'Trying to make her proud': Freddie Freeman honors mom by playing for Canada in WBC
Freddie Freeman isn’t sure of the exact moment the transformation happened, when baseball went from being an escape from his biggest childhood trauma to a way he could honor the memory of his late mother.
There were points early in his career that he felt it, when the future MVP and World Series champion began establishing himself in the major leagues.
It was reinforced during any number of road trips in the 13 seasons since, when he and his father, Fred, would reminisce and wonder what she would make of their baseball-centric lives.
As Freeman matured and started a family, the need to honor her legacy only strengthened within him.
After years of keeping private mementos to remember her — like wearing a cross around his neck, or getting the initials RJF stitched inside his mitt — he started thinking of more prominent ways his mom could be memorialized.
He wanted the name Rosemary Joy Freeman to be remembered.
“Pretty much everything I do,” the Dodgers first baseman said, “is trying to make her proud.”
It’s why Freeman chose to represent Team Canada in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, and will do so again next week when the event returns to Chase Field in Phoenix.
He might have been born and raised in Southern California, but his parents were born in Canada — a point of pride Rosemary passed down to her kids before she died of melanoma in 2000, when Freeman was only 10.
“I just realized that was more important to me,” Freeman said this week, ahead of Canada’s tournament opener on Sunday against Great Britain. “More than just playing baseball, it's to represent her and keep her memory alive.”
When Freeman was growing up, it was Rosemary who emphasized the family’s Canadian heritage.
She was born and raised outside of Toronto. She met Fred — a dual Canadian and American citizen who spent parts of his childhood on both sides of the border — as a teenager at church in Windsor, Ontario, when both of their parents relocated there for work.
When Fred’s family moved to California a few years later, he and Rosemary continued dating long-distance. After they got married in their early 20s, settling down in Orange County for the next two decades, Rosemary continued to embrace her Canadian identity.
“She was 100% Canadian, no doubt about it,” Fred recalled with a laugh this week. “She was proud of being Canadian. She had a lot of friends she still kept in contact with in Canada. Her family is all from Canada.”
Fred said she was never even interested in applying for American citizenship.
“Growing up, I think [our kids] got the Canadian stuff from Rosemary,” Fred said.
For a young Freeman, it left an impression in subtle ways. He remembers eagerly standing for the Canadian national anthem whenever the family went to watch the Toronto Blue Jays and Maple Leafs visit local teams in Anaheim. He always found a joyful distinction in a family background that differed from his friends and classmates.
“It never left her,” Freeman said this week.
Therefore, it never left him — becoming an emotional touchstone that has endured long after her death.
“As I get older, and I have my own family and stuff like that, you just realized that that's more important to me,” Freeman said.
That’s why, when his chance to play for Canada arose in 2017, Freeman jumped at the opportunity.
By that point, Freeman had made a couple trips to Toronto to play the Blue Jays. He joked that the game always seemed to have an entire section of extended family in attendance to root for him.
During those visits, Freeman toured the city; not in search of tourist landmarks, but to seek out places from his mom’s old life, including a building where she once lived and an office where she had worked.
“Anything involving his mother, he’s interested in,” Fred said. “So I think [wanting to play for Canada] grew from there.”
When Freeman first called his dad to tell him he was committing to Canada for the 2017 event, Fred was initially surprised.
“Really?” he recalled asking his son. “Aren’t you American?”
Freeman, however, was already convinced.
“I want to do it for my mom,” he responded. “To honor her.”
When Freeman lined up for the Canadian national anthem before that tournament’s opener, in a game in Miami against the Dominican Republic with his dad in the stands, both father and son felt the song resonate with them.
“I didn’t think I’d have feelings for Canada,” said Fred, who always felt more American than Canadian, so much so he’s lost most of the Canadian accent he had as a kid. “But all of a sudden, he’s playing for Canada and the national anthem is going and the colors of the uniforms — I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really tied into this.’”
So was Freeman.
“It was emotional,” he said. “There was a little more meaning.”
Freeman doesn’t expect this WBC to strike him quite so deeply. He has become more comfortable and open discussing his mom’s legacy in the six years since. He knows what to expect emotionally.
He is also more eager to get at least one win this time, after Canada went 0-3 and was outscored by 18 runs in 2017.
“I know Canadians like my story,” Freeman said. “But they still want to win ballgames.”
To that end, he’s eager to reconnect with the Canadian baseball community, from national team manager Ernie Whitt — whom Freeman now counts as one of his friends — to Canadian baseball icons like Larry Walker, Tim Leiper and Greg Hamilton.
He’s looking forward to playing with a roster of young prospects and minor-league veterans. Cleveland Guardians pitcher Cal Quantrill and St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tyler O’Neill are Canada’s most notable other big-leaguers.
“I had so much fun,” Freeman said of 2017. “That’s why I wanted to do it again. Immediately, right after 2017, I said, next one I’m in. Just send me all the stuff, and I’ll be there.”
This spring, Freeman is following through.
When Team Canada swag arrived last week, Freeman strutted around the Dodgers clubhouse in their all-red track suit. He left a hat waiting in the stall of teammate Julio Urías, the ace of Mexico's team, which will be competing against Canada in Group C.
Freeman left Dodgers camp a few days later to join the Canadian team, preparing for games he said are similar to a playoff atmosphere.
When he lines up for the anthem before Sunday’s opener, he’s sure he’ll be thinking of his mom and his family.
“It’s just a way to honor my parents, where they came from,” he said. “So for me, in my head, in my heart, this is what I think is right.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.