Before showing up at the World Baseball Classic with a maple leaf on his cap, Freddie Freeman wore the tributes to his mother out of sight. They were intimate and personal reminders of the woman who died when he was only 10 and left such a gaping hole in his childhood.
They were secreted away, from torso to toe.
The cross that he never takes off has a compartment within, where a lock of his mother’s hair is preserved.
For the past three years, he has had stitched inside his baseball spikes Rosemary Freeman’s initials — RJF. She died in June 2000. The date of her death is also there inside his work shoe.
On Thursday night, the California-born Freeman stood on guard for thee, Canada, at first base in the opening of WBC pool play, against a very loaded bunch from the Dominican Republic. His was a case of undisputed love, not confused national loyalties. He was there not for himself, not for country, but for one reason only — to serve the memory of his mother who was, as her son said, “Canadian through and through.”
For his part, Freeman never outwardly exhibited any stereotypical Canadian tendencies. His father used to end his sentences with the trademark, “eh?” But, teased remorselessly by his American friends, he grew self-conscious about the trait and dropped it long before he could pass it on to his boys. And Freeman is pretty much helpless on ice. In fact, the only time he tried to ice skate, he fell, pulling down his mother at the same time and breaking her arm.
But there he was out in the open Thursday night, dressed up every bit as Canadian as a Mountie, standing along the first-base line, red hat over heart as “O, Canada” played. The guy from Orange County was positioned as he was in the Canadian batting order — between two youngsters who spent last season in Double-A ball, one from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, the other from Ajax, Ontario.
Freeman’s motives are pure enough and his heritage is certainly Canadian enough for a team that in three previous WBCs has failed to make it out of the opening round.
“We know why he’s there, and it means a lot to him,” said Canada’s DH on Thursday, Justin Morneau. “He’s not there just to play and get at-bats. He’s there because there’s a lot behind it, and we really respect his reasons for joining us.
“And, we need him.”
In his official debut as a Canadian, Freeman went 0-for-4, and Team Maple Leaf lost to the defending WBC champions 9-2. It was one of those rare games in which the result — a hardly unexpected one — did not necessarily dictate the mood. “I had butterflies when the Canadian National Anthem was going on. It was pretty special to have my dad on the field with me all day here,” Freeman said. “I wish we had played better — wish I had played better — but it was still a special day.”
Canada stayed in her blood
Both of Freeman’s parents were born in the Toronto area. His father, Fred, spent much of his young life bouncing between Canada and the United States as his father was transferred to various assignments by his corporate boss.
Fortunately for Fred he had enough time in Canada to meet Rosemary one day in church. He was only 16 when he first proposed to her, and 21 and finishing college in California by the time they were wed.
With Fred establishing his CPA firm in California, the two settled into an American life, along with their three sons (Freddie being the youngest). “I’m American,” Freeman’s father said, “but his mom was definitely a true, red-blooded Canadian.”
Rosemary, her son said, never applied for U.S. citizenship. Seemed like whenever the Blue Jays came into town to play the Los Angeles Angels or the Maple Leafs came to play the Ducks, she insisted on being there, belting out “O, Canada” before the first pitch or the puck-drop. Of course, Freeman knows the words. They still echo in his ears.
“When the kids had to do a country report in elementary school, it was always Canada. That was the kind of stuff she did,” Fred Freeman said.
Freddie was just 4 years old when his mother was first diagnosed with melanoma. She initially fought off the skin cancer without developing any debilitating symptoms. But when it broke the bonds of remission nearly five years later, it did so with a vengeance.
For months afterward, Freeman’s life was apportioned between school and the hospital. With some baseball on the side. “When my mom was sick in the hospital, baseball and other sports were two hours of inconvenience. We just wanted to be with her,” Freeman said. “She was the one who made us want to do sports.”
Then, when Rosemary died, baseball became for Freeman a necessary escape. Sometimes he might act out in school or grow depressed at home. But on the baseball field, he just played.
“He wouldn’t leave my side. It was like he was attached to me,” Fred said. “That’s why we did so much baseball. I had to keep him occupied.”
“I could get away from everything for a couple hours,” Freddie said. “Next thing you know two hours of practice turned to three hours. You never wanted to leave because you didn’t want your mind to go back to having lost a parent.
“It could have taken me down one (wrong) path, losing her. But it sent me down a baseball path. I drove me to play sports.”
Honoring mom with deeds and words
In an odd way, Freeman wonders if he’d be in position to play in the WBC — for the U.S. or for Canada — had his mother lived. As a kid he always pictured himself an accountant, like his father. But once Rosemary died, baseball took over. All those practice hours spent avoiding the emptiness at home filled him with a purpose in the wider world.
Rosemary may have died far too soon, but she never stopped shaping her children. What better legacy could a mother hope to leave behind?
When Freeman arrived earlier this week to work out/meet with the Canadian team, one of his first acts was to take a picture of the national team jersey with his name on the back and send it out to the entire family. “It was pretty special just to see it. I never thought that would happen,” he said. That name on his back was his mother’s, too, for the whole of her married life, and he never lets himself forget that.
“I want to honor her and make her proud. I don’t want to do anything to disgrace the Freeman name, and she’s part of that,” he said.
“She’s everywhere. I can’t hide. She’s got a really nice view up there of everything that’s going on, so I try. We’re not perfect. But we try.”
As Freeman got older and burrowed deeper into the baseball culture, teammates noticed something different about this big first baseman. He didn’t cuss. Who in this game didn’t let a few epithets fly when an umpire went temporarily blind or he struck out with the bases loaded or just when he was generally trying to fit in?
Why doesn’t he? Because Rosemary wouldn’t approve.
“I know she would put soap in my mouth if I ever did it, so I try not to do it,” Freeman said. “My whole family doesn’t. It has been ingrained in me.
“I’ve slipped here and there, but it’s not part of my vocab. One time when I struck out and I was not happy the camera was on me, and I said, ‘Gosh, Dangit.’ And my uncle and all my family called me and said, we’re so proud of you,” Freeman said, chuckling.
Rosemary Freeman was part of Canada’s opening game Thursday night, just as surely as if she were sitting in a seat at Marlins Park.
Because this World Baseball Classic would have meant the world to her it means almost as much to the men with whom she shared her life.
“She would be beyond proud,” Freeman’s father said. “She’d be all decked out in Canadian gear and cheering for him. It’s hard to even put it in words how excited she’d be. Just the thought of that makes me a little sad and happy at the same time. Because she didn’t get to do it, you know?”