Friday, November 12, 2010

Tigers Should Retire No. 11, Alright---But Not Why You Might Think

The number 11 on the back of the Tigers jersey he wore may as well have stood for No. 1 twice.

The number 11 was a Detroit baseball staple, worn by a man who was as closely identified with the Tigers organization as any, including fellow Detroiter Willie Horton.

The number 11 was also the number of All-Star Games he went to, in addition to the World Series and ALCS he appeared in.

Yes sir, the Tigers should retire no. 11, and erect a statue of the man who wore that number proudly.

Why haven't the Tigers so honored Bill Freehan?

Excuse me---did you think I was speaking of someone else?

In the wake of the sad news of Sparky Anderson's passing, there's been a call to retire Sparky's no. 11. The dispute between Sparky and the Ilitches aside, I can see where a case could be made to formally ensure that no Tiger ever again slips on no. 11, even by accident.

But that number shouldn't have been available to Sparky to begin with. So says me.

Freehan, a Tiger (and ONLY a Tiger) from 1961-76, was the best catcher of the 1960s---American or National League, Earth or any other planet you got. Period.

The decade wasn't filled with great backstops, but that's not Freehan's fault. You could run Johnny Bench's career parallel to Bill's and I'd still take Freehan.

Freehan, defensively, was about as perfect as a catcher could be. He handled nearly 11,000 chances and made 72 errors in 16 seasons, for a lifetime fielding percentage of .993.

Mathematics 101 tells us that Freehan's fielding pct. means that for every 100 chances handled, Bill screwed up on 0.7 of them.

Freehan was an Adonis behind the plate---6'3", 200 pounds of sinew and muscle. A player trying to crash through Freehan at the plate was like a car hitting a deer, with the car losing.

They weren't as anal about keeping stats on catchers throwing out would-be base stealers in Freehan's day, but I don't need numbers to tell me that you ran on Freehan at your own risk. His arm was golden, with a quick-as-a-whip release.

Freehan gets a lot of notoriety---as well he should---for the play he combined with left fielder Horton to make in Game 5 of the 1968 World Series at Tiger Stadium. You know the one.

The St. Louis Cardinals were leading the series, 3-1, and were ahead 3-2 in the fifth inning. Roadrunner Lou Brock was at second base, and then Julian Javier singled. Everyone knew Brock would try to score, and would probably make it, for Brock was a gazelle disguised as a human being.

Horton bobbled the ball briefly after fielding it on one hop, then he fired it homeward.

The throw was dead solid perfect, arriving in Freehan's glove after a short hop. Brock arrived at virtually the same time, eschewing a slide for an attempt to plow through Freehan.

Lou got this one wrong.

Freehan denied Brock access to the plate, Lou's cleat missing the dish by mere inches.

Brock was out, the lead stayed at one run, and the Tigers rallied to win the game and eventually the series.

Brock foolishly trying to run Freehan over on his way to home plate in the 1968 World Series, Game 5

Freehan was a miserable 2-for-24 in the '68 World Series, but his pillar of a body kept Brock from scoring a run that might have sent the Cards on their way to a series-clinching victory. It was oh-so-fitting that Freehan caught the final out that made the Tigers World Champs.

Freehan could hit, too, with a career batting average of .262 and 200 home runs. At age 22 and in his second full season as Tigers catcher, Freehan batted an even .300 with 18 homers and 80 RBI. Solid, just like his entire career.

As if Freehan didn't suffer enough physical abuse as a catcher, he also was annually among the American League's leaders in times hit by a pitch. Freehan was plunked 114 times, with highs of 20 in 1967 and 24 in 1968. He was the league's milk bottle at that carnival midway game, with the pitchers paying a buck for three throws at him.

All this, and Freehan was a Detroit kid, born and reared. After he stopped playing, he stayed close to home, working as a manufacturer's rep and then becoming the baseball coach for years at his alma mater, the University of Michigan.

Freehan was the backbone of the Tigers. There was the slugging Willie Horton, the comical Norm Cash, the smooth Al Kaline, the portly Mickey Lolich. With the exception of Lolich, none of them was as durable as Freehan, who'd routinely catch 130+ games a year, before his back started to give out on him in the early-1970s.

Yes sir, I'd say the Tigers should retire no. 11. But I'm willing to compromise and combine Freehan and Sparky in one massive ceremony.

Even though Sparky shouldn't have been able to wear no. 11 in the first place.


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