You never know who you might run into on the golf course. A few years ago I saw Jim Frey headed to the first tee at Marsh Landing. Sports fans know Jim as the manager of the Chicago Cubs in the mid-‘80’s. The Cubs were broadcast every day on WGN “Channel 9” on the cable out of Chicago. Same as the Braves were on the “Superstation WTBS” from Atlanta. The Cubs were a national team. Harry Cary was doing the play-by-play, drinking Budweiser in the left-field bleachers; Jim Frey was running the team from the dugout.
Growing up in Baltimore, I knew Jim from his fifteen year stint with the Orioles as a scout, coach, and the guy who was coaching first base or sitting next to Earl Weaver on the bench in their heyday of the 1970’s. That stint is part of a more than four decades career in baseball as a player, scout, coach, manager and general manager. So we’ve had a lot to talk about.
It’s not unusual to hear about professional athletes in other sports playing golf at a high level. Michael Jordan’s money matches are legendary. Steph Curry’s play at the Web.com event last year turned some heads. John Smoltz, Tony Romo and countless others have game.
The same can be said for Jim Frey. This week, the week of his 88th birthday, Frey shot “his age” carding an 80 at Marsh Landing.
It’s the 500th time he’s done that.
A baseball man through and through, the golfer they call “Coach” at Marsh Landing is used to keeping track of a game based on numbers and statistics, Frey has documented the 500 different times he’s shot his age, from the first time when he was 72 at Cave’s Valley in Baltimore to this week at Marsh Landing.
And it’s amazing he’s even still playing. Just last year Frey, who moved here in 2008 to be closer to his daughter, had a health scare that included chemo, radiation and double pneumonia. So serious that at one point, as he puts it, “I thought the party was over.”
Once with a handicap as low as six, Frey has never relied on length rather using accuracy to get the ball in the hole. “I’ve always hit it straight,” he said remembering golf games with Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer who consistently outdrove him. But much like his plus-.300 batting average in his 14-year minor league career (two of those in the South Atlantic League here in Jacksonville), Frey’s golf game relies on his hand-eye coordination and his ability to think through the game.
When his playing career was over, Frey served as a scout and a coach before managing in Kansas City and Chicago. He took the Royals to the World Series in 1980 after winning 97 games in the regular season, losing to the Phillies in six games.
In his first season as the Cubs manager, they won 96 games to win the division and held a 2-0 lead over the Padres for the National League Pennant. But San Diego won the last three behind Steve Garvey to go to the World Series.
Baseball is a game built on failure. Get a hit three out of ten times and they put you in the Hall of Fame. As fans, the ups and downs stick with us. But when you’re in it Frey says, the downs really sting.
“You get your heart broken in baseball,” he said as he recalled a few of the near misses. “We got to the 7th game of the World Series in Baltimore in ’79 and Willie Stargell beat us with a home run.”
“I still lay in bed at night and think about games in 1991 that didn’t go so well,” he said of his final year as GM of the Cubs.
Maybe that prepared him for the ups and downs on the golf course. He had a chance to shoot his age they day before he did it for the first time fifteen years ago.
“I didn’t tell anybody, but when we got to the 18th that day at Caves, a pretty strong par four up the hill, I had a 7-footer to shoot 72. And I missed it. The next day, I had a six-footer for 72 and I stepped away and told the guys I was playing with what was going on adding, ‘I’m making this putt!’ he said with a huge laugh. And he did.
Shooting your age is a big deal in golf. I’m sure Chris Kappas at Sawgrass did it all the time. John Tucker and Wesley Paxon notched that with regularity.
But 500 times?
“I played a lot of golf after I retired down in Estero in the winters and in Baltimore in the summers. When we moved here in 2008 I was still playing three, four times a week.”
Knowing Jim, it’s no surprise that friendship and relationships are at the core of the two games he’s been involved in his whole life.
He was the young scout in the Midwest who alerted the Orioles that the Reds were willing to trade Frank Robinson. It’s considered one of the greatest heists in Major League history.
“I had breakfast with and old scout from Cincinnati and he said, “I just came from a meeting and they want to trade Frank Robinson!’ I went to the phone and called Baltimore. I had just started scouting for the Orioles. I talked to my boss, and they brought me home.”
He met with the Orioles brass including Lee McPhail, Harry Dalton and Manager Hank Bauer.
“How good to you think Frank Robinson is?” Frey was asked. “A better offensive player than Brooks?” He didn’t hesitate, ‘”Yes I do.”
And shortly thereafter the Orioles traded pitcher Milt Pappas to the Reds and got Robinson who won the MVP, the Triple Crown and helped Baltimore win the World Series over the Dodgers in four straight in 1966.
“All of the sudden, I’m not a little scout in the Midwest,” Frey said with a chuckle.
Frey hedges a bit when asked who the best player he ever worked with was, but admitted, “When I was with Baltimore, Frank Robinson was clearly the best player. He never quite got his due. He was the best player for nearly 20 years.”
That trust, camaraderie, friendships and the relationships he found in baseball are the things Frey says are important to him now in his golf game.
“I belonged to three or four other clubs before I came to Jacksonville. I joined Marsh Landing and I’ve appreciated the membership there, they’ve really embraced me. The group of guys I play with there has been a lot of fun. At this point in my life I’m appreciative of how they’ve taken me in.”
Hey Jim, that was the easy part.