We read the baseball transactions, either traditionally in agate type in our newspaper sports section, or through our MLB Trade Rumors Ipad app, and usually think little about each move. Particularly during the winter, when non-stars change teams, not much is made of it.
So the next time you read about a move, I'd like you to think about someone else. I'd like you to consider the trip taken by Nate Freiman since last September.
In the past eight months, Freiman, a powerful first baseman with a surprisingly compact swing, has gone from a San Diego Padres farmhand, to first baseman with Team Israel in World Baseball Classic qualifiers, to member of Arizona Fall League winning Peoria Javelinas, to Rule 5 draft pick by the Houston Astros, to spring acquisition by the Oakland Athletics.
That took a while just to write. Imagine living it. But for all the movement, things turned out pretty well for Freiman, who is sharing the starting first base job for the Athletics, having skipped Triple-A entirely.
"Six months ago, I was just hoping to come to spring training and make the Triple-A team with the Padres," the soft-spoken Freiman, every bit the evocation of the gentle giant at 6'8", recalled as we spoke in front of his locker prior to Friday night's game against the Yankees. "A lot of stuff's happened."
And if you don't feel for Freiman, who does, after all, get to play professional baseball for a living, please consider Freiman's mother, Marjorie. If you can meet Marjorie and not root for Freiman and every Rule 5 player to find some stability, you're made of stronger stuff than I am. Marjorie is living the Jewish Mother Dream: one son, Nate, representing Israel, the other, Eli, in medical school.
"The only thing we've ever wanted is for him to have a chance," Marjorie said as she stood in the first row of seats behind home plate Friday afternoon, watching one of her sons take batting practice before facing CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium. "And being from the northeast, and a kid who wanted to go to college and finish college, he knew he was going to have to work two times or three times as hard. And that wasn't daunting to him. We just always hoped he'd get the chance."
That chance has come in quite the roundabout way. Mrs. Freiman is right: Finishing up at Duke meant Freiman didn't start his professional career until his age-22 season, in low-A, after getting picked in the eighth round by the San Diego Padres in the 2009 draft. But Freiman has posted an OPS better than .800 in each of four seasons, promoted each year, slowly working his way up the organizational ladder. His numbers were solid -- and the combination of his talent and his religion drew the notice of Padres' special assistant Brad Ausmus, who also managed Team Israel.
The plan was for Freiman, whose transition to Double-A in 2012 went quite well -- an .872 OPS and 24 home runs for the San Antonio Missions -- to help Israel to the World Baseball Classic. Freiman did more than any other Israeli player to make that possible, hitting four home runs in 12 at-bats over three games. But Israel lost a heartbreaker to Spain, 9-7 in ten innings.
Freiman said the loss was devastating. Added his mother: "It was the most responsibility he ever felt playing for any team. And he said it was like every game was the World Series."
But if it meant that much to Nate, imagine how much it meant to Marjorie, a Jewish educator from Wellesley: "For me to see him wear a shirt that said Israel was like--" she welled up a bit, pausing, then added: "Like nothing else."
And it was just the beginning of his winter.
Freiman returned home to Arizona, where he lives with his then-fiancee, the LPGA golfer Amanda Blumenhurst. He manned first base for Peoria, homered and contributed six extra-base hits, and felt what it was like to win a championship while apparently drawing the interest of scouts from a number of other teams.
"My team won the Fall League, which was a great experience," Freiman said. "There's nothing like winning in baseball. So winning the Fall League was a fantastic experience."
That's a lot of highs and lows already. Add in that on December 29, he was to marry Amanda. That's a lot to pack into an offseason. But we're not even close to finished.
Here's how Marjorie experienced December 6, when Freiman went from Padres property to Astros property in the time it took to say his name.
"I was at the temple, I was in a Torah class, and my husband texted me and said, 'Nathan just got picked up', and it's very obviously jarring for him, from one minute to the next. You have to be in this business with a certain zen outlook," she said, chuckling. "Because you know it's a fickle business, and in one day, everything can change."
One needed to look no further than Freiman's brother Eli, wearing an A's hat and an Astros jersey, both to support Freiman, to know that.
Freiman was off to Florida for spring training with the Astros. And given their complete tear-down and rebuild, the chances of a Rule 5 pick sticking in Houston were significantly better than in other organizations. But how Rule 5 picks usually work is this: either they stick with the team who picked them for a full season, or they need to be offered back to the pick's original team for a token amount of money. In this case, that likely meant staying with the Astros, or returning to the Padres.
Accordingly, Freiman was caught off-guard when he got pulled from a March 23 spring training game and told he wasn't an Astro, he wasn't a Padre: he was an Oakland Athletic.
"I was in the dugout, second inning of the Astro game," Freiman recalled. "And Bo Porter, the Astros' manager, took me in the hall, explained to me that I was claimed on waivers, that I actually had to leave the game immediately, catch the next flight to Phoenix, which I did."
The good news? The A's train fifteen minutes away from Freiman's Arizona home. He got to live with Amanda while he went about the business of trying to make a major league ballclub for the first time, which he did. That meant April trips back to the northeast; to see his family in Boston, even more emotional after the Boston Marathon bombings. And then, two weeks later, another trip to New York.
Freiman isn't quite ready to buy a house in Oakland just yet, not that anyone can blame him. He sees Amanda when their schedules allow - "She actually works, she's busy," Freiman said, smiling at the understatement about her job. "But she makes it out when she can." The two will keep on living in Arizona for now.
And one can never be sure in baseball, but Freiman is doing everything he can to force the A's to keep him. He's collected hits in each of his past three starts, including three singles against Sabathia in three at-bats.
"I'm trying to not think about the fact that it's Yankee Stadium, and it's Sabathia, and it's The Bronx," Freiman said, immediately making me feel badly that I'd asked him about facing Sabathia in Yankee Stadium. "Maybe, at some point, I'll reflect on that. But for right now, maybe it's not just another game. But it's just a game I've got to prepare for, get my work in, have competitive at-bats and play good D."
Or as Marjorie put it, watching her son take batting practice at the same spot (give or take a block) where she saw plenty of baseball growing up in nearby Verona, NJ, "We're treating every day he has with this team as a gift. We didn't know how long it was going to last. And as a parent, we want to mostly convey to him, he's made it. Whatever happens from here, he's made it to this level."