Making Cubs into champs a bridge too far for manager, GM Jim Frey

By George Castle, CBM Historian
April 15, 2020

Jim Frey

Jim Frey

Jim Frey’s reputation for bluntness (sometimes to a fault) preceded him as Cubs manager. And it was enhanced to the last day he worked at Wrigley Field.

The man now locked into historic honors as the first manager to take the post-1945 Cubs to the playoffs – 39 endless years later — recalled the Stadium Club press conference that introduced Larry Himes, Frey’s successor as general manager, and ending his third and final Cubs job. And his play-by-play revealed the byzantine nature of Tribune Co. politics — “very secretive…a CIA mentality” was his description — from which Frey was extricating himself.

“(Then-Cubs chairman Stan) Cook said to (team president Don) Grenesko,’ Don’t let Frey talk today. Don’t let Frey grab that microphone,’” Frey recalled in 2004. The suits really feared Frey might reveal some of the inner machinations that weighed down the Cubs for too long.

“Despite that, I grabbed the mike. I thanked everyone for eight great years. (Cook and Grenesko) were greatly relieved.”

I can second Frey’s notion. One day Grenesko saw me in the upstairs press box lunchroom and proclaimed me “Inspector Clouseau.” The corporate crowd did not like any undue attention. No problem. I outlasted Grenesko by 20 years at Wrigley Field.

Peeking at the men behind the Cubs’ curtains was not a theme in the initial wave of broadcast and published obituaries for Frey, who died the other day at 88. The narratives rightfully focused on Frey, nicknamed “Preacher Man” by some of his players, leading the Cubs out of the wilderness to a surprise 1984 National League East title and falling one game short of a clash-of-the-titans World Series against the Detroit Tigers. His true calling being a savvy hitting coach, Frey’s counseling of Ryne Sandberg to evolve from a slap hitter to pulling the ball with power in run-producing situations also got proper credit. Later, as the 1989 NL East champion Cubs’ GM, he ranked as the only man in team history to serve as a manager and top exec for a pair of first-place teams.

However, when the history of the Cubs is written at some future date, beyond the Twilight Zone-style coronavirus pandemic in which we’re caught, Frey’s name will be entered at the next level below that of Phil Wrigley and John Holland. The latter two gents rank one-two as the top characters needlessly delaying a resource-rich franchise’s possession of a World Series title for a sports-record 108 years.

Frey was the public face and line manager of some of the cloak-and-dagger Trib stuff that held back the Cubs after the media company’s 1981 purchase of the team from Bill Wrigley got mostly accolades. I picked up on some of the politics during Frey’s GM tenure, and filled in plenty of the blanks in the decades to follow. The judgment long-term of Frey was as a good baseball man playing out of his league, through no fault of his own.

Coming to the Cubs as GM Dallas Green’s second full-time manager in 1984, Frey had no Chicago background. He was part of the mass of workaday coaches and scouts who populated every organization, not enjoying the limelight. The Cincinnati native and boyhood chum of Don Zimmer had been a good minor-league hitter who used those skills to earn a living as a longtime Baltimore Orioles hitting coach.

Bringing him to Green’s attention was Frey’s first managing job, pushing the Kansas City Royals to their first-ever World Series in 1980 after Whitey Herzog had fallen short three consecutive years with consecutive American League Championship Series setbacks to the New York Yankees. Green had piloted the Philadelphia Phillies to a six-game triumph over the Royals, so he no doubt had his opposing manager scoped out to a degree.

Intrigued about Frey, who had served the 1982 and 1983 seasons as New York Mets’ hitting coach, Green sent trusted lieutenant Bob Ibach, then Cubs media relations director, on a scouting mission to Frey’s adopted city in Baltimore. Green figured Ibach, now a sports publicist in Huntley, Ill., had a head start on profiling Frey, having covered the Orioles as a Baltimore Evening Sun sportswriter during Earl Weaver’s managerial heyday.

Taking Frey’s measure over crab legs

Ibach and Frey along with their wives met at a seafood restaurant. Vera Ibach polished off two lobster tails to the astonishment of the server while her husband took another measure of Frey. Bob Ibach reported back positively to Green that Frey was a “feisty little guy” who reminded him of Weaver in many ways. Ibach said Frey had a “little man’s syndrome” that long-term did not always serve him well in assorted gigs.

