MESA, Ariz. – Out for dinner with old friends last week, Freddie Freeman quickly found himself the target of some World Baseball Classic banter. Along with Jason Heyward at the table were Mark DeRosa and Brian McCann, manager and bench coach for the United States at the tournament. The American skip dropped a bit of a warning on the Canadian slugger.
“(DeRosa) told me he was going to go like this,” Freeman said, raising four fingers for the intentional walk signal, “every at-bat. I said, ‘Even in the top of the first, Mark? Come on.’”
The line between clever gamesmanship and plain old jokes is often blurred with DeRosa. But noteworthy is that despite their longstanding friendship, at no point leading up to the unveiling of rosters last month did he approach Freeman about switching sides and playing for the U.S.
Tempting as joining the defending champion’s star-studded roster may seem, representing Canada at the 2017 World Baseball Classic as a way to honour his late mother Rosemary wasn’t just a one-off, box-check moment for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ All-Star first baseman.
Once Freeman was in, he was all-in, which is why DeRosa knew better than to bother asking.
“There was never a question – this is what I always wanted and envisioned,” Freeman, decked out in a crisp Team Canada cap and sharp red jersey, said Tuesday ahead of the national team’s first workout. “As long as we keep Rosemary Freeman’s name alive, that’s what means the most to me, and 23 years after she passed, we’re still talking about her. That makes me smile, puts a happy heart in me. I wish we could ask her if this is what she wanted me to do. We’ll never know. But in my heart, this is what I feel like she should want me to do.”
For that reason, there are no half-measures for Freeman, born and raised in Southern California by Rosemary, a native of Peterborough, Ont., who died from melanoma skin cancer when he was 10, and Freddie Sr., originally from Windsor, Ont.
Hence, rather than weighing his options last summer, he greeted every Canadian player in the majors he saw with, “Hey, are we going to go?”
Tyler O’Neill, the St. Louis Cardinals slugger charged with making it costly for any team that does intentionally walk Freeman, as DeRosa jokingly suggested, and Cleveland Guardians starter Cal Quantrill both did the same, but the effort from a player of his calibre who had other options added an extra layer of motivation.
“It has a tremendous impact,” said Canadian manager Ernie Whitt. “We’ve got an All-Star, potential Hall of Famer playing here and he’s playing here because he wants to, he wants to represent the country. He could have very easily pulled the plug after our last one when we didn’t win a game. He could have said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just go back to the Americans.’ But he’s committed to us.”
So much so that after the 2017 tournament, Freeman told Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, that he’d do it again if opportunity arose and was true to his word, undeterred by a tough draw in Pool C or the tournament’s inevitable roster attrition.
Injuries and team situations left the Canadians without Joey Votto, Josh Naylor, Mike Soroka, Nick Pivetta, James Paxton, Jordan Romano, Zach Pop or Rowan Wick, among others, forcing a turn to a group of talented but green prospects.
Freeman understands how they would have changed the national team’s outlook but refuses to pine for them because “you can’t really accomplish anything if you’re going to talk about guys that aren’t here.”
“The last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of time to think about things that have gone on, and if you think about the past or what could have happened, you’ll never be able to move forward and enjoy what you have in the present,” he said. “Yeah, like what if Mike Soroka was healthy? What if James Paxton was healthy?
“You can say that for a ton of guys, which if you put a whole Canadian team together and everyone was healthy and they could just leave their teams and everyone would be fine, it would be a really good team. But you’ve got to live in the present, and what are you saying to those guys in the clubhouse if we’re talking about seven other guys? Those guys are here and we’re going to come together as a team … and try and come together as a unit as fast as we can and put together four great games and get to (the quarter-finals in) Miami.”
That won’t be easy, and the Canadians will need to be at their best to be one of the two teams that emerges from a pool that also features the Americans, Mexico, Colombia and Great Britain.
But that’s the clear goal for Freeman, who understands why his story resonates with Canadians but is eager to add a memorable on-field epilogue.
“I get emotional when I put this jersey on because it’s been 23 years since my mom’s been gone and it seems like yesterday,” said Freeman. “I know she’s proud of me and she was proud of us when we played baseball and when we won baseball games, too, as kids. She doesn’t want me to go out there and just go out there for fun. She wants me to go out there and win, especially when I’m putting on that jersey that represents her and my dad.
“Going oh-fer at the last WBC, we need to change that this time.”
And Freeman is ready to lead the charge.