Religion & Jewish Life | Sports

Nate Freiman’s big year: Slugging for Israel to chasing a pennant in the big leagues

Nate Freiman, a rookie first baseman for the Oakland Athletics, is trying to help his team make the playoffs. (Hille Kuttler)
Nate Freiman, a rookie first baseman for the Oakland Athletics, is trying to help his team make the playoffs. (Hillel Kuttler)

BALTIMORE (JTA) – Last September, first baseman Nate Freiman was doing his best to help Israel secure a spot in the World Baseball Classic. Despite some super hitting from the towering slugger, the team fell short.

Fast forward a year. Freiman, 25, now finds himself in another playoff chase. Only this time it’s as a rookie in the big leagues, splitting time at first base for the Oakland Athletics.

Playing for the A’s has been “an amazing experience,” Freiman said in a locker room interview before a recent game here against the Baltimore Orioles with possible playoff implications. “The level of play is extraordinary, and I’m doing as much work as I can to compete and help the team.”

Whether playing for Israel or Oakland, Freiman is described as a level-headed hard worker who manages to keep a low profile — despite being 6-foot-8.

Pitcher Alon Leichman, who played with Freiman on the Israeli squad, called him a “quiet giant” seemingly oblivious to the pressure of the moment. Those traits came through last September when Freiman slammed two home runs in a win over South Africa.

It was all in a day’s work for the first baseman, who retreated to his locker after the game and read a book.

“It’s not like he got fazed by anything,” said Leichman, one of two natives playing for Israel.

Freiman is now applying his cool demeanor to the most electric period of a Major League Baseball regular season: a September pennant race. For the second consecutive season, Oakland is running neck and neck with the Texas Rangers for the American League’s Western Division lead. The Athletics stand an excellent chance of at least gaining a wild-card entry into the postseason.

Last year, when Oakland was winning eight of its final nine games to overtake the Rangers for the A.L. West title on the season’s final day, Freiman was in the San Diego Padres organization and playing for Israel. By spring training this year, he had moved on to the Houston Astros and then was acquired by Oakland.

Freiman made his major league debut April 3 with two hits against the Seattle Mariners.

So it’s been an eventful year for the former Duke University star, who holds the school record for home runs.

Now the right-handed hitter has settled into a platoon at first base with Brandon Moss. Entering Tuesday’s action, Freiman was batting a solid .285 with four homers and 24 runs batted in.

His manager, Bob Melvin, says he is impressed by the rookie spending hours in the batting cage and studying film of opposing pitchers.

Freiman “prepares as hard as any young player I’ve had [who] is used to playing every day,” Melvin said. “The hard part for a young player is acclimating to a non-everyday role.

“On top of that, he’s a great kid and fits in well,” the manager said.

Melvin points to one highlight of Freiman’s season: his 18th-inning game-winning single June 13 against the New York Yankees’ star relief pitcher, Mariano Rivera.

Dan Otero, an Oakland pitcher, says he’s partial to Freiman’s four-hit game against the Houston Astros on Aug. 15 that included a double and a home run.

The two have been close friends since they were teammates at Duke, when their fathers would attend games together. Now their wives hang out together.

Freiman’s love of books is rubbing off on his buddy: Otero is reading Dan Brown’s “Deception Point” based on a Freiman recommendation. Freiman’s pick these days is the Ayn Rand classic “Atlas Shrugged.”

At Duke, Otero says, Freiman was “pretty much the same guy he is now — one of the most sincere and genuine guys not only in baseball but in life in general.”

Otero adds: “He’d be a bad card player because he’s bad at bluffing.”

Freiman, a Boston native, attended countless Red Sox games at Fenway Park as a kid because his family had season tickets. So it was an extra thrill earlier this season to be playing in the fabled ballpark — “something I never thought I’d get to do” — but he pushed such thoughts aside “to focus on what I could do to help win the game.”

Despite such career highlights, he still counts playing for the Israeli team as an “extremely special experience” — although being knocked out in the WBC qualifiers was “extremely disappointing.”

It wasn’t lost on him, he says, that the Israeli team members were playing at  around the time of the High Holidays. (Another member of the Israeli team, pitcher Josh Zeid, made his major league debut in July with the Astros.)

This year, Freiman says, attending synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was unlikely, given that his team is fighting for a playoff spot.

He’s not alone. Another Jewish player, Josh Satin of the New York Mets, told JTA that while the holidays are “definitely” important, “at this point in my career I can’t really ask [to take off]. I’ve got to be here.”

Still, Freiman says, the High Holidays carry great meaning for him. He grew up attending Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Mass., and vividly recalls a 2001 Rosh Hashanah sermon delivered by his rabbi a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“It was packed — the most people I ever saw there,” he said of the service.

If things work out well for the Athletics in the season’s final few weeks, their home stadium, normally so deserted that the upper deck is sealed off, could be crowded, too, with the hard-hitting Freiman playing an important role.

“It’s always an exciting time of year,” he said, referring to the High Holidays (though most baseball fans wouldn’t disagree if he was talking about the pennant race). “It definitely feels like a new beginning.”