Author’s note: This interview is an abridged interview offered to Béisbol101.com. The longer version was originally published in Memories of Winter Ball, Interviews with Players of the Latin American Leagues of the 1950s (2013) by Lou Hernández.
Phil Regan began his 13-year major league career as a spot starter with Detroit in 1960. That winter, he gained confidence-boosting experience pitching for the Mayagüez Indians. A right-hander, Regan led the Puerto Rican Winter League in wins with 11. Two earlier winters had found Regan honing his trade for Nicaragua’s Boer Indians.
A winner of 96 big league games, Regan was a pitching coach for the Seattle Mariners in the 1980s and for Chicago Cubs during the following decade. He managed the Baltimore Orioles in 1995 to a third-place American League Eastern Division finish. (Regan also managed the Caracas Leones to the Venezuelan Winter League pennant in 1989-90.)
Nicknamed “the Vulture” for his ability to pick up wins in relief early in his big-league career, Regan was coaxed out of retirement by Omar Minaya in 2009. The general manager of the New York Mets at the time, Minaya asked Regan to become the pitching coach of the Mets’ Class A minor league team in Port St. Lucie, Florida. Regan accepted, and held the post from 2009 to 2015. The following year, he became the Mets minor league pitching coordinator.
I was able to catch up with the former relief specialist midway through the 2012 St. Lucie Mets’ season.
In June 2019, at age 82, Regan was appointed pitching coach of the New York Mets.
Where did you grow up?
In a small town in Michigan, right outside of Grand Rapids. I lived in the country and did not play a game of baseball until I reached high school.
That is amazing. Were you able to follow the game?
I knew the whole Detroit Tiger team. Hal Newhouser was one of my big heroes growing up.
So it was after a couple of years of minor league ball that you first ventured to play winter ball? In Nicaragua, you stayed in Managua?
I played for the Boer team in the winter of 1958-59. Most of the players stayed downtown in a hotel. We rented a home –my wife and I – outside of Managua. It was a two-family home. Another ballplayer, Jack Kralick, and myself, stayed out there with our wives. It was in the country, and we had a great time. My major in college was history. I have always tried to study the history of every country I have been to. Nicaragua was interesting because the other big team was the Cinco Estrellas, the Five Stars team, which was [Anastasio] Somoza’s team. Somoza was in power at that time. I would read about fighting going on in the hills. I would ask, who are these people? They told me, do not worry, they are named after a general that was a martyr. You will never hear from them again. Twenty-five years later, the Sandanistas were in power.
What can you tell me about the stadium?
It was a very big, round Olympic stadium. A lot of cement seating. It was not great seating. Whenever we played Somoza’s team, the stadium was full. We dressed at home. As I remember, the locker rooms were not great, but, you know, when your 18, 19, 20-years-old, you do not complain about it. You could walk outside our home, which was kind of on a main street and you could get a cab for 15 cents or 20 cents to take you to the ballpark. We did not have much travel. The only time we traveled was to a place called León. We played there, and we had a guy named Jim McManus on our team. McManus slid into third base, hard. There was a fight between he and the third baseman, and the fans swarmed the field. They called the game. They got us on the bus. The fans stoned the bus and knocked all of our windows out. We made it back to Managua. We never traveled there again.
What about at holiday time, being away from home and all?
We had turkey for Thanksgiving. I can remember the native people would come out around Christmastime and wrap the trees with white crepe paper to make it look like snow, and they would serenade us with Christmas carols. It was a long way from Michigan, but it kind of reminded me of it, with the fake snow. It was pretty nice.
You also experienced winter grooming in another locale.
I played one other season of winter ball. In Puerto Rico. The person who contacted me was one of the owners of Mayagüez, Babel Pérez. Bill Adair was the manager. I had a pretty good year there. I had a lot of positive experiences in Puerto Rico. I made $800 a month, plus $300 for expenses. That was 1960. In ’61, I pitched for the Tigers, and won ten games for them. And Babel Pérez called me. He said, ‘We would like to have you back, but we can only offer you $700 a month.’ He wanted to cut me a hundred dollars. [laughs] I told him no.
What was Puerto Rico like?
It was a great learning experience for me because I received a chance to play against Clemente, Vic Power and Orlando Cepeda. I pitched against guys like that. It made me know that I could pitch in the big leagues. Juan Pizarro was there, a great pitcher. I played with him later on in Chicago. Charley Lau was our catcher.
Where in Mayagüez did you stay?
We lived at the Darlington Apartments, a high-rise building. All of the players lived there.
Mayagüez is located on the western part of the island. That mandated some travel.
We traveled mainly by bus. When we went to Ponce, we would take a back road going over the mountains, and I can tell you that was not fun. A lot of times when we had to go to San Juan, Babel Pérez, would say, hey, I have plane ticket for you. I am going to fly you there. I still remember the name of the hotel in San Juan. A big, white hotel, it looked like a ship, the Normandie Hotel. That is where we stayed when we went to San Juan.
What was your home park like?
The Mayagüez stadium was small, nothing real fancy. It held seven or eight thousand. The thing I still remember is that you would practice in the outfield and you would see these big land crabs that came out of holes in the ground. It was interesting to me because I had never seen them before. San Juan’s stadium was an older stadium. It did not have a lot of lights.
What did you do for relaxation?
Whenever we had two days off, my wife and I would go to a small town called La Parguera. It has this phosphorescent bay. At night, you could see the fish glowing and shimmering in the moonlight because there was so much phosphorescence in the water. It was really a unique place. It was really beautiful.
You mentioned some well-known players earlier. Juan Pizarro was one of the league’s leading pitchers that season, along with Luis Arroyo.
What I remember most about Luis Arroyo was the following year, I won ten games with Detroit, and we won 101 games and finished behind the Yankees, who won 109. Arroyo was instrumental in that for the Yankees. Aside from Arroyo, Juan Pizarro was just outstanding. Pizarro threw the ball hard and he was a dominating pitcher at that time. Clemente was the best player I ever pitched against. Orlando Cepeda never came to Mayagüez to play. The fans got on him too hard.
How did you spend the holidays in Puerto Rico?
Babel Pérez invited us over to his house for Christmas. What I remember were these huge crystal bowls filled with fresh shrimp cocktails. You would go over and eat as many as you wanted. Both holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, we went to Babel’s house. They did not celebrate these holidays there, but they kind of honored the American players. They tried to do it like in the United States.
How were the Puerto Rican fans?
The fans were good to you, if you played hard. If you did not play hard, they did not like you. Well, I have to be going. I have to get my pitchers warmed up.
Photo credit: NY Post