[Ed.'s Note: While most of the the players not participating in tonight's All-Star festivities will be scouring NYC for red carpet parties, or enjoying some much needed time off, Red Sox hurler Josh Beckett will be back in Texas, throwing to an old friend.]
That was the response from Trinity University(Tex.) catcher Zach Fregosi when asked if he might have some time to work out with a pitcher named Beckett. "Our pitching coach gives lessons on the side," Fregosi explains. and "I really didn't want to be wasting my time catching for some 12-year-old."
Back in 2006, a month before he was to report to his first spring training with the Boston Red Sox, Josh Beckett was looking for a catcher to work with to get his arm in shape. Beckett's high school catcher, Brian Oberle, had heard that Trinity, his alma mater, a small Division-III program in San Antonio, had an impressive defensive backstop, Zach Fregosi. Oberle called an assistant coach who said he'd ask Zach if he wanted the job. "Obviously," Fregosi says, "when I realized it was Josh Beckett, well, I had some time."
Starting that January, for three or four days a week, Beckett would drive 100 miles from his Cotulla, TX ranch and arrive at Trinity's baseball diamond around 7 a.m. After Beckett finished up forty minutes of stretching, sprinting and agility work, Fregosi would strap on the pads and, as his peers snoozed away in their dorm rooms, catch the 2003 World Series MVP.
After their first session, Beckett joked with the sophomore. ("You don't suck as bad as I thought you would.") After a few more practices, Beckett confessed to Trinity's head coach Tim Scannell that he enjoyed throwing to Fregosi, and raved about the sophomore's ability to frame and receive pitches.
"Zach has great hands," Beckett said in the Red Sox dugout before a recent game against Baltimore. "He's been catching his whole life, just like D-I college catchers. We worked a lot on cutting and sinking the ball and he picked it up right away. He saw things to look for in my motion and, at the end of the day, if he'd see something, he'd say, 'You know, the other day, I thought you threw the ball down a lot better.' Zach was really good at that."
In addition to finding a catcher who could handle major league speed and movement, the Texas flamethrower wanted a low-profile environment where his presence would go uncelebrated. When they would meet, Fregosi tried to ignore Beckett's superstar status. But when some of Fregosi's teammates heard that Josh Beckett was pitching at Trinity's E.M. Stevens field, it got them out of their beds, despite the early hour.
"The first time we heard that Josh Beckett was coming to throw a bullpen to our starting catcher, we couldn't believe it," Fregosi's roommate, Brian Oates, says. "We set our alarms and got up at seven in the morning to watch him throw 15 pitches."
As the date neared for Major League pitchers and catchers to report, Beckett began returning to campus in the afternoons for Trinity's regularly scheduled practices. Wearing shorts and a long-sleeved tee, Beckett, who jumped straight to the professional ranks out of high school, would fall in line with the pitchers, long-tossing in the outfield, chewing sunflower seeds and shagging batting practice flies.
"Our reaction to Josh coming out evolved," says Oates, now a pitcher in the Mariners' system. "After meeting him a few times, it went from awe to trying to figure out what, as a fellow pitcher, could I pick this guy's brain about?"
Beckett counseled the pitchers on everything from weight training to curveball grips. And when he was ready to throw an afternoon session with Fregosi, he'd invite the other pitchers to come and watch. "Beckett was phenomenal with our kids," head coach Scannell says. "For them to be able to rub shoulders with a Major Leaguer and see how hard he worked, it was extremely beneficial."
Beckett would even monitor Trinity's pitchers, giving pointers or complimenting them on their fluid mechanics or good arm action. "When guys heard from Beckett that they were pretty good, their confidence went through the roof," Scannell says. Junior Evan Bronson, picked in the 36th round of this year's draft by the Brewers, concurs. "Hearing (praise) from him gave me an indication that, "Hey, it's possible for me to be in the big leagues."
After a few weeks, Beckett reported to Red Sox spring training. In his first A.L. season, he won 16 games, though his ERA was over five and he allowed the second most home runs in baseball. The following January, Beckett was back at Trinity, working on a new two-seam sinker with Fregosi. As opening day neared, Beckett asked Trinity hitters to step into the box to gauge his stuff. Fregosi reports that when Beckett told them pitch and location, the batters managed a few weak dribblers. "When he didn't say what was coming," says Fregosi, "no one could touch him."
Though Beckett is known for his bulldog mentality on the mound, the Trinity players got to see his lighter side. "Baseball players are goofballs by nature," Fregosi says, "and Beckett definitely fits the mold." A shaving-cream pie? Shoe polish in the cap? Not exactly. "We would be having a 70-foot-catch, and he'd signal that he was gonna throw a fastball, and he'd throw a curveball," Fregosi says. "I would tell him, "You can't do that; you're going to break my face. But he would just laugh. He thinks that's the funniest thing in the world."
The relationship between the Sox ace and the players progressed to the point where they'd hang out together off the field. In the evening, Beckett would pick up some of the older guys in his truck and take them out to dinner or for a beer. (Fregosi: "I would offer to split the check. He said, 'When you're making more money then me you can start buying.") And this past November, Beckett took 22 Trinity players to a Spurs game. "It was awesome," Bronson says of the time with Beckett. "There was no separation. He basically acted like one of us, like one of our good friends."
Last season, largely on the shoulders of Bronson and Oates, Trinity won the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Tournament and advanced to within one game of the D-III Baseball Championship. At one point, Fregosi even stepped onto the mound, tossing a scoreless inning.
Meanwhile, up in Boston, Beckett, having added a new pitch to his arsenal, was the A.L. Cy Young runner-up while guiding the Sox to the 2007 World Series. That postseason he went 4-0, including two wins against Cleveland for which he was named series MVP. Fregosi remembers watching Beckett pitch in Game 5, an elimination game. At one point, lefty Travis Hafner worked the count to 3-2 before fouling off a few pitches. Then Beckett reared back and threw a ball that appeared destined for Hafner's hip bone, only to fade back over the inner half for strike three. "That's the two-seamer!" Fregosi exclaimed to a friend. "He started to throw that pitch at Trinity."
How much longer "the Beckett sessions" will continue at Trinity is anyone's guess. Despite having solidified himself as the premier big-game pitcher in baseball, the big right-hander was back on campus last January for a third straight year. And with Fregosi set to join the Trinity coaching staff next year, Coach Scannell hopes the Trinity-Beckett relationship will continue.
"It's amazing. This started out just to throw a bullpen," Fregosi says. "Now we text during the season or he'll call to ask how I'm doing. If he's in town, we'll go out. It's turned into a real friendship."
On Saturday, Fregosi's phone rang. It was Beckett saying he was headed to his ranch for the All-Star break and he wondered if Fregosi might be able to catch 75 pitches or so.
"Yeah," said Fregosi. "I think I can find the time."