PHOENIX — When Team USA takes the field for the World Baseball Classic with a star-studded roster Monday night at Chase Field, Freddie Freeman will be in the other boat wearing a red uniform with Canada emblazoned across his chest.
The Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman turned down the option to play for the United States in this year’s WBC, choosing instead to represent the country where his late mother was born and raised.
It’s the same decision he made in 2017, when the USA won the tournament. As then, Canada is a long shot, while Team USA is a favorite to take the title, but that’s not what’s important to Freeman.
“I’m not sure that’s what she would have wanted me to do, but in my heart, that’s what I think I have to do to honor her,” Freeman said before the WBC. “I think she would be proud to do this. I think this is the right move to honor Rosemary Freeman.”
Rosemary Freeman died of skin cancer when Freddie was just 10, but she knows what Canada meant to his mother even at that young age, even though she was born and raised in Southern California after her parents moved from Ontario.
“I was 8 years old and we were at an Angels game,” Freeman recalled. “I was eating popcorn and the Canadian national anthem is playing and I’m sitting down. [Then] I felt like someone ripped me off. I felt like I was hanging and it was my mom [who pulled me out of my seat]. It’s these little things that I remember.”
Honoring his mother means Freeman will face a lineup with plenty of familiar faces, including fellow Dodger Mookie Betts and several other major league All-Star teammates on Monday night. The game has increased importance in the Pool C standings after Canada opened its WBC schedule with a win over Great Britain and Team USA fell to 1-1 with a loss to Mexico on Sunday. Freeman called it a difficult decision to step down from Team USA, but has no regrets.
“Let your team play for your country, there’s no right or wrong decision about it,” he said. “Whatever you feel is going to be the right decision, is the right decision.”
Among those Freeman knows well who will be in the other boat Monday night is Team USA manager Mark DeRosa, who resides in Atlanta, where Freeman has been a star for more than a decade. The two dined together this spring, and the American skipper has no plans to go easy on Freeman when their teams meet.
“You fully understand what he’s doing,” DeRosa said. “I’ve known Freddie forever … watching him become one of the best players in the game. [And] certainly based on what we’re seeing, I’m not going to let Freddy beat us.”
It’s the same feeling players like Betts or former teammate Trea Turner will have taking part in the only friend-versus-rival match the WBC produces. Both would like to see Freeman suit up for the U.S., but understand the importance of honoring his mother’s legacy.
“We’d love to have him here, but I know he is [played for Canada] and he stays with it,” Turner said. “It will be strange to face him again this early in my career. But he’s a stud and we have to watch out for him. It will be a tough bat for us.”
Said Betts: “That describes what Freddy is. And if I get on first base, yeah, we’re going to have fun. Freddie and I have that bond, but that bond with a mom is special.”
Freeman honors Rosemary more than once every few years in international competitions. He wears sleeves under his uniform in memory of her as well. Melanoma runs in his family, so it’s for his own health.
“I’d rather be warm for a few hours than have chemotherapy,” Freeman said. “I’m a redhead and fair-skinned, so it’s a bit of both [honoring her and protecting myself].”
Freeman also wants to shine a light on Canadian baseball. Anyone from the country who picks up a bat instead of a hockey stick knows that it’s not likely to get nearly the same attention on the diamond as a star on the ice.
“If everybody was healthy and playing, there are a lot of very good Canadian baseball players,” Freeman said. “I’m happy to jump with them.”
He’s already made a big impression on younger Canadian teammates who wouldn’t normally share a locker room with a former MLB MVP. Easily the biggest name on a team that features just five current major leaguers on the roster, Freeman has plenty of eyes on him inside the Canadian clubhouse.
“In the cage, Freddie was talking about his routine, his approach, how you have to stick to the routine and not get out of it, because that’s one thing you always have to have,” the Team Canada prospect and the Chicago Cubs, Owen Cassie. he said. “It’s nice because not many 20-year-olds play for their country, so I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity to be able to really be around these guys and know that I can ask questions and not be scrutinized.”
If Canada can pull off an upset Monday, Freeman will undoubtedly have accomplished his goal of getting his team’s attention. And he’ll probably take a moment to think about his mom, who died long before her son grew up to dominate the sport like few others of his era — and do so as a proud hometown boy.
“Everybody likes my back story, but I think Canadians want wins, and so do we,” Freeman said. “He was a wonderful man taken too soon. God needed an angel. It was unfortunate, but he was a wonderful man.”