ATLANTA — It’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 feet from foul pole to foul pole at SunTrust Park, but when someone twice your speed is chasing you, it feels a whole lot farther than that.
The Atlanta Braves haven’t even played in their gleaming new ballpark for three months, but they’ve already got their first legitimate viral hit: Beat The Freeze, a mid-inning foot race where some hapless fan takes on a speedster in an ice-blue bodysuit … and the fan almost always loses badly, oh so badly.
The Freeze’s races have racked up millions of views on Facebook and Twitter, plus love from athletes, celebrities, and Jimmy Kimmel. What was supposed to be a short-term promotion is now an open-ended one. And as good as the story of The Freeze is, the story of the guy under the goggles might be even better.
The Secret Origin Of The Freeze
Don’t tell any evildoers, but The Freeze is a guy named Nigel Talton. In his secret identity as a member of the Braves’ ground crew, he hides in plain sight. Talton paints the base lines and swaps out the bases mid-game before disappearing underneath the grandstands to switch into his costume.
Talton, 26, has worked for the Braves since 2012, and he’s been a competitive runner for even longer. A sprinter at nearby Kennesaw State, he notched a 4.28-second 40 at a football camp in 2011, a time just six one-hundredths of a second slower than John Ross’s all-time NFL combine record. He first unleashed his speed for the Braves last year in the final game at Turner Field, when he raced on behalf of a fan and obliterated the “stolen base challenge” (a race to grab a base and return to the starting line in time). At the time, he figured it was a nice moment, but what else could possibly come of it?
As the Braves were preparing to settle into SunTrust Park, the fine folks at RaceTrac, an Atlanta-based gas station/quick-mart company, were looking to get some love for their new line of frozen drinks. The Braves’ promotional staff went to work, crafting The Freeze: merciless speedster that’s one part blueberry frozen drink, one part FroZone from The Incredibles, and one part Usain Bolt.
“They came to me asking if I’d like to be in this new competition, racing a fan. I said, ‘Sure!'” Talton laughs. “They didn’t tell me about the goggles until the day of the race.”
So the Braves had their sponsor, they had their sprinter, and they had their character. All that remained was to turn him loose on the fans of Atlanta.
The Freeze Is Coming
Between-innings races have been a staple of baseball games for years; fans can’t help but pick a rooting interest as, say, gigantic sausages (Milwaukee), presidents (Washington), or Home Depot tools (Atlanta) bumble around the field. But pulling for a costume is one thing; pulling for one of your own is something else, and that’s the simple genius of Beat The Freeze: the guy (and it’s almost always a guy) out there running for his life (or, really, $500) is a fan; in effect, he’s one of us.
In a way, it’s almost cruel, the way the race goes down. Straight up, The Freeze could wax pretty much anyone on the planet. So the poor slob who’s got the “honor” of racing The Freeze gets a good 25-yard head start, and it generally takes The Freeze most of the way around the field to catch him. So there’s that long moment where the audience knows that The Freeze is clearly faster than the poor fan, but does the fan have enough of a lead to hold off the charge?
The Freeze was a local-knowledge phenomenon — SunTrust regulars would tell newcomers to stay in their seats to watch this particular promotion — until two weeks ago, when one overly confident fan started celebrating an apparent victory too early, and bit dust hard:
this is the funniest thing that will happen at a sporting event this year pic.twitter.com/f6Yq9lErin
— Joon Lee (@iamjoonlee) June 10, 2017
You’d think that of any city, Atlanta would know not to start celebrating early, but here was the fan, waving on the crowd and then utterly eating the dirt as The Freeze blew past him for the win. It was 28-3 all over again, and The Freeze had run down that viral unicorn.
Everyone Watches The Freeze
That video – the drama, the humiliation, the sheer freaking speed – blew the skit into orbit. And now everyone’s on board, from the front office to the fans to the players.
“Every game, we come in and ask, ‘When’s The Freeze? What time does The Freeze run?’” says Braves reliever Sam Freeman. “He comes right by us, so we’re always ready.”
“We always root against The Freeze,” says fellow reliever Luke Jackson. “We’ll be telling the [fan], ‘Come on, you got this,’ even though he never does.”
