BY MATT LaWELL
VISALIA, California | The numbers alone are enough to make you stop and think for a minute or two or seven.
The California League is home to five games almost every night from early April until right around Labor Day. That works out to 700 games every season, give or take maybe a dozen thanks to rain. The league hasn’t always been as strong as it is today — 10 cities have teams now, but only eight fielded a team during the first season back in 1941, six turned out for a handful of other seasons and only four were a part of the last season before the league suspended operations for World War II — but it has survived and is near the middle of its 69th season. That means it has a history of about 40,000 games. And that means players have had about 720,000 opportunities to rap two, three, four, five, maybe even six hits in a game.
On May 15, in a wild game with a football score, Visalia Rawhide second baseman Michael Freeman rapped seven hits.
No one in the history of the league has ever had more in a single game.
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Freeman is not your prototypical slugger. The Rawhide roster says he stands 6 feet tall and weighs 192 pounds, and that might be right. He has thick forearms and a modest frame. He prides himself more on his speed and his defense. He likes to get his uniform dirty. Over 182 games and parts of three seasons with the the Rawhide, the South Bend Silver Hawks and the Yakima Bears, he has a .277 batting average, 147 singles and exactly one home run.
On the night he managed to swing his way into the California League record book, Freeman hit seven singles.
“I grounded out my first at-bat,” he says. “It was kind of a line drive one-hopper to the first baseman. Pretty good swing. The next inning, things started clicking and that was when I started hitting.”
So did his teammates. The Rawhide collected 31 hits in all and pounded the High Desert Mavericks, 26-11, in a stadium that lends itself to prodigious offensive numbers. Five years ago, the Lake Elsinore Storm beat the Mavericks at Mavericks Stadium by the ridiculous final score of 33-18. Some scouts refuse to travel there because whatever they see is so seldom an accurate reflection of what a player might do anywhere else.
“Minor league baseball today is the opportunity to live out a childhood dream. Everyone that plays, there are guys who are high draft picks, lower draft picks, they all have some opportunity. Some guys get more opportunity than others." — Visalia second baseman Michael Freeman
None of that matters now to Freeman.
When he stepped in the box to lead off the game that night, his average hovered at .230. It dropped a little more after that ground out in the first. Then it jumped the rest of the night.
In the second inning, with the Rawhide up 2-1 and a runner on first, he lined the first pitch he saw, a changeup, into right for a single.
In the third, with the Rawhide up 7-1 and another runner on first, he hit the first pitch again for a single to right, this time a sharp grounder.
Later in the third, up 13-1 with the bases loaded, he lined a single to left and drove in two runners. Three hits in three innings? A good start.
In the fourth, up 22-5 with the bases empty, he singled to left, the eighth straight hit for the Rawhide. He hit that pitch off the end of the bat.
In the fifth, still up 22-5 and with runners on second and third, he singled to center and drove in both. His hitting coach, former Major Leaguer Jacob Cruz, laughed. “Back here again?” he asked.
In the eighth, up 24-10, he singled to right to lead off the inning. Cruz just congratulated him, not knowing what else to say.
In the ninth, up 24-11, with two outs and a runner on first, he flicked his bat at a slider and singled to left, right over the head of Mavericks shortstop Brad Miller, an old teammate at Clemson. “I thanked him,” Freeman says, “for not quite getting up there to catch it.”
After the game, Freeman received texts from family and friends. Other players and local media passed along the news on Twitter. He says that during the hours after the game, when his phone battery drained close to empty, he never understood the enormity of his accomplishment, not even when Rawhide radio broadcaster Donnie Barnes told him he tied the league record for hits in a nine-inning game. “I just had a couple different slumps that weighed me down a little bit,” Freeman says. “It’s just nice to have a game like that to boost you up a little bit, nice to get that going and get some confidence going.”
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Freeman is 24 years old now, the youngest of three brothers. He always tagged along with Benn and Chase, six and four years older, respectively, in the hope he would have a chance to play. He is the only son of Bill and Sheree Freeman who still feels the thrill of the grass.
No matter what happens during the years and decades to come, he wants to remember the night he hit seven singles, the night he tied a record. He wants to do more, though.
“Minor league baseball today is the opportunity to live out a childhood dream,” Freeman says. “Everyone that plays, there are guys who are high draft picks, lower draft picks, they all have some opportunity. Some guys get more opportunity than others.
“Getting to the big leagues, the first game, the first hit, those sorts of things will weigh bigger than this. I hope this isn’t my defining moment.”
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