By Jeff Keeling
A stadium full of cheering fans saw East Tennessee State University’s star when number 44 blasted a home run against the University of Tennessee Tuesday night at Thomas Stadium. Rick and Renee Freeman remembered that star as a five-year-old whom they signed up for tee-ball to help him make new friends.
Clinton Freeman, a senior first baseman/closer and All-American, delivered a typically stellar performance Tuesday. His parents, though, judge the David Crockett High School graduate not by the heat on his fastball but by the content of his character.
“Ball has helped him through school,” said Rick Freeman, a teacher at David Crockett High School.
“He’s got God-given talent, but me and his mom have always told him to be faithful and always be willing to help somebody.”
He’s the heart of ETSU’s offensive lineup and a solid pro prospect, but Freeman’s approach to life and people makes his parents most proud of their son.
The Freemans, of Jonesborough, settled in with a record crowd of 1,811 to watch their son face the Volunteers for the final time of his college career. Three weeks earlier, in Knoxville, Freeman’s fourth-inning two-run homer had provided all of ETSU’s runs, and he had shut down the Vols for the final two innings in a 2-1 victory.
Tuesday’s game started differently. The Bucs took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first, an inning when Freeman drew a free pass that loaded the bases with no outs. The team tacked on three in the bottom of the third, with Freeman drawing a four-pitch walk and scoring. When he came up with two out and the bases empty an inning later, though, the lead was just 4-3.
Freeman’s April 1 performance was one that can rarely be duplicated, even by a two-way player hitting .361 and ranking among NCAA Division 1 leaders in several offensive categories. But individual accolades have never driven the left-hander as much as relationships and his teams’ success – and that goes back to Rick and Renee, who have instilled those values in their son.
His entry into tee-ball years ago was for social reasons. An only child, he was getting ready to start school at Lamar Elementary.
“We just figured getting him involved would help him meet other kids,” Rick remembered.
Freeman remembers it similarly.
“It was a way that I could meet friends and get to do something with them outside of having to ask them to come to my house every day to hang out.”
ETSU Head Coach Tony Skole said relationships are at the heart of the Freemans’ approach to life. He called Rick and Renee “wonderful supporters for Clinton and of our program. They have opened their hearts and their home to our ball club and they have always been there to help any of our players if there has ever been a need.”
UT’s Trevor Bettencourt gave Freeman a pitch he could hit in his fourth-inning at bat. He promptly delivered a tailing blast that easily cleared the fence in left-center field. The Bucs manufactured another run in that inning, and it was 6-3.
Young Clinton took to baseball, and eventually Rick started helping to coach. Freeman’s little league and youth teams didn’t have netting and other extras that made batting practice more convenient and less labor intensive, but Rick Freeman was always there, putting in extra time for players to get their swings.
“He always tried to prepare me, and the teams that he coached he always tried to prepare,” Freeman said. “Even today, I try to prepare and put myself in the best situation to win, and that goes back to a lot of one on one work with him.
“Sometimes he’d say stuff to me I didn’t like, or sometimes I didn’t want to do this or that, but I wanted to succeed, and he helped me.”
It has worked, Skole said, and given him a clubhouse leader and someone for his own sons to look up to.
“Mr. and Mrs. Freeman have done a lot of things right in raising their son and I speak as a father of three boys myself, in saying that I would be quite proud if my sons can grow up and be the type of young man that Clinton Freeman has become,” Skole said.
Unlike the April 1 game in Knoxville, Tuesday’s was no pitcher’s duel. By the end of seven it was 8-5. Freeman moved to the mound to start the eighth with a chance to repeat the April 1 home run plus save feat.
Freeman’s ethic shows in his numbers, which have brought national attention and a trip to the Cape Cod league last summer, where he excelled against major league pitching prospects. Yet it’s when things don’t go his way, or when other people need encouragement, that Freeman really shines.
Renee Freeman said she and Rick have worked to instill in Clinton the importance of learning how to lose as well as win.
“It’s easy to win,” she said Tuesday. “It’s how you handle losing and the other difficulties in life that defines you.”
Read the entire story in the April 26th print edition of The Johnson City News & Neighbor.