Atlanta’s bullpen, in right-center field, sits right about at the point where the challengers tend to run out of gas and The Freeze kicks past. The relievers have taken it upon themselves to coax the poor challenger along, encouraging him with a stuffed rabbit taped to plastic poles. (This race does strange things to people.)
About a half hour before the race, Talton changes from his ground crew gear into the bodysuit and begins getting loose, doing sprints, kicks, and stretches under the stadium. Every so often a child will catch sight of The Freeze and call out; The Freeze will acknowledge the fan with a wave. But for the most part, he’s getting loose in silence, his headphones playing Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” on repeat.
Don’t worry about a thing
‘cause every little thing’s gonna be all right
And They’re Off
Back at the starting line, the opposing team’s bullpen looms right over the alcove where The Freeze’s victim of the day waits, and relief pitchers — baseball’s equivalent of the teenager hanging around the house — are all in on this. At Saturday’s game, several Brewers lean over and try to suss out the latest challenger’s prospects.
“When’s the last time you ran fast?” Brewers bullpen coach Marcus Hanel asks the 20-something dude—it’s almost always a 20-something dude — who’s got a bit of a shellshocked look on his face. Told it’s been awhile, Hanel nods. “Huh,” he says, trying to keep a poker face. “Good luck.”
“Don’t look back,” pitcher Paolo Espino advises. “Don’t ever look back.”
Today’s challenger doesn’t, and as a result, this race is a lot closer than most. In fact, the challenger seems to win, though video replays show that he slaps the tape down with his hand. It’s a clear violation of standard track rules that mandate the torso must be first across, but The Freeze won’t be lodging any complaints in this unsanctioned event.
Straight up, of course, The Freeze could dust anyone in the stadium; heck, The Freeze could dust pretty much anyone in the nation. But he’s got to wait for the signal to go, to give the challenger that head start, and a bit of hope, in order to make this an actual race.
“I’m ready to go,” The Freeze smiles afterward. “I’m having to wait, and it’s like, ‘Come on, let me go …’”
Running Down A Dream
When unleashed, The Freeze is unstoppable. But the guy under the goggles? He’s feeling the strain.
After every race, Talton — with the help of his grounds crew mates — peels out of the spandex suit and gets back into his uniform, working his day job. He’ll then go from the Braves game to an Amazon warehouse where he’ll work a midnight shift, come home, train some more, catch a nap, and then start it all over again.
When asked if he’d be willing to race at every home game, Talton exhales, then nods. “I could go every home game, if I could get a massage,” he laughs. “Maybe a chiropractor?” (Memo to the Braves: at least let the training staff stretch the guy’s legs.)
The Freeze is paying huge dividends for the Braves, for RaceTrac, even for the advertisers along the outfield wall that The Freeze streaks past. (When asked what kind of a head start he’d need to beat The Freeze, Freddie Freeman points to a Hyundai sign nearly halfway around the park from the starting line: “Right there.”)
“We’d originally planned on doing 27 races,” says Braves VP of marketing Adam Zimmerman. “We’re going to be doing more than that. We’ve got world-class athletes and celebrities wanting to race The Freeze, or take over for The Freeze if he wants a day off. The possibilities are endless.”
Talton, who’s as genial and calm in conversation as The Freeze is cool and arrogant, is enjoying all the attention; the players all recognize him, and he’s starting to get recognized out in public, even without the goggles. That’s all well and good, but Talton has a finish line of his own in mind: Team USA.
“I’m praying that I can earn a sponsor, where I can just work one job and do track,” he said. “It’s putting a strain on my body. That’s why I stopped competing, but I didn’t stop training.”
Without a sponsor, an athlete has to foot all the bills for competition — entry fees, hotel, gas, plane tickets, equipment — bills that can add up quickly.
“I’m saving money, praying I can pick it back up next season,” Talton says.
The odds are long — as fast as The Freeze is, there are many with Team USA who are faster. But they’re not impossible, and who knows — a couple of breaks here and there, and The Freeze might be wearing the red, white, and blue in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Until then, though, the Freeze is going to be around for awhile. There’s no end of fans out there to outrun. And for Talton, a dream that once was fading into the distance has suddenly — thanks to a blue bodysuit and a pair of goggles — drawn a whole lot closer.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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