Regan takes graduated path to majors

October 19, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

George McDonald picked up the newspaper at his barber shop the other day in Southampton, Ontario, and saw that the Orioles had hired Phil Regan.

"I was very surprised," McDonald said yesterday, "but also very thrilled."

McDonald was the athletic director at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Mich., when Regan was the baseball coach there from 1973 to 1982. McDonald knows as well as anyone how long Regan has yearned for this opportunity.

"When we would talk about careers and such, and we're going back 20 years now, Phil would always tell me that his goal was to become a major-league manager one day," said McDonald, who is retired. "It was always his dream."

In those days, Regan was about as far from his dream as he could get. Grand Valley State was a new, small school (opened in 1960) with a fledgling, non-scholarship baseball program. To suggest that the coach's job might be a steppingstone to a manager's job in the major leagues was sheer lunacy.

Regan had come to Grand Valley after his playing career ended in 1972 because the school was just down the road from his home in Byron Center, Mich., near Grand Rapids, and there were no opportunities in pro ball. He was a part-timer as the baseball coach for one year, then became a full-time employee when his duties were expanded to include teaching a class in baseball and raising funds for the athletic department.

As a fund-raiser, he staged walk-a-thons and banquets and cultivated relationships with boosters and sponsors. It was a white-collar job at which Regan excelled.

"He did extremely well," McDonald said. "He's very well-known and highly regarded in the Grand Rapids area. He's an upright, family man with a strong sense of community."

As a teacher, Regan found himself writing extensively about baseball theory and examining the game in new and different ways. "It made me rethink everything," Regan said the other day. surprised myself. I learned a lot."

Most importantly, Regan built the baseball team into a regional power that twice won the Great Lakes Conference and played .580 ball in his last six seasons. He had two rules: Work hard on the field, and be on time. Two of his players, Greg Cadaret and Howard Bailey, made it to the major leagues. (Bailey pitched three years for the Tigers and was acquired by the Orioles, who released him.)

"His competitiveness overshadowed a lot of things," said one of his former players and assistant coaches, Andy Chopp, now the head coach at Grand Valley. "Immediately after a loss, he wasn't too approachable. He needed a little cooling-off period. He was never negative or anything. He just wanted to win that badly."

Regan was comfortable at the college. "I loved it," he said. "I was very, very happy in the academic setting."

The longer he stayed, the more likely it became that Grand Valley would be the entirety of his post-pitching career. His only contact with pro baseball had been an occasional call to a scout or general manager on behalf of a prospect.

"I think I heard from him a couple of times over 10 years," Orioles GM Roland Hemond said yesterday.

One call to Regan in October 1982 -- from an agent, oddly enough -- forever changed the course of his life, pushing him onto the track that would lead to the Orioles.

The agent represented Al Hrabosky, the Fu Manchu-ed relief pitcher known as the Mad Hungarian. At 33 and running out of steam after 13 years in the majors, Hrabosky wanted to learn to throw a sinkerball and possibly prolong his career. His agent arranged for him to spend several days at Grand Valley with Regan, whose sinker had been among the best in the game.

"I remember it very well," McDonald said. "They would go down to the gym to work. The guy stayed a long time."

In trying to sell his client to general managers, Hrabosky's agent referred them to Regan. One of the three or four GMs who called was Dan O'Brien of the Seattle Mariners. After briefly discussing Hrabosky, O'Brien asked what Regan was doing now. Regan told him. O'Brien said the Mariners might have an opening as an instructor.

"I was extremely impressed with him," O'Brien, now commissioner of the Arizona Fall League, said yesterday. "He wasn't the normal kind of individual who gets into pro baseball. It was not surprising that he had spent some time in an academic setting. He had a way of conveying his thoughts that made you think he could really excel as a coach or instructor."

Regan did not hear from O'Brien until January 1983. He was getting ready for another season at Grand Valley. "I was thinking that maybe nothing had come of the conversation [with O'Brien]," Regan said.

But O'Brien finally called and offered Regan a job as a minor-league pitching instructor. Regan deliberated briefly before deciding to take it. It meant less time at home, but he knew he needed to get back into pro ball if he was going to realize his dream of becoming a manager.

Hrabosky never threw another major-league pitch. But, a dozen years later, Regan became a major-league manager, one of few to make it to the bigs after coaching in college. (Bobby Winkles of Arizona State and the Angels was the only other one Hemond could think of.)

"He has an unusual resume, for sure," O'Brien said. "But he's quite a person. Everything he did for me, he did in a first-rate fashion. I think he'll excel as a manager."

Either way, George McDonald, Regan's old athletic director, has a new team for which to root.

"Phil Regan is one of the best people I've known," McDonald said yesterday. "I'll be cheering for him. So will a lot of other people."

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