By TREY WILLIAMS
As unjust as it seemed, Clint Freeman was resigned to his fate this spring.
At 28 years of age – considered the peak time for an athlete – the former David Crockett and East Tennessee State standout baseball player was out of work despite recording professional highs in doubles (27) and home runs (14) for the Frontier League’s River City Rascals in 2018.
“I was throwing batting practice, coaching at River City,” said Freeman, who is also an assistant baseball coach at Crockett. “I was done playing. I was done with it. I was at peace with it. I just figured if you hit (that many) home runs and doubles and nobody gives you a phone call that it was kind of time to move on from it.”
But before he was a consistent independent league hitter, the 6-foot-1 Freeman was a left-handed pitcher. He combined for 19 saves his final two seasons at ETSU and pitched 26 2/3 innings for Ogden during his second season with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization in 2015. Freeman even provided some spot duty on the mound at River City the past two of his three seasons there.
Left-handed pitching is always at a premium, and it landed Freeman a spot with the Long Island Ducks last month. The first-place Ducks are in the Atlantic League, an independent league that includes a high percentage of players and coaches – and owners – with major-league experience.
Freeman was getting scouting reports on River City opponents when he got a call from former River City teammate Cody Mincey, who pitches for Long Island.
“He asked me, ‘Do you have any video of you pitching,’” Freeman said.
Freeman relayed video and Mincey was soon back in contact. The Ducks manager, former New York Mets second baseman Wally Backman, was intrigued with Freeman’s pitching.
“He said, ‘Our manager really likes you from the left side. We need pitching. Can you come and pitch,” Freeman said. “And I was like, ‘Are you serious? Are you joking me? I haven’t thrown or anything.’ I’d been throwing batting practice. And the next thing I know I’m on the phone with their GM and they sign me. It’s pretty crazy, pretty amazing.”
Freeman said he’s being brought along slowly in games that are essentially already decided. He was throwing 88-92 mph right away, but secondary pitches are being polished, hopefully in time to be an asset during the homestretch of what could be a championship run.
The pitching coach is former MLB player Rick Tomlin. Freeman likes what he’s seen from Backman and Tomlin.
“Wally, whatever you say, I mean he vouches for his players,” Freeman said. “He’s just a players’ coach, honestly. He’s a hard-nosed players’ coach, do-your-job type guy. He likes to have fun.
“Rick Tomlin was the pitching coordinator, head guy for the Brewers. He knows (Elizabethton alum) Danny Clark. It’s a blessing being able to have those guys. You’re never too old to learn stuff.”
The Atlantic League produces high-level baseball.
“Sixteen of the 24 guys on our team have major-league time, and I think eight of them are under the age of 30,” Freeman said. “I think a lot of people’s outlook on it is it’s like a bunch of washed-up players. No, it’s not. It’s a lot of young guys that have played in the major leagues and could still do it. And they come and go. They’ve had like 16 guys get picked up this year.”
Freeman has also gotten three at-bats with the Ducks. He said he hit a ball to the warning track off former Cincinnati pitcher Daryl Thompson.
The Atlantic League has made headlines for a number of experimental rules this season, including a batter being able to try to “steal” first base on passed balls or wild pitches, boundaries to limit defensive shifts and the Robot umpire, which uses cameras to determine balls and strikes.
Freeman said neither him nor anyone else he’s spoken with are fond of the rules.
But other than that, Freeman is again living the dream. He stays in a renovated house in Long Island, New York on what reminds him of an abandoned college campus.
“It goes to show when you think you know what’s gonna happen the Lord has another plan for you,” he said. “I’m sitting there coaching, not evening thinking about playing, and a week later you’re facing three major-league hitters.
“I’m blessed to have this opportunity. There are only a handful of people that get to go this far and play.”