Rolling with punches Frank Wren: The first-time general manager feels prepared for his task with the Orioles. It took a brain tumor as a player, a near-miss at the Padres' GM job and more to get here.

October 31, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

It's been nearly 20 summers since outfielder Frank Wren left West Palm Beach's Municipal Stadium following a Florida State League game, climbed into his car and merged onto Interstate 95. Traveling light, Wren carried the career goal of moving himself up the Montreal Expos' minor-league food chain and onto the major-league roster, a long shot for someone projected as an "organizational player" when signed to a negligible contract out of junior college.

Barely 21, Wren suddenly felt violently ill. He pulled onto the shoulder of the highway and began to vomit. Excruciating pain seared through his head. Though he didn't realize it then, Wren's life had changed.

Introduced Oct. 23 as the ninth -- and youngest -- general manager in Orioles history, the boyish-looking Wren arrives only because of the events that began that night.

It was the start of a three-year odyssey that not only threatened Wren's playing career but also jeopardized his life. The subsequent career quirks bring Wren, 40, to Camden Yards perhaps uniquely qualified to heal an opulent but fractured franchise.

Never able to realize his ambition to become a major-league player, Wren instead settled for a spectrum of experience that fostered scouting, player development and computer skills. He sold programs and outfield signage as a minor-league general manager, helped transform an infant franchise into a world champion and then carried out the painful order to tear it down.

"I'm at a place," he says, "I never could have envisioned 20 years ago."

Seven years after joining the Florida Marlins as assistant general manager, three years after nearly being hired by the San Diego Padres as general manager and one October after celebrating a world championship, the handsome son of Hoosier dairy farmers has been awarded the most expensive clubhouse in baseball history and told to make it right.

Wren assumes stewardship of what he describes as a "most unique" opportunity created by "the best stadium in the game, fans that are among the most loyal if not the most loyal, and ownership willing to do whatever it takes to win."

U-turn on professional path

The opportunity is a long way from a harrowing roadside illness that forever altered his life.

Hospitalized for several weeks, Wren was told he might have meningitis. But then doctors discounted that diagnosis. Wren was discharged when the symptoms abated and allowed to return to the field.

Wren missed eight weeks of the season before recovering. "The verdict seemed to be that it was some kind of fluke. I never really got any firm answers," he says.

Though blessed with only average speed and ordinary power, Wren's versatility enabled him to jump from low Single-A to Double-A within a year of his hospitalization. Today, an MRI probably would discover the walnut-sized growth that was attaching itself to the spinal cord at the base of the skull. Instead, Wren returned to play the entire 1980 season, oblivious to his festering condition.

"His tools weren't seen as outstanding but everything played above where he was rated. There are a lot of major-league players like that," says Colorado Rockies scouting director Pat Daugherty, Wren's second manager at Jamestown (N.Y.) of the New York-Penn League and one of the most influential people in his baseball education.

Wren, then 23, started the 1981 season at Daytona Beach before his symptoms reappeared. He was moved to a hospital in St. Petersburg and found to have a brain tumor that was hemorrhaging.

"It changed the direction of my career," Wren recalls. "I'm not going to say I would have been a great major-league player. Knowing what I do now, I don't think I would have ever been a major-league player. But it was my goal."

To remove the tumor, doctors had to go through Wren's throat. No guarantees were offered that Wren would emerge fully functional or even live through it.

The surgery preserved his life but virtually finished Wren's playing career. When he returned to Daytona Beach. Wren experienced double vision and could no longer track a fly ball.

"I wasn't a good player anymore. It was no longer fun," says Wren. "I never really looked back because I wasn't enjoying it."

From field to dugout

Wren accepted an offer to coach at Jamestown and arrived wearing an eye patch designed to rectify his vision problems. He worked under Daugherty for three years, envisioning his next step as minor-league manager.

The offer finally came in 1985 from Expos assistant minor-league director Bob Gebhard, now the Rockies' general manager. However, the opportunity disappeared when the Expos folded one of their affiliates. Wren instead was offered the chance to serve as Jamestown's general manager.

"It was totally foreign to what I thought my career would be," says Wren. "I was hoping to one day become a major-league coach and then see what would happen. It was sold to me as a good career move, but I didn't see it that way."

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