Saturday, May 14, 2005

One Of My First Heroes: Bill Freehan

(To help celebrate the return of the baseball All-Star game to Detroit this summer, each weekend between now and the game, "Out of Bounds" will look back at a different Tigers player who toiled for the club since the last Detroit All-Star game in 1971)

Freehan was one of the best defensive catchers of all time

By now, it's old hat -- meeting and talking to athletes in lockerrooms and elsewhere. That I have done time and time again. But back in 1976, as a 13 year-old, it was just about the most exciting thing I could ever imagine.

Somehow or another, my mother knew someone who knew Tigers catcher Bill Freehan. And, somehow or another, it was arranged that my friend Steve Hall and I would get a chance to meet Freehan in the Tigers clubhouse prior to a game in '76. Freehan, a member of the 1968 World Champs and the '72 AL East winners, was in his final season and was mostly a part-time player. But he was always one of my favorites because he was a helluva catcher and he was extremely professional in his approach to the game.

So Hall and I were escorted to the entrance to the Tigers lockerroom before the game at old Tiger Stadium and we waited. And we waited. Slowly I began to wonder whether it was all a cruel joke, this promise to meet Bill Freehan. But then the door slid open, a security guard appeared, and we were told to wait a moment. Then, as promised, Freehan appeared, larger than life and seemingly taking up the entire doorway. He had his uniform pants on and his undershirt. He was already sweating -- maybe due to a pregame workout.

"Hi fellas," Freehan said, grinning.

And Hall and I, who had talked all the way downtown about what we were going to say to Freehan and what questions to ask him, said nothing.

"Glad you could come to the game," Freehan added.

Again, we said nothing. Instead we stared, dumbfounded, not believing that we were standing before a real life big leaguer.

My mom muttered some words, not easy for her either, but mainly because she was taken by Freehan's good looks.

Then, after a few more awkward moments and minor dialogue, Freehan told us he'd wave to us before the game -- he knew where our seats were behind the Tigers dugout -- and then he bid us farewell.

The whole encounter probably lasted a few scant minutes. And, sure enough, Freehan looked for us after the pregame warmups and indeed waved to us. I never felt prouder as the fans around us wondered who we were to receive such an acknowledgement.

But you can only have one "first" in your life in whatever category you choose, and nothing can change the fact that Bill Freehan was the first pro athlete I ever met in person. And I suppose that's another reason why he was a favorite of mine, even after his career. So I followed Freehan after his playing days, noting how he helped Tigers catchers in spring training year after year (he still does it), recalling his days as a Tigers TV analyst, and nodding in approval as he took the University of Michigan baseball coaching job (he was a U-M grad).

I also marveled at how Freehan never changed. Most former big leaguers, even the ones who were svelte when they played, get a tad chubby when they hang up the spikes. And catchers are generally chunky to begin with. Yet Freehan, even today in his early 60's, looks like he could catch 25 games a year. I remember when he tutored a young player named Lance Parrish, and now Parrish himself works with Tigers catchers of the future. But Freehan still shows up in Lakeland every February, ready to teach the finer aspects of catching. And you could do far worse as a young catcher than to work with Freehan, who has one of the highest career fielding percentages in baseball history for backstops.

Freehan in 1967, not all that much different than he looks today

Freehan, although a major cog in the Tigers' 1968 world championship season, had an awful World Series offensively, managing just one hit in the seven games. But his blocking of the plate against Lou Brock in the famous play that turned the Series around in the fifth game did as much to save the day for the Tigers as Willie Horton's throw on the play. One of the most well-known baseball photos of the modern era is the one of Freehan, accepting the throw, blocking the plate as Brock, who foolishly and arrogantly decided not to slide, tries vainly to touch the dish with his foot. Classic stuff.

The most important play of the '68 World Series

By the way, as big as Freehan appeared in that doorway in 1976, he has nothing on Michigan offensive lineman Bubba Paris, who I met briefly as a freshman at EMU in 1981, and who took up the entire elevator with his 6'7", 325 pound frame. But that's another blog entry.

About nine or ten years ago, I ran into Freehan again, this time in the Petoskey area. He was leaving a diner that my wife, father and I were entering. "Hi, Bill," I said, not shy this time. He acknowledged me.

20 years after our initial meeting, I found my voice.

(next weekend: Johnny Grubb)

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