They were two Caltech games for the record books

The school's baseball team hadn't won a game in 10 years. Its basketball team hadn't won a conference game in more than 26 years. Student athlete Mason Freedman helped break both those losing streaks.

The 108th loss of Mason Freedman's college athletic career probably looked pretty much like the rest of them.

The whistle of the chilled wind that cut across the Caltech baseball field was unfettered by cheers. The three rows of aluminum bleachers were quickly abandoned, lifted up by two school employees and quietly rolled back into storage. The centerfield scoreboard, in sour red numbers, glowed 22-3 in favor of visiting Oregon Tech.

Freedman dug out third base, carried it to the equipment shed, brushed the dirt off the front of his white Beavers jersey and prepared for the long, lonely walk back into his world of space propulsion and fluid dynamics.

His personal two-sport record at Caltech is now 11-108, and counting, except he's not counting.

"I only remember the two games that matter," he said Friday afternoon with a grin.

Two years ago, as a shooting guard on Caltech's basketball team, Freedman played in the Beavers' win over Occidental that broke a 310-game conference losing streak spanning more than 26 years.

Then, last weekend, as a third baseman on the baseball team, he played in the Beavers' 9-7 win over Pacifica that broke a 228-game losing streak stretching back 10 years.

In his fourth year in the gloriously grounded athletic program at Caltech, mild Mason Freedman and his mighty perseverance prompts a question that does not require a rocket scientist — like him — to answer.

Has any other college athlete participated in two such historic victories in two different sports? Has any other college athlete labored for those moments through so many losses?

No way, and no how. The questions are so outrageous even the 22-year-old senior with the perfect SAT math score and the summer job building robots can't wrap his substantial mind around them.

"I guess I'm at this sort of strange intersection of history," he said.

The truly strange intersection here is the one between perspective and college athletics. This is where Freedman not only lives, but thrives. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound mechanical engineering major from Falls Church, Va., plays not for great glory, or even mild success, but simply to grow.

"I play because I want to push myself in a different area," he said. "In sports I learn about losing. I learn to make mistakes and get over them and move on. I learn there's always another game."

A college student plays because he learns. Imagine that.

What is truly difficult to imagine is how any young person stomachs all that losing. Freedman has played for the two most high-profile losing teams in a perennially losing Caltech athletic program. In fact, the baseball team has still not won a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference game in 25 years, a streak of 463 losses.

"I'll admit, I've been part of some pretty awful teams," he said.

Bad teams, strong kids. In four years on the baseball team and 21/2 years on the basketball team, Freedman has been typical of many Caltech athletes, hearing jeers from the stands, fighting exhaustion in the classroom and having his squads regularly beaten with the force of one of those rockets he helped design during internships at the nearby Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

He's been on a baseball team that lost, 32-1, to Whittier. He's played basketball for a squad that was whipped, 96-28, by Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.

He plays games on teams that are half the size of most college teams — there are 13 Caltech baseball players — and he plays alongside students who are playing the sport for the first time in their lives. Last fall, one baseball newcomer interrupted routine sliding practice by admitting he had no idea how to slide.

In four years, Mason Freedman has never played in front of a Caltech cheerleader (there are none), never been asked for an autograph, never been interviewed by a newspaper until now and never even heard anybody play the school fight song — not that he would know it if they did. Ask him about the physical advantages of being a Caltech student athlete, and he can immediately conjure up only one.

"Laundry," he said. "If you are an athlete, they will actually wash all of your workout clothes during the season, which I think is a huge perk."

But, still he plays. Like many others in a program that Athletic Director Betsy Mitchell views as part of the classroom, he plays without shame or remorse.

"It's not embarrassing," he said. "I'm trying. I'm putting myself out there. I'm learning about myself with every game. How is that embarrassing?"

He batted only .177 last season with one extra-base hit and one RBI. But in Friday afternoon's loss to Oregon Tech, he made two diving stops at third base, wondrous moments he compares to solving equations that might one day send people to Mars.

"Four years ago, I don't make those plays," he said. "Sports is my hardest class."

He likes to play so much, he quit basketball to focus on baseball even though, at the start of this season, dating back to high school, he had gone five full baseball seasons without a win.

"We have always talked to him about how learning to deal with failure is an important part of success," said his father, Mitch Freedman. "We never talk about the score of the games."

The Beavers' first-year baseball coach, Matthew Mark, offers the same message: "I tell the players to use the game as an escape, don't think about the physics project, don't think about homework, just come out and have fun and learn."

So Freedman plays, and he loses, and loses some more, but then a miracle happens. Two years ago, he was on the basketball court that was rushed by fans that included a Nobel Prize winner when the team beat Occidental. And last weekend, he was on the field for the final out of a seven-inning, second-game-of-a-doubleheader win so unthinkable the players had no idea how to celebrate.

"It was so strange. We weren't expecting it," he said. "We all just sort of came into the dugout."

Mark informed them of the milestone, then honored it by giving each of the team's five seniors a game ball. Freedman keeps it in his locker and stares at it every day as a reminder of why he continues to play.

It's unsigned. It's scuffed with dirt. It's stained by grass. It's the most important of baseballs, yet it's still just a baseball. Imagine that.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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