Right now, the focus of the baseball world is glued to the World Series. And there’s one former LSU player that might have been affiliated with one of the contending teams right now if he’d left school just one year early.
Second baseman Cole Freeman was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 18th round of the 2016 MLB draft, at No. 551 overall. But he chose to stay for his senior year at LSU, and was ultimately selected by the Nationals in the fourth round of the 2017 MLB draft at No. 134 overall.
He’ll never forget The Box though, and says he can’t come up with just one favorite memory of his time as a Tiger.
“I don’t know that I have just one,” he said. “There are so many. I think one of the first times I was really realizing the atmosphere of The Box itself was when we had Florida in town and we won that Saturday night game. I just remember being out there and looking up in the stands and there literally not being a seat to sit down in. It was as packed as it gets, and that was my first year here.”
“The Regional my junior year was absolutely crazy, and I was able to hit a home run to get us back in the game. By far it was going to Omaha. That’s an opportunity a lot of kids don’t get to have. To make it as far as we did was something, obviously, I’ll never forget.”
There’s a reason why top recruits are drawn to LSU over other top programs. According to Freeman, it has everything to do with the culture and the fan base.
“The tradition, by far,” Freeman said. “There really are no other fans in college baseball that love their baseball as much as LSU,” he explained. “There’s tailgating at 12 o’clock for our Friday game. People are going and moving their day just to work around LSU baseball.”
“I think that’s one of the coolest things, and one of the difference makers, that kids in high school see that makes them want to come and try a part of something here. It’s special. Every year it’s something new, another championship, another goal reached, and as a high school player I don’t know how you wouldn’t want to be a part of that.”
LSU sports collectively has one of the largest social media followings in the nation, with the baseball Twitter account having more followers than any other college baseball program in the country.
“The following we have on all social media. It really is something special when you come here and see the way they (the fans) respond to you. You can make a difference just because of your status.”
It's easy to see Freeman has drawn a huge following from fans. But if you’ve ever spent some time looking at his Twitter alone, you’ve probably noticed a sort of “super fan club” that have adopted him in addition to former teammate Kramer Robertson.
The two athletes have no real affiliation with the group, but the girls do give them a good laugh.
“Personally, no, we really don’t (know them). We know every picture me and Kramer put up at some point is going to be screenshotted,” he laughed.
“They took one of my family and made it into a meme, they inserted themselves into it. But they love their baseball, and it’s cool that they think that highly of us to the point they want to create an account like that. But it’s all fun and games, we get a good kick out of it.”
But one thing that instantly catches a prospect’s attention - probably more than any other single factor - has to be when LSU took on the Florida Gators in the 2017 College World Series. It was a journey that began in the previous season, when LSU fell short of making it to Omaha.
“Honestly it goes back to the season before. We were such a young team, and we saw how close we actually got to Omaha. Right after we lost, we knew it was Omaha or bust. We weren’t just trying to go to Omaha, we were trying to win it all.”
It didn’t come easy, though. Before the Tigers even began the season, they were already riddled with injuries.
“Obviously, we knew the team that we had in the fall. You know, every team goes through big blows, one of those big blows was when we had Doug Norman out for the season, and one of the biggest being Bryce Jordan right before the season. It’s tough losing people like that. Coach Mainieri talked to us, and said that every team’s going to go through stuff like this.”
Rather than letting the losses become the setback they could have been, the team just used them as further motivation to rise to the occasion.
“You just can’t make excuses, and everyone has to step up. You had freshman step up, people who had been there for a while that maybe didn’t get their full opportunity, and they stepped up too. And that was one of the reasons why we were actually able to achieve the goal. It was from day one we knew that we had a really good chance of going to Omaha.”
While Freeman hasn’t seen much about the next level of baseball right now, he has gotten a small dose of the way things work in the MLB.
“I really can’t say too much game-wise, but I got a little taste of it at instructs. Honestly, I haven’t seen much of a difference. The strike zone’s a little tighter, the pitchers can throw and they’re all speed for sure. I’ve gotten a chance to watch some pitchers that were Double-A, Triple-A. You see why it’s so hard to make it up there, their stuff’s a little bit extra. They’ve got that little something different than everybody else.”