Frey jumped aboard the Cubs just as the team caught lightning in a bottle. Green’s spring-training trade for outfielders Gary Matthews and Bob Dernier, late-spring deals for starters Rick Sutcliffe and Dennis Eckersley, and Sandberg taking Frey’s coaching to heart in the June 23, 1984 “Sandberg Game” jolted the Cubs out of their somnolence. Winning 96 games, the Cubs had not recorded a winning season since 1972 in a near-reprise of their 1950s-1960s Dark Ages. All along, as his team took over first place, Frey had to deal with Cubs ghosts then only 15 years in the rear-view mirror.

The first bloom off the Frey rose took place in Games 4 and 5 of the NLCS in San Diego. Figuring a 2-0 lead in games was an entrée to the World Series, Frey opted to start Sutcliffe for the second time in Game 5 while saving lefty Steve Trout to open against the Tigers, rather than using both pitchers on three days’ rest to lock down the Padres. Instead, Scott Sanderson, suffering from an achin’ back, started Game 4 – and Steve Garvey went wild. The Cubs lost Games 4 and 5, making for franchise ignominy and an eerily quiet flight home to Chicago.

Interestingly, the Cubs outdid that feat in 2003, also being one game (and six outs) away from a World Series. Frey seemed open to second-guessing himself over not throwing his best starters at the Padres in Games 4 and 5. In the same breath, he still liked his chances, looking back.

“We were in the sixth inning (of Game 5) with a three-run lead and the seventh-inning with a one-run lead, and Sutcliffe hadn’t lost a game since the middle of June or around that time.

“It just didn’t work out. When it happened again (in 2003), you do get reminders. Too often, I must add. If you know anything about baseball, the last three outs are the toughest…We just didn’t hold them. I don’t know what to say. It was unfortunate.”

Prior to the spate of pitching injuries in 1985, Shawon Dunston (left) generated the most sparks in prepping to take his place alongside Ryne Sandberg as the Cubs' double-play combo.

Prior to the spate of pitching injuries in 1985, Shawon Dunston (left) generated the most sparks in prepping to take his place alongside Ryne Sandberg as the Cubs’ double-play combo.

Still, the Cubs seemed to have opened a World Series window with a good pitching staff and six 80-RBI lineup producers returning for 1985. The team got off to a 34-19 start. At first, the only controversy was when rookie Shawon Dunston would replace Larry Bowa at shortstop to team with Sandberg at second base. Then, one by one, Sutcliffe, Trout, Eckersley, Sanderson and Dick Ruthven suffered injuries. Sutcliffe, a gamer, came back too quickly from a partially-torn hamstring and hurt his shoulder, trying to compensate for the sore leg by changing his delivery. By August the entire five-man rotation was on the disabled list as the Cubs tumbled out of contention.

“If those pitchers had stayed healthy, the Cubs would have been a contender the rest of the decade,” Frey said.

At the same time, the voluble manager who sparked the Cubs in ’84 began to wear on the players. You can’t say they weren’t warned. KC owner Ewing Kauffman had a quick hook on Frey, firing him early in the second half of the Royals’ strike-divided 1981 season while Dick Howser took over.

‘Preacher Man’ had short shelf life as manager

“Frank White told me afterward that Jim wore on the guys,” Ibach said. “That’s where he got that ‘Preacher Man’ nickname. He reminds me a little bit of Billy Martin. He’d lift club up and then wear them out. He’d preach to players with his left hand pointing at you. He wanted to deliver a point.

“Jim was perfect for team in 1984 to orchestrate the lineup and put it all together. In the end, the preaching cut it short. All gimmicks get old. Earl Weaver could get on you, rip you up and down, but the next day it was a clean slate. Jim, though, could hold grudges.”

And he was stubborn.

Bob Ibach thought Dallas Green (pictured) erred in not blocking recently-fired manager Jim Frey from becoming the Cubs' radio analyst in 1987.

Bob Ibach thought Dallas Green (pictured) erred in not blocking recently-fired manager Jim Frey from becoming the Cubs’ radio analyst in 1987.

