Friday, August 28, 2009

Before Smoltz-for-Alexander, Tigers Struck Gold With Fryman

He was a tobacco farmer, really. And how many of them play big league baseball?

But Woodie Fryman might have been thinking that his days of a full-time purveyor of tobacco were drawing near, as he languished as the black sheep of the Philadelphia Phillies' rotation in the summer of 1972.

It's a "What have you done for me lately?" business, pro sports is. Often, it's lately, as in...oh, yesterday. And Fryman hadn't done much good for the Phillies for a whole bunch of yesterdays as August '72 approached.

If you're sick of hearing about how the Tigers traded prospect John Smoltz for the aging, sourpuss Doyle Alexander in 1987, and of how Doyle was lights out helping the Tigers to the divisional title, then you've come to the right place.

For before there was Smoltz-for-Alexander, there was cash-for-Fryman.

Woodrow Thompson Fryman, the tobacco farmer from Ewing, Kentucky without whom the Tigers may not have won the 1972 East Division.

Fryman was 32 in August '72, which isn't ancient but can look it when you're 4-10 and pitching for a team that would go on to lose 97 games, as those Phillies did.

Besides, the Tigers weren't full of spring chickens themselves. They were a (clear throat) veteran team, to put it politely. Not old---experienced, thank you.

The core of the 1968 World Champion team was still there, but everyone was four years older, naturally, and precious few prospects were being produced by the farm system.

GM Jim Campbell was making it a habit---often out of necessity---of plucking players from the 30+ year-old scrap heap and fitting them with Old English Ds, both to put a Band-Aid on a wound that would have to be attended to later, and to give his manager, Billy Martin, the horses needed to win a division that was tantalizingly close and ripe for the taking.

Campbell supplied Martin with the lefty-swinging catcher Duke Sims, rescued from the Dodgers (also in August '72), who hit .313 for the Tigers down the stretch. At the end of the month, Campbell brought Frank Howard in from the cold (actually, from the heat of Texas), wallowing with a horrible Texas Rangers team.

The year prior, Campbell acquired veterans like 2B Tony Taylor, lefty reliever Ron Perranoski, and righthander Dean Chance.

All this mainly because the Tigers' farm system wasn't churning out very many big league-caliber players. Martin was the first to notice, and called the front office out about it, which eventually hastened Billy's firing in 1973.

So here comes Woodie Fryman, purchased from the Phillies on August 2, 1972.

Fryman as a nearly-40 year-old pitcher for the Expos

Fryman pitched two games in relief without allowing a run, including 6-1/3 shutout innings in Cleveland a few days after joining the Tigers.

Then Fryman started his first game as a Tiger on August 9, in Yankee Stadium. He threw a six-hit shutout at the Yanks, who were among the four-headed monster trying to win the East Division---along with the Tigers, Red Sox, and Orioles.

Fryman started four days later against the Indians at Tiger Stadium and pitched another complete game, allowing just two runs.

Four days after that, Fryman shut down the Twins, allowing two runs in yet another complete game victory.

Fryman had pitched a tad over 35 innings as a Tiger and allowed just four runs, for an ERA of 1.02.

Woodie Fryman was a throwback. His windup recalled those of pitchers decades before him: after getting the sign from the catcher, Fryman would lean forward, swing both arms behind him, raise them above his head as they met, the ball just now hitting the mitt, and then complete the motion, which included hiding the ball along his waist until the last moment before firing it toward home plate.

Fryman and his throwback windup and left arm suddenly were carrying the Tigers, in a nip-and-tuck race that would leave the Orioles and Yankees behind in the final turn and leave just the Tigers and the Red Sox in a furious run down the final straightaway.

Fryman would pitch every fourth day and give the Tigers nothing but excellence. Only once in 14 starts did he surrender more than four runs. His ERA as a Tiger was a miniscule 2.06. His record was 10-3.

Without Woodie Fryman, the Tigers would have been left in the lurch. With him, the Tigers had enough to win the East by a nose over Boston.

In the ALCS, Fryman got roughed up in Oakland in Game 2, but then gave the Tigers eight strong innings in the decisive Game 5, four days later. The A's squeaked out a 2-1 victory, breaking Tigers fans' hearts all over Michigan.

Fryman wasn't anywhere close to being done, it turns out, when the Tigers came calling in 1972. He'd pitch until 1983, as a 43-year-old. He wasn't all that eager, apparently, to turn to tobacco farming full time. But his days as a starter pretty much ended, and with a bang, with the Tigers in 1972-73.

The Tigers didn't make the playoffs again until 1987. Fryman's heroics in '72 were talked about frequently around Detroit, until Doyle Alexander came along.

Not too many folks talk about ole Woodie Fryman around these parts anymore.

What has he done for us lately, right?



Blogger Ye said...

I know you have 1987 on your mind for the sake of the article, but for you non Tiger fans out there we did win the World Series in 84.

10:47 PM  

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