LOUISVILLE, Ky. — On July 7, TJ Friedl stepped up for the moment of his Triple-A season. The Louisville Bats were tied with the Memphis Redbirds at three in the bottom of the ninth when the outfielder roped an RBI single to right for his lone walk off of the year.
And the day after the 25-year-old raced around the diamond with his teammates dousing him in a celebratory bath, his famous cousin in Lexington celebrated the hit.
"That was the first interaction on on Twitter that I reached out to him," Friedl said.
"I just wish I could be in there more to watch him and and see him," Calipari said.
The two are second cousins from Friedl's mother's side of the family, according to Calipari. Freidl's grandmother and Calipari's mother were cousins, with Friedl's father Terry being the youngest brother. All of them are originally from the Pittsburgh area.
But it's been a while since the two have seen each other. Friedl said that was last in 2019, when the Wildcat head coach posted a picture with him. About two weeks earlier, he posted a picture with Terry.
And the basketball connection actually runs deeper. Former Indiana and Arizona head men's basketball coaches Archie and Sean Miller are distant relatives of Friedl on his dad's side of the family. Calipari, Terry and the Miller brothers used to play basketball together growing up.
"His father and his uncles, they're all the most competitive people you'll ever meet," Calipari said. "Terry really did a great job raising him and putting him in a competitive environment. Here's this kid that comes out and is just the most competitive, driven and wired to compete and win young person out there. You got to give credit to his mom and dad."
That almost resulted in a hoops career. Friedl played the sport at Foothill High School in Pleasanton, California until choosing to stick with baseball.
"If I could have been a better shooter, maybe it'd be a different story," Friedl said with a laugh. "But I just I wasn't a great shooter. So I stuck with a baseball bat."
It turned out to be a good call. He ended up walking on at Nevada, where he posted the eighth-best batting average (.401) in program history in 2016 after taking a redshirt year. Then, he didn't realize he was actually eligible for the MLB Draft.
"I went about my whole redshirt sophomore year and knew nothing about the draft," Friedl said. "My four college roommates were getting all these draft letters and questionnaires. I never really received any of those and was like, 'Okay, maybe this year is not my year.' And it wasn't until I got a phone call a week before the draft about being draft eligible. That was when I was kind of like, 'Oh, okay. Well, I didn't know that. That's interesting.'"
It led to Friedl going undrafted, but playing summer ball before breaking out with Team USA, hitting .290 and slugging .536. That brought him a lot more attention and ultimately ended with him signing the largest-ever signing bonus for an undrafted free agent: $732,500 to join the Cincinnati Reds organization.
"Maybe some guys are smarter than me and they know," Friedl said. "But yeah, I haven't really encountered anyone that's been through that."
"When he signed with the Reds, and then I found that's the biggest bonus ever signed a free agent, that's a heck of a thing," Calipari said. "So I've been watching, like, 'Where the heck did he come from now?' So he was born in the same hospital all of us back there were born in, but went out west. And so after seeing this, I'm like, 'Wait a minute, this is my cousin.'"
Since then, Calipari has been keeping track of Friedl's progress. The outfielder had to undergo ankle surgery in 2019 before minor league baseball took a pause in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But 2021 has brought a breakout year for Friedl: He ranks in the top 10 in Triple-A East in batting average (.282), hits (48), on-base percentage (.392) and runs (30) after simplifying his game.
"I think just made a couple adjustments to my approach," Friedl said. "One thing I really kind of pride myself on is it's really hard to hit a baseball. So there's such a little time to react. And while you're up there, if you have other things thinking like, 'Let me make sure my hands are in the right position or let me get my foot down,' it just makes it harder. So when when I say simplify, that's kind of what I mean. It's just kind of clear my thought process and just see the ball, hit the ball."
Calipari though sees some of his family shining through in the top-20 Reds prospect.
"He's wired and driven just like his father and uncles," Calipari said. "You talk about a role model for your son: TJ is one of those that you walk out of the building, and you say, 'Man, did you see him? This guy doesn't have anything left in the tank when it's over.'"
"My dad always talked about Pete Rose: how hard he hustled and his jersey was always dirty," Friedl said. "That's kind of one thing I take pride in is if I walk off the field with a dirty jersey, I feel like I had a good day."
"He gets it," Calipari said. "I just come back to what a role model for young people to watch. You don't have to be the biggest, the fastest or the strongest. You just have to have a desire and you can't ever make yourself the victim. This is the position I'm in and now I will make the best of this. And I'm making it. So I'm just proud of him and where he's going."
That could be the big leagues soon. But before that happens, Calipari is aiming to come to a Bats game in late August or maybe September.
"I'm going to try and make that happen, to see if I can get him out here when my dad comes out," Friedl said.
Until then, he has an open invitation out to his cousin to come visit in Lexington anytime.
"I'm watching from a distance," Calipari said. "He knows he's always welcome with us in our home."