changed the life — and career trajectory — of a kid named Ryne Sandberg.

It was his first year as manager of the Cubs and as Frey watched Sandberg hit each day, he began to ask questions.

During a heated card game with Zimmer, pitching coach Billy Connors and spring training coordinator Jimmy Snyder at the Mezona Hotel in Mesa, Frey asked Snyder why Sandberg never pulled the ball.

Snyder insisted Sandberg was an opposite-field hitter who would never hit for power. Frey disagreed. The conversation got loud. A few days later after another groundout during a spring training game, Frey stopped Sandberg as he came off the field.

“Jimmy said, 'Wouldn't you like to hit a ball out of the park once in a while and jog around the bases?' He thought it might be a little easier and I might have more fun,” Sandberg laughed Tuesday morning. “I had good speed and I had been taught to keep the ball on the ground.”

Very early the next morning in a batting cage beyond the right-field fence, the man who had mentored George Brett in Kansas City and Darryl Strawberry in New York taught Ryne Sandberg to turn on an inside pitch and hit for power.

“He wanted me to open up and try to pull every ball foul, like 40 feet foul. That's kind of how it started,” Sandberg remembers. “The first day I tried it in a game I hit a home run. When I got off the field he hugged me.

“From there, I would look into the dugout and he would give me the nod when the count was right. On 3-1 or 3-0, I used to take that pitch to try to get a walk. Now, I was trying to hit it hard to left.”

Hard sinkers and fastballs that Sandberg could never reach inside were now getting hammered down the line, into the gap or over the fence.

The rest is the stuff of legend.

The Cubs won the East in 1984, Frey was Manager of the Year, Sandberg an all-star and MVP. A Hall of Fame career was really just beginning, and that plaque in Cooperstown a direct result of one early morning hitting session at HoHoKam Park.

“He knew something I didn't,” Sandberg said of Frey. “There are a lot of people that help you along the way. Hundreds of teammates and coaches help you. But Jim Frey changed me as a hitter and he changed my career. He changed my life.”

For a journalist, Frey was as good as they come. He did not play favorites or leak stories. He gave honest answers. He answered the phone. If you had a story, he would not give it to another writer. He did not want or expect favors, only to be treated fairly and with respect.

In that regard, he was strictly old-school.

But when it came to his family, he was a teddy bear. The Jim Frey I knew could hardly talk about how much he cared for Joan — his wife of 68 years — his four children, six grandchildren and five great grandchildren, without breaking down.

Jim Frey did so much for the Cubs and for Chicago. Like his pal Zimmer, he is now gone — and we have lost another good man.

Cubs manager Jim Frey lets umpire John Kibler have it in the first inning of the July 24, 1984, game in Philadelphia. Associated Press
Jim Frey was appointed the Cubs' director of baseball operations Nov. 11, 1987. He replaced Dallas Green. Associated Press
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