Friedl reflects on meeting Kentucky hoops team, Betts relationship, spring success

March 24th, 2022
Via TJ Friedl's Instagram

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- As a public service announcement commercial might say, “sportsmanship, pass it on.” An act of sportsmanship last season by Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts for Reds rookie outfielder TJ Friedl was passed on to another athletic team over the winter.

University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari reunited Friedl and Betts and had them speak to his players after a game against North Carolina in Las Vegas. Calipari is Friedl’s second cousin, and he went to the same suburban Pittsburgh high school with Friedl’s father, Terry Sr.

“Calipari and Kentucky came out to play in Las Vegas in the T-Mobile Classic,” explained Friedl, who lives in Las Vegas during the offseason. “He hit me up and said, ‘I’ll see you at the game.’ He mentioned something about inviting Betts. I said, ‘That would be cool, we’ll see if he comes.’ I was sitting behind the Kentucky bench and looked across the court. Sitting courtside, [Betts] was right there. I tapped my wife and said, ‘He’s here.’”

Soon, one of the feel-good stories from the 2021 season added an epilogue.

When the Reds played the Dodgers at Great American Ball Park on Sept. 19 last season, Friedl slugged a pinch-hit home run to right field to lead off the sixth inning of an 8-5 loss. But it wasn’t just any homer. It was also his first Major League hit, as he had been called up a couple of days earlier.

Aware of the significance, Betts asked the fan who caught the ball to throw it back. The fan obliged, and one inning later, Betts brought him an autographed bat as compensation. It became a national story that drew attention to both players and the fan.

Following Kentucky’s 98-69 victory over the Tar Heels, Calipari had a message for his players and knew he had a perfect pair of messengers to help deliver it.

“Calipari pulled [Betts] into the locker room, and he pulled me and my wife into the locker room,” Friedl said. “And he told the story of what [Betts] did and how selfless of an act it was -- someone of his stature. He didn’t have to do that. There was no need for him to turn around and get that ball for me. For him to be so selfless knowing that’s my first hit and first home run and to get that ball back and exchange a signed Mookie Betts bat for him was incredible.

“[Calipari] told that story to the Kentucky basketball team and discussed selflessness. He went into talking about them all playing together and stuff like that. It was really cool.”

The home run remains the only one on Friedl’s brief Major League resume. On Wednesday during a 12-8 victory over the Brewers, he was a late entry into Cincinnati’s lineup when left fielder Jake Fraley had a stomach illness.

In the first inning, Friedl hit a booming homer to right field against reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes on his way to a 2-for-3 game.

“It was definitely an amazing opportunity,” Friedl said. “A last-minute scratch, but I was prepared and just ready for the opportunity. I wanted to make the most of it. I knew getting multiple at-bats yesterday was going to help me get comfortable.”

Friedl, 26, is battling for a reserve outfield spot in the big leagues amid tight competition. A lefty hitter that can play all three positions, he’s part of a large group of contenders that include Aristides Aquino, Shogo Akiyama, Max Schrock and the recently signed Albert Almora Jr.

“He’s right there in the mix too,” Reds manager David Bell said of Friedl. “He’s one of these guys that keeps surprising you. He shouldn’t surprise us. We know he’s a good player. He’s gotten so much more comfortable from the first couple of springs he is here. He came up and played really well for us last year in the big leagues after a good Minor League season. He’s playing really well right now. He got every bit of that ball last night. He showed a lot of power on that swing.”

Cincinnati also agreed to terms on a one-year contract with veteran corner outfielder Tommy Pham on Wednesday, which makes the roster math even more murky.

“It’s easy to play the numbers game and who’s here in the clubhouse and who they’re signing,” Friedl said. “But I think the best thing is to control what I can control and do what I do to perform to the best of my abilities and that’s it. At the end of the day, I could step back and say I did what I could do. I gave it my all and my best effort. I’m excited to move forward. I’m excited to see what this season has and I’m just ready to help out wherever I can.”

If Friedl does make the club, the Reds' first regular-season series against the Dodgers is April 14-17 in Los Angeles. It could add another chapter to the story between a pair of competitors who understand what’s important.