If you just looked at the numbers, you’d think that Travis Fryman would be one of the greats to have played the left side of the infield for the Detroit Tigers.
Five seasons of 20 or more homers. An average of 93 RBI in his seven full seasons. One Silver Slugger Award. Four All-Star selections.
But Fryman is barely mentioned among the great Detroit players of the last 40 years. That has a lot to do with when he broke in and how he left.
When Fryman was drafted by the Tigers in the 3rd round of the 1987 draft he was excited. As a boy in Kentucky in the 1970s, Fryman had been a fan of the Big Red Machine, managed by Sparky Anderson. “I wanted to play for Sparky,” Fryman later said. When he arrived in Detroit in the middle of the 1990 season he got the chance to play for the legendary manager and he soon made an impression. But Fryman was playing shortstop only because of an injury to Alan Trammell. When he hit .297 in half a season as a rookie, Fryman was in the big leagues to stay, but he was always cast in the shadow of Trammell, one of the heroes and leaders of the 1980s Tigers that had won more games than any other team in baseball except the Yankees.
Though Fryman was a gifted player, when compared to Trammell he looked mechanical, stilted, and slow. For a while, Fryman unseated Trammell at shortstop, but then the younger player was moved to third base. Tiger fans may have enjoyed the fact that Fryman was a good run producer with a strong throwing arm, but he wasn’t Trammell. It didn’t help Fryman that he was just the second position player to come out of a depleted and neglected Detroit farm system in more than a decade. The other – Howard Johnson – was eventually run out of town, and Fryman would suffer similar disrespect when he departed Motown.
Fryman’s best season as a Tiger was in 1993, when at just 24 years of age he hit .300 with 182 hits, 98 runs scored, 37 doubles, 22 homers, and 97 RBI. He reached 100 RBI in both 1996 and 1997, after signing a three-year, multi-million dollar contract. But with one season left on a backloaded deal, new Tiger general manager Randy Smith dumped Fryman and his $6.5 million salary when he dealt his All-Star third baseman to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Fryman never even received a phone call from the Tigers telling him of the trade. His time in Detroit was over, but his packing had barely begun when he was flipped by Arizona in a trade that sent him to the Cleveland Indians. The D-Backs had wanted Matt Williams to fill their third base position all along, and had only acquired Fryman as a backup plan. When the Tribe made Williams available, Fryman was shipped to the Tigers division rival. After years trying to replace a legend in Detroit and suffering through losing seasons for the Tigers, Fryman was headed to a team that seemed to really want him. His new manager was a fan.
“We always liked [him],” Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove said in spring training in 1998. “He’s always been a dangerous and productive hitter, and he’s done it in some weak lineups.”
Away from the only team he had ever played for, Fryman joined a championship level team in Cleveland. The team had been to two of the last three World Series. After just two winning seasons in 11 years in Detroit’s organization, Travis blossomed in 1998, hitting a career-high 28 homers in the middle of the talented Cleveland lineup. The team won the AL Central title again, but lost to the New York Yankees in the ALCS in six games. Fryman struggled in his first post-season, but the next year he hit a home run and drove in four runs in a five-game loss to the Boston Red Sox on the ALDS. In 2000, he hit .321 with 22 homers and 106 RBI for the Indians, while also winning his only Gold Glove for his play at the hot corner. Injuries plagued him over the next two seasons, and after a comeback attempt in 2003 failed, Fryman retired at the age of 34.
Always a big fan of the game, Fryman put in three seasons as a minor league manager in the Cleveland organization and now serves as a minor league hitting instructor for the Indians. In eight years with the Tigers and five with Cleveland, Fryman belted 223 homers and drove in more than 1,000 RBI. Had his timing been a little better, the talented Fryman may have been treated a little better by fans and the front office in Detroit, leaving him with a more memorable place in Tiger history.