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Anthony Fenech | Detroit Free Press | June 24, 2019

Michigan baseball: Why Bill Freehan's No. 11 means so much in the College World Series

Michigan storms past Vanderbilt in Game 1 of CWS finals

OMAHA, Neb. — A few years ago, while forging a new path, Harrison Salter had a question.

It caught his parents off-guard -- and it might have been more of a statement -- but his future coach sat back in his chair, and soon, they were all crying.

From what Harrison said -- either, "Can I wear No. 11?" or "The only way I'll come is if I can wear No. 11" -- to how Michigan baseball head coach Erik Bakich responded -- "You're going to have to call the person that owns that number and see if you can wear it" -- to the call to his grandmother, who was soon crying, too ... of course, she said yes. Salter could wear her husband's number.

"It was one of the best days of our lives," Harison's father, John, said.

Harrison's grandfather -- John's father-in-law -- wore No. 11. A hulky, hitting machine and captain of a catcher named Bill Freehan. Freehan was a Detroit Tiger, an 11-time ALL-Star, a World Series champion, a borderline Baseball Hall of Famer, and, perhaps above all, a Michigan Man.

Freehan never made it to the College World Series, though. After one season in Ann Arbor, in which he hit a Big Ten-record .585 in 1961, the Tigers signed him. The next season, the Wolverines won the school's last national championship in baseball. His former teammates still joke that Freehan held them back from the national championship -- "We had to have him go pro before we could win," they joke -- and they laugh when they say it, but with a sad coda: "Man, if Freehan was here, he would be smiling so much right now."

CWS 2019: Full tournament bracket | Printable CWS bracket | Shop latest CWS gear | Listen live

Freehan's number had been retired since 1977 and though his parents didn't think he was going to bring it up right away -- immediately after Bakich offered him the scholarship they knew he wanted -- they knew it was in his plans all along.

"He always wanted to do something out of respect and honor to my father-in-law," John said. "If he ever had the opportunity to play at the University of Michigan, he always told us, behind the scenes, he was going to do it."

Freehan, 77, is not in Omaha. He has been in hospice, dealing with dementia for quite some time. But on Friday night, on the pitch that sent U-M to the College World Series finals, it was a No. 11 who caught the ball, behind the plate on a strikeout.

"He'd be so excited," Harrison said. "So proud."

And then, Harrison, more like his grandpa than his two older brothers, who both played baseball at Michigan State, handed the home plate umpire the ball.

Every home run hit so far at the College World Series

Not just any ball. The ball that sent U-M to the CWS championship series.

"He's very much like my father-in-law," John said. "Like, 'Let's just go, let's move on.'"

Years ago, John helped haul boxes of baseball memorabilia out of Freehan's house -- AL Gold Glove awards, old uniforms, signed baseballs -- after Freehan figured he had no use for it. And now here was Harrison, saying, "Dad, it's no big deal. I can grab another ball."

2019 CWS FINALS: Previewing and predicting the title series between Michigan and Vanderbilt

Harrison, a sophomore catcher from Orchard Lake St. Mary's, followed his older brothers, Blaise and Will, in high school, but was determined to go a different direction in college, leading him to U-M and the opportunity to honor Freehan.

"I definitely think about him every single day," Harrison said, "But every time I get the chance to go out on the field and play for him, it's an everyday thing, because I get to wear his number and it's been retired, so it's special to wear '11' every day."

Though Freehan watches the their games on television and hears the radio broadcasts with Pat, his wife of 56 years, the cruelty of dementia prevents him from actually processing how epic this run is for his Wolverines, the school he coached from 1990-95.

TEAM 153: Michigan is in the College World Series finals for the first time since 1962. And they're feeling right at home.

"It's definitely tough," Harrison said. "A couple guys have asked me, 'Is he watching the games?' and it's just a tough time, but he'd be so proud and so excited.

"A year after he left, they went to the College World Series, and he always wished he would have went to that '62 World Series."

Somewhere, Freehan is watching -- his wife has watched every game since the Big Ten tournament, and receives a post-game report from Salter after every one of them -- and if only he knew exactly what he was watching, he'd know that No. 11, a catcher in maize and blue finally made it to a College World Series.

This article is written by Anthony Fenech from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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Division I
College World Series
June 13-23/24, 2020
TD Ameritrade Park | Omaha, NE

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