Bill Freehan was as dyed-in-the-wool as a Detroit Tiger as one could possibly invent. Freehan was born and raised in Detroit, with a brief four-year stint during his high school years in St. Petersburg, Florida before returning to Metropolitan Detroit, attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he played both baseball and football. Freehan then signed with the Detroit Tigers, where he made a brief cameo in 1961 before returning for good in 1963, staying with the Tigers until his retirement in 1976. Freehan was an eleven-time All-Star for his hometown Tigers, twice finishing in the top three in MVP voting and winning five Gold Gloves. After his retirement, Freehan spent time coaching at the University of Michigan, working as a color commentator for the Detroit Tigers, and acting as a catching instructor for the team. He and his wife continued to live in Bloomfield Hills, a Detroit suburb, into their later years, with Freehan moving to northern Michigan in his late seventies before succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease on August 19, 2021.
That neither Freehan nor Mickey Lolich, the longtime Detroit Tigers starting pitcher who, for the next eleven hours and forty-five minutes will hold a share of the Major League Baseball record for most starts by a pitcher-catcher battery with 324 such starts, have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame is, in a slightly off-kilter way, an honest reflection of their true meaning. Although Lolich was not a native of Detroit or even the Midwest (he was born and raised in Portland, Oregon), and although he pitched briefly with the New York Mets and San Diego Padres in the later stages of his career, the two-time Cy Young finalist and former World Series Most Valuable Player is synonymous with the Detroit Tigers. Lolich and Freehan rank eighth and ninth in Detroit Tigers history, respectively, by a metric known as bWARWACP, an acronym for Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement With a Color Photograph (of the players with more WAR as Tigers, only Al Kaline, Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Hal Newhouser, Justin Verlander, Norm Cash, and Miguel Cabrera have color photos).
The defining moment in the careers of both Freehan and Lolich came on October 10, 1968, a stone’s throw away from where Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright will surpass their record for regular season starts by a battery in Major League Baseball history tonight. In Game 7 of the 1968 World Series, on a Thursday afternoon, Lolich squared off against Cardinals legend Bob Gibson; just three days earlier, with the Tigers down 3-1 in the series, Lolich won Game 5 back at Tiger Stadium. Although Gibson, with his 1.12 ERA, and teammate Denny McLain, with his 30 wins, had dominated headlines throughout 1968, known to this day as “The Year of the Pitcher”, it was Lolich who stole the show on the sport’s biggest stage. Gibson and Lolich allowed no runs through six, and after the Tigers sparked a two-out rally to notch three runs in the top of the seventh inning, Lolich proceeded to hold on. Although Lolich surrendered his shutout with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, via a Mike Shannon home run, he recorded the final out of the World Series one batter later via a Tim McCarver popup which was caught by Bill Freehan. After the final out was tallied, Lolich jumped into Freehan’s arms as the Tigers’ championship celebration ensued.
Neither Yadier Molina nor Adam Wainwright were born in or particularly near St. Louis. Wainwright’s hometown of Brunswick, Georgia, in the far southeast portion of the state, is a thirteen hour drive from Busch Stadium, and yet Brunswick is closer to St. Louis, geographically and certainly culturally, than to Bayamón, Puerto Rico, the hometown of Molina. Neither grew up a fan of the Cardinals, and the margins by which the two became long-time Cardinals was razor-thin: Wainwright, famously, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and spent three-and-a-half years in their minor league system before he was traded to the Cardinals; Molina was heavily scouted by the Minnesota Twins and Cincinnati Reds before the Cardinals drafted him in the fourth round of the 2000 MLB Draft.
And yet they converged, many hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes, to form the most enduring pitcher-catcher duo in the history of the sport. And they did it in St. Louis–their hometowns not by birth and, by 2022, not by virtue of baseball transactions beyond their personal autonomy, but by choice. For as much as any player with local roots is celebrated in St. Louis, natives should feel extended pride not that a player would want to play for the team he grew up rooting for, but that a pair of decidedly non-Midwesterners like Molina and Wainwright would cherish their chosen home and aspire to be part of it for what is at this point nearly as long as they were ever full-time residents of Brunswick or Bayamón.
The first time Adam Wainwright threw a Major League pitch to Yadier Molina will be old enough to go to an R-rated movie in nine days. The first time Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina started a game together, a month and a half before this thirty-three year old’s high school graduation, the number-one song in the United States was “Glamorous” by Fergie featuring Ludacris. Although they never played together at the same time, both Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina played at the old Busch Stadium, the one where Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan had their greatest shared moment of professional glory, and tonight they will take the mound at its replacement, which by now is only the eighth newest stadium in Major League Baseball.
That the record for starts by a battery is being broken in 2022 borders on statistical impossibility. Players, particularly players good enough to have the longevity to compete for this record, switch teams more frequently than ever before. Starting pitchers are conserved far more than in previous eras, with strict five-man rotations the norm throughout the entirety of Adam Wainwright’s career–Wainwright’s career-high in starts in a season is 34, a mark eclipsed by Mickey Lolich in seven different seasons (all of which came while Bill Freehan was his primary catcher). While Lolich and Freehan compiled their starts over thirteen years, Wainwright and Molina needed seventeen seasons as teammates to do it. Wainwright was not a starting pitcher until his third season in St. Louis, he missed a full season right in the heart of his and Molina’s prime, he looked completely cooked by 2018, and even when he bounced back to respectability, 102 games were cut out of the 2020 regular season for reasons beyond the duo’s control.
An increased appreciation for Yadier Molina’s skill set likely means that, unlike Freehan or Lolich, he will likely end up in the Hall of Fame. Adam Wainwright is more likely to go the Mickey Lolich route–a guy who lingers on the Cooperstown ballot for a while but never comes all that close to making it, and in hindsight, if you ask if that pitcher should be in the Hall of Fame, your answer is ultimately no but you talk your way around saying it because, man, that guy really was a heck of a pitcher.
Like Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina enjoyed their greatest moment of professional glory together, and like Lolich and Freehan, they did so closing out a Cardinals/Tigers World Series in St. Louis. The moment predates the beginning of their battery record pursuit, coming five-and-a-half months earlier, which only serves to demonstrate once again just how long they’ve been doing this. Adam Wainwright’s curveball which froze Carlos Beltrán to triumph in the 2006 NLCS over the New York Mets may have been the more glorious, more dramatic moment, but striking out Brandon Inge to win the World Series, the first for either Wainwright or Molina and the first for the Cardinals organization in twenty-four years, would be impossible to top.
Like Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan thirty-eight years earlier, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina leapt into each others’ arms to celebrate their victory. Like Mickey Lolich and Bill Freehan, it will forever be impossible to separate the two in the annals of history.