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Curious case of Nate Freiman: Oakland's tall drink can wax history, caddie if needed

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

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Nate Freiman, left, talks with teammate Daric Barton. (AP)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Nate Freiman is 6-feet, 8-inches of Rule 5 draftee, of the latest Vince Flynn spy novel, of Thomas Jefferson fan, of strike zone.

He was a history major, a math minor at Duke. His parents have law degrees. His brother is preparing for his medical school boards at UMass. His wife plays on the LPGA Tour. They met at Duke.

In high school (Wellesley, in Massachusetts), he was co-editor, with his best friend, of the student newspaper. He was in the National Honor Society, both the English one and the Spanish one.

And, honestly, if it wasn't going to be baseball, if it hadn't pulled him along, if it didn't turn out that he was good at it and loved it and it generally loved him back, he hadn't the slightest idea what he'd be doing otherwise.

"I probably would have looked into graduate school," he said after failing to come up with anything. "Definitely not med school."

And that was that.

"I guess I'll cross that bridge some other day," he said.

At the moment, he's looking over first basemen's mitts, silently and evenly considering weight and suppleness and girth and whatever else goes into a good first baseman's mitt. Med school, it ain't.

This, while he mulls the events of the past four months, which began with him as property of the San Diego Padres and hoping to advance to Triple-A, which wound through three-plus months as a Houston Astros Rule 5 prospect scrounging for spring at-bats, and which concluded with a trip across the waiver wire and an honest-to-goodness place in the big leagues with the Oakland A's.

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Near as anyone can tell, there's never been a taller major-league position player than Freiman, which, alone, makes him unique. He's 26, had not played above Double-A until last week, doesn't strike out nearly as much as his size might suggest he would, and has, A's manager Bob Melvin said Tuesday, "As much power as anyone here."

Yoenis Cespedes wasn't more than 10 feet away.

I introduced myself to Nate Freiman out of curiosity, because I wonder what it's like to be so enamored by the game that there are no options but to play it, even when there are options. When the body doesn't exactly fit. When his dad didn't play. When spring ball follows 20 minutes of pushing snow off the basepaths. When, given the newspaper experience, he's asked if he still write and the answer that follows is: "I haven't written anything since college. I was OK. But I wasn't Faulkner or anything."

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Nate Freiman drops his bat after a two-run double against the Rockies. (AP)

Nor, he confirmed, has he lately written any "allegorical poetry," perhaps assuming I knew what that was.

Given all that, baseball didn't exactly beg him to play it. And yet he worked as hard as he did and he holds the career home run record at Duke, and was drafted in the eighth round by the Padres, and he batted .294 in three-plus minor-league seasons, and struck out only once every five-or-so at-bats. So he singled off Seattle's Joe Saunders in his first big-league at-bat and singled again in his second at-bat, that all happening a week ago, when he'd barely worked up his first sweat as a big-leaguer.

A's hitting coach Chili Davis took a look at Freiman when he got to A's camp 2 ½ weeks ago and saw what everybody else sees – lots of space for baseballs to go by. And yet the young man's stroke was pretty short. And he was pretty athletic. And pretty soon it looked like he might belong, or could one day, given time and reps.

"My first impression of him was wrong," Davis said, "and I'm glad I was."

Not only that, Davis said, "He's a worker. Sometimes I gotta toss him out of the cage."

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When Freiman talks, it's soft and measured, like he's sorting it out as he goes. Or like he would while caddying for his wife, Amanda Blumenherst, on the LPGA tour, which he's done eight times now.

"This is baseball," he said. "Baseball is everything. I'm fortunate enough to be playing at a level very few people get an opportunity to play at, and I hope to play it as long as possible."

I asked if, eight years ago, baseball was a means to go to Duke or if Duke was a means to play baseball.

"Hmmm," he said. "An interesting way to phrase that."

He thought some.

"I was – am – fortunate enough to play baseball," he said. "Duke was the caliber of school I would have aspired to attend without baseball. Growing up, I always wanted to go to a really good school. If the opportunity for pro ball came along, I was going to take it. It wasn't the only thing I was interested in. And I'm playing right now as long as possible. I mean, I'm currently in the big leagues. Dreams come true."

A year ago, he was riding a bus in the Texas League, reading Vince Flynn on the way out, watching a mini-series about John Adams on his computer on the way back, looking over golf scores in between, loving the entire experience. And now he loves it here, as much as he knew he would, if possible even more. He said he generally lays low in the clubhouse, keeps his head down, as a Rule Fiver generally does. But he sees it all and hears it all and prepares for the at-bats that will come, and despite the options couldn't fathom doing anything else. You know, that bridge for another day.

"Boy, everything he's done for us has been terrific," Melvin said. "I don't think I've been around a kid who feels so fortunate about being in the big leagues."

Funny how the game just seems to fit some people.

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