Inside the Michigan baseball program, it’s customary for a senior to make a short speech to his teammates before each series. Before the Wolverines’ season-opening series against Iowa, fifth-year infielder Matt Frey took his turn.
In the speech, he told his teammates that they won’t know when they’ve played their last game, so they should always play and act in a way that will leave them with no regrets when that time comes. Frey considered the topic to be a little ironic, because he was about to enter his fifth season of college baseball and will likely play a sixth. But he’s also an expert on the subject.
In the fall of 2020, Frey was preparing for his best season yet. He had improved steadily and significantly during his four years at Davidson, progressing from a light-hitting bench piece as an underclassman to an everyday player as a junior to a five-tool standout as a senior, when he slashed .327/.507/.551 with five stolen bases in a shortened season. Then he used the spring and summer to get even better.
“Over quarantine, I decided to try to swing the bat harder,” Frey said. “And then balls that I was hitting that were outs when I was not swinging as hard started to fall or go over the fence.”
When the NCAA announced an extra year of eligibility for Division 1 baseball players in response to COVID-19, Frey committed to Michigan. Davidson coach Rucker Taylor played under Michigan coach Erik Bakich at Vanderbilt, and sung Bakich’s praises to Frey.
“The culture that (Bakich) has built around here, the winning mentality that he’s built around here, the team performance, coupled with the academic side …. It was a no-brainer,” Frey said of his decision to commit to Michigan.
When he arrived in Ann Arbor, Frey continued to improve with the help of Michigan’s coaching staff and other program resources. He established himself as Michigan’s best hitter “by a landslide” during fall practices, according to Bakich, and was the frontrunner to be the team’s starting third baseman.
Then disaster struck.
Frey was fielding a bunt during the last official fall practice when his cleat got stuck in the turf, making him fall and twist his knee awkwardly. He was able to get up and walk, and didn’t think the injury was very severe. But an MRI taken shortly after revealed that he had torn his ACL, ruling Frey out for the entire 2021 season.
Frey had played his last baseball of the near future. So when he told his teammates that they’ll never know when time’s up, he knew what he was talking about.
Even though he can’t play, he’s found ways to contribute that are just as important. Frey has managed to become an indispensable part of Team 155 and has made the most of his time at Michigan.
Michigan takes its pitching machine with it on road trips. The machine is big and awkwardly shaped, and it always makes a loud crashing noise when it exits the luggage chute for the baggage carousel at the airport.
Other passengers, waiting for their bags, furrow their brows as they try to make sense of the situation. Frey and his teammates find this hilarious.
Little moments like that, he said, are what he has enjoyed most about this season.
“There’s nowhere that you’re going to go and have more fun than we do here,” Frey said.
If he was playing for another team this year, Frey said he might have quit after getting injured. But here, he never considered it. He misses playing, but he doesn’t need to play to be deeply involved with the team.
“The actual baseball part is, I don’t want to say not why we’re out there, but it’s not the most fulfilling part of playing for Michigan,” Frey said. “Playing for each other, and playing for the Block M is the fulfilling part, and I can do that, I can be part of the team when I’m hurt.”
Frey isn’t just part of the team — he’s one of the most important parts, even while injured. Frey is such a good teammate that, at Bakich’s request, he comes on every road trip, despite the 32-man traveling roster limit that forces the team to leave some healthy players at home.
Frey has a history of being a great teammate. He was elected captain his senior year at Davidson, in a clubhouse of players with good attitudes and work ethics.
“I didn’t have to do much,” Frey said. “It felt like any one of those guys could have stepped up and been the captain of that team.”
At Michigan, he’s taken on a similar role. He’s always happy to help and support his teammates, but he isn’t the sole leader: he knows that the coaching staff, support staff and any of his other 41 teammates would do the same.
“He gives a comforting pat on the back when you need it, and a kick in the butt when you need it as well,” sophomore right fielder Clark Elliott said. “He’s a great team guy and he’s really helped bring this team together.”
But Frey is far more than just a friendly face in the locker room, or a guy who enjoys pounding on the dugout railing and cheering his teammates on during games. He also brings a vast knowledge of the game to bear behind the scenes.
Teammates frequently seek him out for conversations about hitting mechanics and techniques, although Frey downplays the significance of his contributions.
“I think a lot of guys need someone to listen to them as they talk through stuff,” Frey said. “I think a lot of times it can be really productive for a guy who has 1,000 different thoughts about what he’s doing with his swing to talk about them out loud to somebody. And I’ll sit there and listen and say, like, ‘you’re great, you’re the best hitter ever.’ But I don’t provide any value.”
His teammates would beg to differ. Fifth-year catcher Griffin Mazur credits Frey with helping him create a weighted bat program that increased his bat speed by more than five miles per hour, for example.
“He has a great power bat,” sophomore outfielder Joey Velazquez said of Frey. “He helps guys with their swings, seeing what he sees. He’s a big help for everybody.”
During games, Frey keeps a scouting report of the opposing pitcher, looking for minute details that could give Michigan hitters an edge. He searches for predictability. If a pitcher constantly throws a certain pitch in a certain count, he’ll let teammates know. It isn’t game-changing knowledge, he said, but it does give some hitters more confidence at the plate.
Although Frey is constantly available to his teammates in several capacities, he doesn’t think it’s hard work.
“It’s such an easy group to pull for,” he said. “All the guys pick each other up and are supportive and are just the best teammates, so it’s easy to slot right in and be a good dude to the rest of your team.”
Frey completely bought into the leadership training and other off-field programming led by Bakich and the coaching staff.
“Every single day is some new challenge, some opportunity to get better,” he said. “I don’t even mean better at baseball; I mean better as a human being, or better academically.”
“Maybe it’s a baseball skill you learn, maybe it’s a life skill you learn, but you’re learning something and doing something uncomfortable that pushes your limits in Michigan baseball every single day. And having the opportunity to do that is amazing, it’s unbelievable.”
He’ll be ready to play by next fall, and hopes to return for a final season of college baseball. But he’s already graduated from Michigan once, with a Master’s in sport management. In order to return, he needs to be accepted to a graduate degree program through the Ross School of Business.
Next year, Frey should be starting at an infield position and batting in the heart of the order. No matter when Frey’s career does come to an end, he’s played and acted in a way that should leave him with no regrets.