Braves' Freeman mature for a good reason

When first baseman Freddie Freeman takes the field for the Braves on Thursday, it will be his third major league start.

The 21-year-old already has been featured grinning on the cover of Sports Illustrated, arm resting on the shoulder of buddy Jason Heyward, labeled the “Boys of Spring.” Inside, a two-page photograph of Freeman -- one his dad jokes is a “pin-up” -- zooms so close to his face you can count freckles.

For his part, Freeman seems fairly oblivious to the mounting pressure that comes with the everyday first-base job, served on a platter.

“You take it with a smile on your face and keep going,” Freeman said of the attention and expectations.

At first blush, Freeman is like a 4-year-old flying down a ski slope. No poles, no fears, no appreciation for potential dangers ahead. And that’s about right with him.

“He’s literally never been afraid of anything as long as I can remember,” his father, Fred Freeman said. “He’s not afraid of people,; he’s not afraid of situations; he’s not afraid to go up to bat in key situations.”

Don’t mistake the fearlessness for innocence, though. In Freeman’s case, it’s the opposite. Why fear failure, when failure isn’t the worst option? Not to someone whose mother died of melanoma when he was 10.

The love of a mom

If Rosemary Freeman had died the first time melanoma surfaced through a mole on her back, Freddie Freeman, who was 4 at the time, might not have remembered her at all.

“At least I’ve got some memories,” he said.

One of his favorites is the day as a 9-year-old he hit his first Little League “major league” home run and very nearly hit her with it. She was walking their dog, Chip, around the outfield fence to sooth her nerves when the youngest of her three sons came to bat.

It cleared the fence just steps from her, near the light pole in right center field. She got the ball and brought it back to the stands, where she told her husband: “I can’t believe it; we have a home-run hitter.”

Not until a few months after Rosemary died, when Freddie led a travel-ball tournament in Iowa in home runs, did the Freemans realize the magnitude of his potential.

His mother knew how much he loved baseball, though.

Just three weeks shy of reaching her five-year remission milestone, with a celebratory dinner already planned, she went into the hospital with appendicitis. A precautionary chest X-ray showed the melanoma had returned in a fingernail-sized spot on her lung.

Chemotherapy and interferon treatment couldn’t touch it, and cancer spread through her body. For much of the next seven months, when her sons were not at school or baseball practice, they were at her bedside in the hospital. Freddie and his brothers would watch the Angels play on TV. She would watch them.

“She would never take her eye off of the kids,” Fred Freeman said. “Always with a tear.”

The last week or two, she was unable to talk. By then Freddie didn’t need words to understand.

“I’d just look at her and look into her eyes,” Freddie said. “You could tell. You have that genuine love that a mom has. I remember kissing her forehead after every time I went visiting her. Those are memories I’ll always have.”

The love of a dad

Fred Freeman raised his three sons as a single father, only recently remarrying. He moved his CPA business closer to home, learned to cook a few dishes -- chicken and rice, Sloppy Joes, steak, spaghetti -- and his mother showed him how to turn on the washer and dryer.

Folding laundry one day, Fred said he wished he had done more of that to help Rosemary. Freddie heard something better than regret.

“It put a smile on my face; he actually did like doing that stuff,” Freddie said. “It wasn’t like ‘Oh, I’ve got to go through this another day.’”

They made it work.

His father took a late lunch hour to pick up Freddie at school and go out to the Little League field to throw him batting practice, before taking him back to his office to do homework.

“That was because I liked it,” Fred said laughing of the daily hitting.

Unlike his older sons who got tired of it at 12 or 13, Freddie never did.

When Freddie was 12 or 13, he showed some of his fearlessness at school. He was suspended one day in junior high for fighting, jumping in to defend a smaller Asian student who was being bullied.

“He went through them like a tornado,” Fred said. “There were two kids doing it, and Freddie took them on both of them.”

Rather than kicking him out of school, the school decided on leniency after realizing the smaller student could have been seriously hurt.

By his senior year of high school, Freeman was standing up to his father.

The night before the 2007 draft, the Braves called to tell the Freemans they wanted to pick Freddie in the second round. His father told them no; Freddie would be playing at Cal-State Fullerton, a scenario Freddie had reluctantly agreed on.

At 2 a.m. Freddie knocked on his dad’s bedroom door, telling him he wanted to give pro baseball a try.

What if he didn’t make it in the pros and didn’t get a college education either, his father argued.

“He said, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m going to make it, but if I don’t, the Braves are going to pay for my school, so what am I out?’” Fred said.

Freddie told his father that after four years in the minors, he would know if he was on the track to make the majors. If he wasn’t, he would go back to college.

He’s at 3 1/2 years.

The time has come

When Freeman was called up to the majors in September, a No. 5 jersey hung in his locker, chosen by the Braves' clubhouse staff. He had hoped for maybe No. 18, the number of letters in his mother’s full name: Rosemary Joy Freeman.

Then it hit him. No. 5 was the number he wore in Little League when she died. She had picked it.

Another nod to her is his sleeves. The fair-skinned Freeman wears long sleeves in day games to protect himself from the sun. His older brother Phillip had a Stage I melanoma removed from his ear two years ago. Freeman applies sun block 30 minutes before the first pitch, and in the second and sixth innings. Now he lathers his ears too.

Freeman has grown up fast. First base is simply where it’s easiest to see. He hit .319 with 18 home runs in Triple-A last year and was named the 17th best prospect by Baseball America.

“From the time he signed, he’s had a very advanced approach and understood how to use the whole field,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

The Braves want Freeman to become a fixture at first base. Since Andres Galarraga left after 2000, the year Freeman’s mother died, only Adam LaRoche has played more than two years as the Braves' everyday first baseman. Another 24 players have seen time there.

If batting practice with his father this winter was any indication, Freeman’s well on his way. Fred had to throw from behind a double L-screen. He wore a batting helmet.

“I told him, ‘I’m not sure if you’re hitting it harder or I’m getting older,’” Fred said. “‘But it’s a lot scarier this year than it was last year.’”

By scary, of course, he meant scary good. The other kind doesn’t typically apply.

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