While Frey was still manager, Ibach recalled how he and Green showed him statistics about Eckersley’s velocity dropping after the fourth inning. The brass suggested Frey make Eckersley a relief pitcher to take advantage of short-outing prowess. “There’s no (bleepin’) way he’ll ever be a (bleepin’) relief pitcher,” Frey replied. Two years later in Oakland, Tony La Russa proved Frey wrong.

After a 23-33 start in 1986 as underperforming and aging players tuned out Frey, Green fired him without a ready replacement. Almost throwing darts, Green settled on Gene Michael, a longtime Yankees mainstay who did not know the National League. But Frey did not stray far. After the season, as WGN-Radio moved to put Lou Boudreau out to pasture as baseball analyst, Frey was hired as full-time color man. He had not previously expressed interest in a radio job. The move seemed suspicious with two poor seasons and a high payroll seemingly making the Tribune suits restive with Green, who had taken on an additional title as Cubs president.

“Bringing Jimmy Frey back was the start,” Green said in 1999. “They asked me if I minded Jimmy coming back to do radio. That probably was their preparation to replace me.”

“Dallas could have blocked that hiring, but opted not to,” Ibach said. “He was fair. That was Dallas’ biggest mistake. Frey was not a radio guy.”

Conjecture over the years centered on Frey being asked to report back to the Trib suits as analyst, which gave him full access to the team for 162 games in 1987. One time as a group interview took place in the Cubs dugout, Frey appeared with a tape recorder. Lee Smith was nearby and noticed “nothing was spinning” in the machine. He thought the recorder was a prop to make Frey appear to be a legitimate news-gatherer. After the interview broke up, Frey went to a dugout phone to call someone upstairs. Another report had Frey put off by Smith’s foul moods and profane rants in the clubhouse during his toughest season as a Cub.

Green was forced out of his job after the 1987 when his attempt to hire Cubs coach John Vukovich as manager went sideways. With no front-office experience, Frey was announced as the new GM on Nov. 11, 1987.

“When I did get fired and he immediately gets hired to be GM, two and two gets to be four,” Green later said of Frey’s journey from surprise radio man to surprise baseball exec.

Smith deal made in ‘half an hour’

Frey later said he had a quality of impatience with players and in trades, which made him a kindred soul of John Holland, his predecessor five times removed. That quality was displayed during the 1987 winter meetings, when Frey and Zimmer quickly traded Smith to the Boston Red Sox for mediocre pitchers Al Nipper and Calvin Schiraldi. Green loyalist Gordon Goldsberry, still player development chief, claimed the deal was made in “half an hour,” with a team official trying to warn Frey right after the deal was completed that Schiraldi was a nervous type from his 1986 World Series performance. Nipper and Schiraldi seemed like Red Sox GM Lou Gorman’s opening offer, but Frey did not want to dicker on Smith or preside over a baseball-wide auction, as Smith’s reputation as a closer merited.

Other early Frey trades also were eye-openers. Promising young center fielder Davey Martinez, 31 years later a World Series-winning manager – was traded to Montreal for journeyman outfielder Mitch Webster in 1988. After the season, Frey also shipped out Rafael Palmeiro, overall the Cubs’ best young hitter, in the big Mitch Williams trade with Texas. Good-character lefty Jamie Moyer, who had quickly fallen out of favor with Zimmer, also was dispatched to the Rangers.

In 2004, when asked about Palmeiro — who had 40 doubles and a .308 average, but just eight homers in 1988 – the power-craving Frey answered, “I wanted someone who could hit the shit out of the ball.” Interestingly, he followed up on a Green evaluation that favored keeping similarly-promising lefty hitter Mark Grace over Palmeiro, given that Palmeiro was seen as a mediocre left fielder with Grace blocking him at first base. Palmeiro had never played first coming up, and later said he was prepared to work hard to become an acceptable left fielder. Despite his connection with PED’s, Palmeiro amassed a career that exceeded Grace’s.

Frey had better luck with smaller deals. He picked up Mike Bielecki, an 18-game winner in 1989, from Pittsburgh for a song. He scouted lefty reliever Paul Assenmacher watching him on Braves telecasts on superstation TBS.

