These days it’s fair to suggest first baseman Freddie Freeman is the face of the Atlanta Braves. He’s had a solid career thus far and— assuming baseball and American life re-discover normalcy if and when the coronavirus world tour finally dissipates—it’s safe to assume he’ll continue that way when healthy.
He’s had a few seasons interrupted by injuries and one truncated season-to-be interrupted rudely by COVID-19 itself. It was enough to make him thankful for his recovered health and the small things, considering the shake he incurred while suffering with the illness.
When baseball began its “summer camp” version of delayed spring training, Freeman was one of four Braves to test positive for the coronavirus. Pitcher Touki Toussaint showed no symptoms, though, and returned to the Braves on Friday. The other two—lefthanded relief pitcher Will Smith and utility infielder Pete Kozma—haven’t returned yet.
And, there came one point where Freeman feared he’d go from incumbent Brave to dead duck. That was the day his fever spiked to 104.5, usually the level at which you’d also suffer pneumonia. (Fair disclosure: your servant has fought and beaten pneumonia twice in his adult life.) It also spiked him into prayer.
“I said a little prayer that night,” he told a Saturday conference call. “I’ve never been that hot before. My body was really, really hot . . . I said ‘Please don’t take me,’ because I wasn’t ready.”
Freeman’s coronavirus adventure began when—after he “tested negative on the intake” and felt “great” on 30 June—he awoke two days later in the wee small hours feeling a swarm of body aches. “I didn’t know,” he said. “It didn’t cross my mind that it was coronavirus when I woke up that morning.”
It’d cross his mind soon enough, alas.
“I went to bed late and didn’t get enough sleep,” Freeman continued. “So I took some Tylenol, some ZzzQuil and finally got back to bed. Then I woke up around 11:30 and I immediately grabbed my phone and texted my wife and said, ‘Something is wrong. I need you to bring a thermometer.’ They gunned my forehead and it said 102 fever. I looked at it and said, ‘I think I need to call George (Poulis, the Braves’ trainer). I think something is different’.”
It was. The Braves got him a medical appointment, on 3 July, and the test came back positive.
“The crazy thing is, [that] Friday morning, I woke up in a pool of sweat, gunned my forehead and it said 98.2, so I had no fever that morning,” Freeman said. “That was 7:30 in the morning. So I went to the field because I was waiting for the test, I hit, I threw, I worked out and I ran at my house and felt completely fine. By 2 p.m., it hit me like a ton of bricks. I came back and I was like ‘Wow. I’m not feeling very good.’ It just snowballed after that.”
He spiked that shivery 104.5 that night. “Thankfully, George wasn’t awake when I texted him because I probably would’ve gone to the hospital,” he said. “Ten minutes after that, I gunned my forehead again and I was 103.8, then 103.2, then 103.6. So I was like, ‘If I go above 104 again, I’ll probably have to start ringing the phone and try to figure this out.”
That’s about when Freeman began to pray. Awakening the following morning with a mere 101.5 temperature, he figured that much he could take and feel relief. That Friday night, he said, was the worst of it, if you didn’t count that it interfered with fatherhood over the week that followed.
“I’d stand up, get dizzy and I’d have to sit back down. Trying to tell my 3-year-old not to come around me was difficult,” he said. “I wore masks, gloves, I was playing cars with them. Ten minutes after playing cars with them I’d have to sit down. I was a little fatigued and tired. Then, every three hours it felt like I had to take a nap.”
A week after those first symptoms, Freeman still didn’t feel great until he had yet another nap. When he awoke, though, he felt great enough to hail his wife, Chelsea, and ask for copious carbohydrates. She obliged with some Italian food. Come Saturday morning he’d gone nine days with no further symptoms, and a lot of gratitude.
So far, no more body aches, contradictory chills, and short losses of his senses of smell and taste. While his wife and an aunt continue recovering after they, too, tested positive, Freeman returned to Truist Park after a second consecutive negative test. He said his family did everything right to avoid the virus but “it still somehow got to me.”
The Braves would love to get to him as many plate appearances as possible before the truncated regular season begins, but Freeman isn’t entirely sure just how ready he’ll be. His manager, Brian Snitker, isn’t exactly worried. “I don’t think I have to look for anything,” Snitker told reporters. “If he’s out there he’s going to be ready.”
Despite sore legs the day after a Friday workout, Freeman bopped a run-scoring triple over the head of the Braves’ face-in-training, Ronald Acuna, Jr., in Saturday’s intrasquad game. He also made an over-the-shoulder running catch of a foul pop. You’d have been hard pressed to find any Brave happier to have their first base anchorman back than Freeman himself.
“I feel like I’m a kid in a candy store again,” he told that conference. “You forget sometimes how much you love this game. I did truly miss it. I was so excited when I got to the yard.”
It didn’t come without a few painful disruptions. When outfield mainstay Nick Markakis decided to opt out of playing in 2020, Freeman in the thick of COVID-19 was a huge factor after speaking to the first baseman by telephone. “Unfortunately,” Freeman said, “that was my worst day He just wasn’t into it, and I totally, totally get it.” The followup call between the two a couple of days later totally, totally affirmed Markakis’s decision. Freeman still gets it.
Surely he also gets that his return to the Braves was a badly-needed adrenaline shot. With Markakis out of this year’s picture, the Braves took a flyer on free agent outfielder Yasiel Puig—until Puig himself tested coronavirus positive. There went that idea. And, likely, there went Puig’s 2020, until he clears the medical protocols with two consecutive negative tests.
“I am sad that this has happened,” Puig tweeted, “but I believe that everything is in God’s timing and that my return to MLB will happen in His perfect timing.” He’ll need that kind of faith now, especially, unless God has a direct advance line on which teams might turn up needing experienced outfield help after Puig recovers and stays negative.
The cliche about waking up to smell the coffee has a certain resonance with Freeman now. “It didn’t dawn on me that I lost my taste and smell until my aunt went and got me a coffee and I couldn’t taste the coffee,” he said. “So we went and grabbed barbeque sauce and I put it up to my nose and couldn’t smell anything. I tried to taste it, couldn’t taste anything. So that lasted four days. Other than that, it was just bad the first three days for me.”
Freeman will be happier when his family is back to normal and he can be ready to go come Opening Day, when the Braves open against the New York Mets in Citi Field.
“We’re going to try. That’s the whole goal, for me to be ready Opening Day,” he said. “Thankfully, it’s not like a normal spring training. We can control the games. So the whole plan, talking to (Snitker), I’m going to be getting five or six at-bats for the next five days . . . I’m trying to get potentially thirty at-bats over the next five days. I did a full workout yesterday. We’re going to take it day by day.”
Day by day. MLB’s season watchword. With no guarantee for the time being that it will proceed without further nasty surprises. At least, whether just awakening or in the mood for a cup later in the day, Freeman can smell the coffee now. In more than one way.