PHILADELPHIA -- More than any other sport, baseball is for survivors.
More than any other sport, baseball demands that you learn how to lose.
Because you will be doing a lot of it.
"You can have a great year and still lose 72 games," agrees Jim Fregosi, survivor.
If the numbers have been toted correctly, Friday night at Veterans Stadium, Fregosi was participating in a major-league game for the 2,846th time. There were 1,902 as a player and 944 as a manager.
Fregosi's eyes, which are hooded and unrevealing much of the time, widen only slightly at this news. He allows himself a slight, wry smile, just before expectorating on the wooden, spike-pocked floor of the Phillies' dugout.
"Well, whoop-de-doo," he says, clearly underwhelmed. "Will there champagne?"
Not counting those games that went past the ninth, he has
survived for more than 25,000 innings in the bigs. And that tally doesn't include the 495 games in the minors or that hazy odyssey through winter ball.
So what does all of this mileage make him?
"Goofy," he replies quickly, pleasantly.
He didn't, as he recalls, set out to be a lifer.
"While I was still playing, I managed in winter ball, and I think that's when I knew I'd end up doing a life sentence in a dugout," he says.
The ones who last become like leather. They weather and toughen with age. Some become hard and cracked and unyielding, and some become pliable and resilient.
They learn to stand in one spot for hours, like sleeping storks balanced on one leg. They spit and squint and converse in casual vulgarities, sustained by patience, by the comforting knowledge that tonight's outcome is history to be washed down with the first beer. In baseball, for seven-month chunks, there is always tomorrow, always another game to replace the one just played.
"Two things about it," Fregosi says. "It's still the only game in which the clock means nothing. And it's the only game where you have to do everything as an individual but you can only win as a team. Denis Menke [the Phillies hitting instruc
tor] -- his first homer in the bigs was a grand slam -- and his team lost, 5-4."
Fregosi remembers a game in the minors in which the about-to-burst-proud parents of his team's starting pitcher traveled long and hard to see their son hurl. Fregosi was at short.
"He walks one, then I boot a double-play grounder," Fregosi says. "He walks another, I butcher another. Pretty soon, he's got four walks, I got three errors, we haven't got an out yet, and Walker Cooper -- he's the manager -- comes out to get him and says, 'Guess you just don't have it today, kid.' And I'm wanting to scream, 'No, no, take me out.' "
It was, as Fregosi also recalls, during a Texas sunrise that the great secret of the game dawned on him.
"I'm in the minors -- Dallas-Fort Worth, out by the motel swimming pool," he says. "It's 5 in the morning, and I haven't slept yet 'cause I'm still stewing over last night's loss. I realized then I'd drive myself nuts, I'd press too hard, I'd never make it, never last, if I didn't learn to leave the losses at the ballpark. From then on, as a player, I never let losing get to me."
And as a manager?
"Just the opposite. I don't think you ever adjust to losses."
He is from the old school: You manage as you would play poker, carefully, deliberately, ever wary, ever protective. Shield the players fiercely, and never slander them in public, even if it means saying things you don't really believe.
A manager, come to think of it, is a lot like a politician.
Those consigned to covering the Phillies on a daily basis mutter unhappily about the lack of zing in Fregosi's sound bites, the absence of anything meaty in his quotes. Supplying non-news is, of course, precisely his intent. There is enough turmoil already without generating more with a slip of the lip.
He is stuck with a losing team that seems to develop a new limp at every turn. Parts and players fall away at an alarming rate. People grumble about the manager's using four different double-play combinations in four games, and they wonder aloud if he isn't too impatient with the rooks.
And the manager squints and spits and burrows his hands into the pockets of his red jacket and speaks the secret of surviving: "There are a lot of things about this game that you can't take personally."
0 And, besides, Game No. 2,847 was last night.