Major league or not, Freeman doesn’t know that he’ll ever see energy quite like he did at LSU – the school he gives full credit for propelling him into the next phase of his career.
“I haven’t been able to get in front of crowds or anything, but I don’t think I’ll play in front of a crazier crowd than LSU until hopefully I do make it up to the majors. But yeah, I don’t think I’ve seen much of a difference. I think playing SEC baseball prepares you as good as any baseball does.”
After being drafted into the big leagues, a lot of guys look forward to being on a bigger stage, in front of a larger fan base, underneath the bright lights. But for Freeman, it’s not about any of those things.
It’s about proving his worth and discovering himself as an athlete.
“I think I want to see how good I actually am,” he said. “Now, it’s a job. There’s a lot of people out there that are coming for your job, and there’s only one spot open, really. You really have to see, are you that much better? Are you going to outwork the other person? You know, there’s ups and downs. The ups are going to be there, but pretty much you’re starting over. You get the high school gig, you have to earn your spot. You get the college one, you have to earn your spot. Now, you’re a professional baseball player and you still have to earn your spot. But I’m ready to take on the challenge, to see what it’s going to take, to see what I have to get better at. It’s going to be a learning process.”
And proving himself is something the infielder is no stranger to.
There was a difficult time in life for Freeman before he had the honor of wearing the No. 8 for the Tigers - a jersey given each season to a player that ‘exemplifies the spirit of the LSU program.’
At Lakeshore High School, Freeman was one of the smallest kids in class, standing 5-foot-1 and weighing a slight 97 pounds. Those around him acknowledged his talent and drive, but told him his size would forever limit his career.
But Freeman had long since been determined to accomplish his goals. After attending Paul Mainieri’s youth “Christmas Camp” in 2006 at the mere age of 12 years old, Freeman had his sights set on LSU. There was no other place he wanted to play, and he would do anything it took to turn his dream to reality.
“I wanted to play here my entire life, but I was always told I was too small and I wasn’t going to be able to make it.”
Freeman is so passionate about his story, he’s now created his own campaign he calls ‘Heart Has No Limit.’ The cause began as something very small, and snowballed into what it has become today.
“It kind of started off as something just for me. It was a tattoo that I got. Then the story with Jeff Marx came out, and people read it and jumped on board with it. I started leaving games, and I’ve got little kids asking me to sign their gloves, and they’ve got HHNL written on them. Or, they’re making shirts that have Heart Has No Limit on them. So then, I started to think that maybe this wasn’t just for me, it’s for all of the kids.”
After putting some thought into it, Freeman decided he would make the idea into something bigger. Something that could help other people, too.
“I kind of thought about it, and I was like, when my career’s over at LSU, I might start a little something and give inspiration to kids that were told that they couldn’t do something like I was my entire life. Actually, a couple days after we lost the World Series, I thought there was no better time than now to start.”
It didn’t take long at all for Freeman to get things rolling. He formed HHNL less than a month after his departure from LSU.
I got a bunch of people together, came up with a logo, started putting videos together and launched it about three weeks after the season ended.”
The campaign is rapidly expanding, and has already touched many lives across the country.
“Since then, it’s been awesome,” he said. “The messages I get from kids, saying they go in each day thinking about what I did, and it inspires them. I had one girl message me on Instagram saying she was in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver when she was four years old. I can’t compare anything to what she’s going through, but she was told she’d never walk again, that she’d never beat the odds and I think about that story all the time before I go to workouts. This is way bigger than baseball. I see the type of inspiration it’s bringing to people, and I’m embracing the fact my story can help other people live their dream.”
This is not something Freeman ever wants to be focused around himself, though. He wants to use his story to inspire the underdogs. To give people hope and pride in what they do, regardless of whatever odds are against them.
“The brand is something I don’t want to be about me, I want it to be something that when somebody puts on a Heart Has No Limit shirt like I would put on a Delgado shirt when I was at Delgado, or an LSU shirt when I was at LSU. I want people to accomplish something that they were told they couldn’t, and prove somebody wrong. Hopefully it will be a movement.”