CLEVELAND -- Tyler Freeman stood on first base in the sixth inning with a big grin on his face as the crowd broke into a thunderous ovation, having just logged his first big league hit. It was a moment that seemed impossible to experience just a few months ago.
“I got goosebumps right away,” Freeman said. “Little emotional, but it was awesome.”
Freeman spent most of last year recovering from left shoulder surgery, and had to use Spring Training as an extended rehab stint, rather than a time to prepare for the regular season. Entering 2021, he was ranked the Guardians’ top prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, but because he didn’t play after July last season, he dropped to No. 6 on Pipeline’s list coming into 2022.
“It was definitely a roller-coaster of emotions during that rehab process,” Freeman said. “You have doubts.”
Freeman had to learn to persevere. It was his second time going through the rehab process for his shoulder and, admittedly, it was even more difficult going through the motions once again. While his teammates left Arizona to begin their Minor League season, he was stuck at the Goodyear training complex, getting in extra reps. But luckily for him, Guardians first baseman Josh Naylor was still at the Arizona facility as well, helping push him to focus on his end goal.
“I was rehabbing with Naylor and day by day he was like, ‘Stay strong. You’re gonna get there. You’re gonna get there,’” Freeman said. “And especially after his freak accident, I’m gonna listen to him saying stuff like that.”
Eventually, that slow-and-steady approach paid off. Freeman was activated off the injured list on April 29, and was ready to prove that he belonged in the big leagues.
Freeman has been in Cleveland’s system since 2017, when he was selected as the 71st overall pick (Competitive Balance Round B) as an 18 year old out of high school. He produced everywhere he went, hitting .297 in rookie ball, .352 in Class-A (short season), .292 in Class-A (full season), .319 in Class-A Advanced and.323 in Double-A before his injury in ‘21 despite coming off of a COVID-canceled year. Finally, he could begin his season in Triple-A -- the last step to conquer before the big stage.
Freeman got off to a slow start, but suddenly, he picked up tremendous steam. In his last 15 games with Columbus, he hit .400 with a .978 OPS, two homers, nine RBIs, six walks and just five strikeouts, while reaching base at least once in each contest. If there was any expectation for Freeman that he would soon get the call to the Majors, his Triple-A manager, Andy Tracy, made sure to throw him off track.
On Tuesday night, Freeman hit a single in the fifth inning with Columbus. When he saw the opposing right fielder make a bad throw, he advanced to second base. When he returned to the dugout, his skipper pulled him aside and told him he was being removed from the game for a lack of hustle on the bases.
“In the back of my mind I’m like, ‘I got to second, like, I know if I wasn’t running hard I would’ve stayed at first base,’” Freeman said. “I never told him that. Never would. But I was like, ‘I respect your decision. It is what it is.’”
In the end, it all was a setup for Tracy’s punchline:
“He goes, ‘Alright, take a seat on the bench and think about how you’re gonna get to Cleveland tonight, because you’re getting called up,’” Freeman said. “I didn’t believe it at first.”
After reality sunk in, Freeman hustled into the clubhouse, called his family in California and listened as his parents held back tears on the other line. Relatives, friends and his high school coach found red-eye flights to get to Cleveland before a 1:10 p.m. ET first pitch.
His younger brother, Cody, who’s in the Rangers’ Minor League system, was cleared to leave his team to be in attendance at his older brother’s first big league game. And if there was any doubt in Freeman’s mind that his friends and family would be able to get to Cleveland in time to watch this special moment, it was eliminated when he looked up at the scoreboard while standing on first and saw his parents cheering from the stands.
Finally, Freeman was a big leaguer.
“I feel like I’m dreaming still,” Freeman said. “Maybe when I wake up tomorrow it’ll kind of come back to me. But I’m still on Cloud 9.”