The question is floated by a Cleveland Indians representative. He wants to know if any Michigan hockey players have any baseball experience — something that wouldn’t be relevant if the Wolverines hadn’t just finished an outdoor hockey game on ice that stretched from home plate to shallow right field.
Seniors Greg Pateryn and David Wohlberg give courtesy chuckles, but refer back to the glory days of T-ball for their baseball experience. Then Michigan coach Red Berenson, the 72-year-old hockey legend, throws out a story that is truly from left field.
After Berenson’s freshman year of hockey at Michigan, he and two other teammates wanted to try out for the baseball team. How in the world Berenson learned how to play baseball in the 1950s while growing up in Regina, Saskatchewan isn’t exactly clear, but apparently the man could hold his own on the diamond.
His leg strength from hockey made him a perfect candidate to play catcher, which is what he intended to do after hockey season in Ann Arbor.
The baseball team used to practice in Yost — back when it was the Field House — so before the “Red Baron” became a mainstay on the bench at Yost Ice Arena, he made his way into Yost Field House to try and play on the Michigan baseball team.
He arrived at practice and was promptly turned away — Michigan didn’t need another catcher. No big deal, right? How good could this other guy be? Turns out the man blocking Berenson’s path was Bill Freehan, who set the all-time Big Ten batting average in 1961 with a whopping .585. Freehan went on to play 15 seasons for the Detroit Tigers, where he was an 11-time All-Star and a four-time Gold Glove winner. Not too shabby of a career.
In 1968, Freehan won a World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the same year Berenson scored six goals for the St. Louis Blues. The two careers overlapped again in the 1980s, when Berenson and Freehan returned to Michigan to coach, Berenson for hockey and Freehan for baseball. Both careers seemed to work out in the end.
But in this day and age, an athlete could never try to do what Berenson did back then. It would basically be impossible, especially for a sport like hockey that can last for up to eight months of the year.
In Berenson’s day, sports used to actually stick to the season — fall, winter and spring — so plenty of athletes were able to play more than one sport. Now, the Michigan hockey team starts practice in early September and runs until as late as April. Even if you wanted to do more than one sport, there are only so many days in the year.
But Berenson believes the specialization of athletes starts much earlier than when they arrive at college.
“The sad thing is, even if you are a two- or a three-sport athlete, you get discouraged at a young age because each sport takes up so much time now,” Berenson said. “It’s hard to see any of our guys do that — most of them get discouraged. Even I would tell a kid, if he was a real hockey prospect, I would tell him to get out of football or another sport as soon as you can because you don’t want to mess up your knees or shoulders or whatever.”
Multiple sport athletes are all over the Michigan roster — senior Luke Glendening and junior Chris Brown played football in high school, and Pateryn almost played lacrosse at Cornell.
With as much crossover as lacrosse and hockey have, it’s not surprising that Pateryn still values the lessons he learned in high school.
“It was a good way to stay in shape in the off-season, and you actually pick up some stuff about hockey, I thought,” Pateryn said. “You always had to keep your head up because you couldn’t be looking at your stick, so it helped with that aspect.”
The last Wolverine hockey player to play two sports at Michigan was Matt Herr, who was a captain on the 1997-98 squad and also played baseball. Herr was drafted in both sports, which is the big reason Berenson allowed him to do both. He ended up playing for parts of four seasons in the NHL.
But he was the last Wolverine to do it, 14 years ago, and the throwback story Berenson tells is one that won’t be repeated anytime soon.
Back at the press conference, Pateryn and Wohlberg chuckle about Berenson’s story. They don’t chuckle because they don’t believe Berenson — they chuckle because they do believe him.
“I think we laughed because we weren’t really surprised that he said something like that,” Pateryn said. “Anything that comes out of his mouth … you couldn’t be surprised at all. I could never see him playing baseball — especially in Canada — but he just never ceases to amaze us with the stuff he says.”