Player development really proved to be Frey’s undoing. The much-respected Goldsberry had revived a long-moribund Cubs farm system that proved the backbone to the 1989 NL East “Boys of Zimmer” division titlists to which Frey added only a few parts. But near the end of the 1988 season, Frey cashiered Goldsberry, who had no plans to leave despite Green’s departure. The apparent cause was disagreement over a scout Frey wanted fired. Also, in Sept. 1988, the cover of VineLine, the Cubs’ monthly magazine edited by Ibach, featured Goldsberry and his prize prospects. Goldsberry supposedly told Ibach his job would be in jeopardy once Frey saw the magazine cover.

Without Goldsberry, Cubs drafting and development took a nosedive, and never has fully recovered despite Theo Epstein hitting on several No. 1 picks who were centerpieces of the 2015-and-onward contenders. Again desiring power, Frey influenced the 1989 No. 1 draft pick of South Carolina prep slugger Earl Cunningham, who’d soon average a strikeout every 2 ½ at-bats at Class A Peoria. Cunningham was a quick bust. Meanwhile, a true strongman from the Peoria area was taken in the 13th round of the ’89 draft by the Cleveland Indians — Jim Thome. He grew up a true-blue Cubs fan.

Also, the development of the young players who so impressed in 1989 seemed to stall, then regress, in the next couple of years. One frustrated player said he was “Frey-ed and Zimmer-ed.” Cubs sources reported an atmosphere of negative reinforcement around the team compared to the Green regime.

Free-agent spree backfired

After a pitching-challenged 1990 season, Frey was green-lighted to open the checkbook, signing free-agent outfielder George Bell, lefty starter Danny Jackson and closer Dave Smith at the winter meetings in Rosemont, the only such annual event held in the Chicago area in modern times. With positive reviews and projections of an NL East title, the beefed-up effort soon backfired. Bell was a head case, Jackson proved injury-prone and Smith was washed up.

The ground was shifting under Frey. He was forced by the suits to fire Zimmer with less than two months gone in 1991. His plans were to retire after 1992, yet Trib viceroy Cook initially offered Frey a three-year extension. Frey said he’d think about it, which led Cook to start looking elsewhere. Meanwhile, a pressing bit of business waited to get completed.

Jim Frey claimed he would have re-upped Greg Maddux (pictured) to his desired long-term contract if he had been GM during the negotiations.

Jim Frey claimed he would have re-upped Greg Maddux (pictured) to his desired long-term contract if he had been GM during the negotiations.

In the summer of 1991, young Cubs ace Greg Maddux told me in a dugout conversation he and wife Kathy would buy a home and settle in Chicago if his long-term contract was settled the following winter, going into his free-agent season. Maddux was loyal to the franchise and his teammates, calling pitches for starters Frank Castillo and Mike Morgan through a secret set of signs relayed through the catcher. His first, second and third options were to remain a Cub.

But Cook and hired-gun attorney Dennis Homerin arrogantly pulled the new five-year, $25 million contract Maddux had accepted off the table because he did not agree to it by an artificial 5 p.m. Friday deadline. The mother of all Cubs screw-ups took place in a 1991 off-season in which Frey was stripped of authority, pending the hiring of a new GM. Asked years later if he would have put Maddux under lock and key if he was still in charge, Frey replied in the affirmative. There wasn’t any other logical answer.

Serving out his final year of his contract doing a little scouting work in Baltimore, Frey opted to retire from baseball at 61.

“A lot of people just can’t walk away (from baseball),” he said in 2004. “My time had come. I was very lucky, very fortunate. Some guys love having that microphone and camera on them.”

“August and September of 1984 was probably the highlight of my life. In 1980, going to the World Series in my first year as manager was quite exciting. But if I had time to weigh one against the other, it would be the time I spent in Chicago.”

If only Frey’s actions as manager and GM could have matched the positivity of his feelings toward the city, then perhaps a longtime collective thirst could have been quenched sooner. And yet maybe the Preacher Man could not have risen above a specific skill-set. Sometimes history turns out better if you stay in your own lane.

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