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BILL RIGNEY / 1918-2001 : BASEBALL

Rigney Hailed as Caring, Passionate Baseball Man

February 21, 2001|ROSS NEWHAN

It was 4 a.m. Time to go. Even Toots Shor had long since called it a night. Only three of us remained at that round bar in Shor's famous New York saloon: Bill Rigney, in his first year as manager of the expansion Angels; Joe Foss, the World War II flying ace, commissioner of the defunct American Football League and former governor of South Dakota; and a young reporter clearly overmatched by his more experienced drinking companions.

Rigney and Foss had been engaged in a passionate debate over the merits of their respective sports when Foss finally said, "C'mon, I'll run you guys back to your hotel."

The three of us negotiated the revolving door and nodded to the parking attendant, who made no move to secure Foss' car, primarily because he didn't have one.

A fitness buff long before there were fitness buffs, Foss took off running, proving he was a man of his word. He had said he would run us back to our hotel. He meant it literally.

Rig and I looked at each other, laughed, waved at Foss and went searching for a taxi.

Funny the memories that came to mind Tuesday when I learned that Rig had died at 83 after a long battle with cancer.

Our acquaintance spanned 40 years, and the one constant, the one thing I always will remember about this passionate baseball man is just that--his passion and caring for a sport that was his life for more than six decades.

It was there in the debate with Foss on that 1961 night at Shor's, there in all the days and nights he managed, there in the joy he took talking about those halcyon summers with the New York Giants under Leo Durocher, whose fire became his own.

It was there in the pride he took when two Angel disciples, Jim Fregosi and Bob Rodgers, became managers and thanked Rigney for all the hours he spent lecturing them on the importance of caring and the intricacies of managing, there in the fun he shared with so many Angel characters during the formative years, there in the satisfaction he took when his Minnesota Twins won a division title after the firing by the Angels.

It was there again in the mid-'80s when he helped Sandy Alderson, Wally Haas and Roy Eisenhardt rebuild the Oakland Athletics after the Charlie Finley decimation, and there as strong as ever on a spring night three years ago, just before he became sick, when he sat at dinner in Scottsdale's legendary Pink Pony, spending more than three hours spinning baseball stories and passionately stressing the importance of caring about the game to a young player in the San Diego Padre farm system and his father, the same reporter who had been with him on that 1961 night at Shor's.

I encountered Rig at Phoenix Stadium on the day after that dinner, and he smiled and said, "David understands. I can see it in his eyes. He cares. He's going to make it."

There are different levels of making it, but the young second baseman has since played in the majors with the Padres and Philadelphia Phillies and is currently getting his uniform dirty in the Phillies' spring camp, and the last time I talked to Rig, last summer on a day when his strength was up, he mustered that familiar pride and passion and said, "I'm not surprised. I knew I'd be right about him. Give him my best."

The settings and subjects changed, but the thread was always there.

He frequently wondered if the current players cared as much as the Giants did in 1951 when they would meet each night in his or another player's room and talk about what needed to be done as they staged their improbable comeback against the Brooklyn Dodgers and ultimately scripted the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff.

He talked frequently about the 1962 Angels and how that grab-bag group of second-year expansionists caught the caring feeling, shockingly leading the American League race on July 4 before finishing third, which might have been a good thing, he would say with a laugh, because he had so many characters, so many guys who would find any reason to celebrate, that he never would have been able to locate them all in time for the World Series.

He talked frequently about the caring vibes of the new ownership group in Oakland and how he was proud to be included as a senior advisor and have them lean on him as they did.

"When we were concerned about doing something stupid, we'd run it by Rig," Alderson said from his Bay Area home Tuesday. "He was our safety net, but he became more than that. Storyteller. Sage. Humorist. He'd sit with Wally, Roy and myself during a game and it was like having our personal color man. I'd love to take the two-hour drive from Phoenix to Tucson with him every spring and listen to the stories. Invariably, I'd laugh all the way. It was a wonderful experience working with Rig and it was a wonderful feeling to share in his first World Series championship after 50 years [when the A's won in 1989]."

Bob Rodgers also thought back Tuesday, recalling all the hours he and Fregosi spent with Rig in American League coffee shops and bars, talking about managing and caring.

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