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Mudville: June 23, 2024 7:45 am PDT

Choo Freeman

"I think about the process of playing and the ups and downs of the journey.”

In today’s world of youth sports, you can find people willing to coach kids on just about any aspect of the physical side of sports. There are plenty of legitimate coaches willing to work on the technicalities of sport performance and a very visible subsection of folks looking to separate parents from their money through gimmicks, shortcuts and nonsense that amounts to nothing more than eyewash.

What is more difficult to find, and something much more nuanced than individual instruction, is someone willing to teach the intangible parts of competitive sports. A kid can have all the physical tools, but there is so much more that goes beyond that if you truly want to be successful in sports.

Former Rockies centerfielder Choo Freeman is now giving back to the game as a coach and his message is fantastic. Even better, he’s our first guest as we go into our fifth year of Spitballin’.

If you listen to Freeman talk about his own experience, it’s easy to see why he was able to become as successful as he did. A record-setting wide receiver at Dallas Christian High School in the mid-1990s, Freeman passed on a scholarship to play football at Texas A&M for baseball.

Ask him why and he talks about embracing the challenge that baseball offered. There’s your first sign that Freeman is built differently. In a world where people and athletes are very prone to taking the easy way, it’s great that Freeman can draw on his own experience of taking—and conquering—the challenge of becoming a big leaguer and pass that down to the next generation of ballplayers.

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When you look at Freeman’s story, you see examples like that all over. He talks about learning from coaches, learning from veteran teammates, embracing and learning from failure, benefitting from playing with and against the very best and embracing things that many would run away from.

While many players would look to avoid getting in the box against Mariano Rivera, Freeman not only embraced the challenge of it, he lists it as one of his more memorable at bats of his career. It’s not because he hit a home run or walk-off against him; it was just the idea of testing his skills against the very best to do it.

That’s how you get better. Challenge yourself, learn from failure and grow from there.

He’s got a fantastic story and he has impacted hundreds of young baseball players as a coach, so join us as we go Spitballin’ with Choo Freeman.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Freeman! Happy to be kicking off our fifth year of Spitballin’ with you as our guest. Let’s start by going back to your childhood. What was baseball like for you as a kid growing up?

I grew up playing mainly football. I was adopted at ten years old and my guardian family, Richard and Yvonne Cox, introduced me to pee wee football. I ended up playing youth basketball and baseball starting when I was ten years old. My first year in baseball, I wasn’t very good, but my second year I caught on pretty quick. I played outfield, but then our catcher got hurt so I became a catcher. I played catcher until the age of 14 and then moved back out to the outfield when I moved up to select ball and for high school.

Football was my first love and it came easy to me. I played wide receiver in high school, but I liked the challenge of baseball. I played at a high level and the sport grew on me. I played for the Dallas Mustangs, a well-known organization, and we had a lot of guys who went on to play pro ball. Vernon Wells and Brad Hawpe were on my team. Chris Young, the GM of the Rangers, was on the team too. I also grew up with Jason Jennings. It was a pretty competitive and I was around great athletes who pushed me to get better. That’s how I found my love of baseball. I always wanted to be out there playing.

It’s a pretty humble way to put it that you just “played” football. It was more like dominating. I read that you set the Texas state record for touchdowns in a career with 50 and were a big time recruit for Texas A&M. What ultimately made you choose baseball over football?

It was a tough decision. I constantly had college recruiters and pro scouts come to the house. I figured that the sooner I got started at the professional level, the better. The injury risk in football also came into play for me. I just loved playing baseball though. I loved the challenge of it and wanted to get better. I knew that the sooner I got started playing, the better I would get.

It was quiet and I remember running around the bases thinking, “Did this really happen?” It was such a cool experience and I can say forever that I hit my first major league home run at Yankee Stadium.

You were a first round draft pick by the Rockies at just 18 years old. Can you talk to our readers about your draft experience?

I didn’t know much about the draft until my junior year. Vernon Wells talked to me about the draft and told me that I was going to be next. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but he told me he meant I was going to be the next one to be drafted. He told me that I was good enough. Once I learned more about it, it was real to me. There were people telling me I could go in the first round, but I didn’t know where. I was sitting on the stairs and got a phone call telling me the Rockies drafted me. It was surreal because I had to make that decision between football and baseball. I was 18 years old and about to go out on my own to start playing and I had to grow up pretty quick.

Looking at the rosters your first two minor league seasons, you were mostly playing with and against guys who were a few years older than you and you did really well. How did you make that adjustment to pro ball at such a young age?

I have to give credit to the staff of the Rockies, especially PJ Carey who was my manager in Rookie Ball. He prepared us to play professional baseball. He taught us how to become a professional. We always had big league guys coming down and talking to us too. They schooled us on being a pro, managing our weight, eating healthy and things like that. Then there was just the things I needed to learn growing up. It was quite different. I had to pay bills, clean my clothes and all that kind of stuff. I had to learn pretty quick. When I moved to Asheville, I had to find roommates. My dad’s best friend came down and helped me get situated. I ended up living with Matt Holliday, Jermaine Van Buren, Doug Thompson and Jason Jennings. We made it work and we were all good friends. It made it easier because we were all shooting for the same common goal while being competitive.

San Francisco Giants catcher Todd Greene, #20, leaps to catch the ball as Colorado Rockies Choo Freeman, #21, scores in the 10th inning of their game on Saturday, August 5, 2006 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, CA. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Contra Costa Times)

You had some really good minor league seasons and became a big prospect with the Rockies. You were called up in June of 2004. Can you share with us your story of being called up for the first time?

We were in Nashville and I had just played a good game the night before. Our manager, Alan Cockrell, knocked on my door around 6:00AM. I had Alan in Roanoke with the Salem Avalanche. He helped me grow as a player throughout my journey. He told me that I was being called up and I literally sat down in the hall and cried. All the work I put in to get to that point had paid off, but in the back of my head I knew that there was more work ahead. It was a great feeling to be called up and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

In just your fourth big league start you hit your first career home run and it came at Yankee Stadium. That had to be a pretty incredible experience. Can you share that story with our readers?

I played my first game the series before that against the Giants and then we went to Yankee Stadium to play the Yankees. I had gotten into the first game as a pinch runner and it was pretty nerve-wracking. It was really cool playing there, but I was nervous too. They had guys I looked up to growing up. Derek Jeter was out there at shortstop and Alex Rodriguez was playing third base. Gary Sheffield was out in the outfield. I was out there against all those guys. I got the start against Jose Contreras and I just thought that I needed to be ready to hit. I tried to be as relaxed as possible. I got a fastball up and hit it good. When it went over the fence, it felt like everything stopped. It was quiet and I remember running around the bases thinking, “Did this really happen?” It was such a cool experience and I can say forever that I hit my first major league home run at Yankee Stadium.

Choo Freeman #21 of the Colorado Rockies looks on during practice before the game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim at Angel Stadium during an interleague game on June 28, 2006 in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

That had to be something playing against guys like Jeter, Sheffield and A-Rod. That first series was against Barry Bonds too. You also batted against Randy Johnson, Tom Glavine and other Hall of Famers. Whether it was those guys I mentioned or someone else, did you have any moments where you stepped back and thought, “Wow, I’m on the same field playing against this guy?”

During the Yankees series I faced Mariano Rivera. I knew it was possible that I could be in that situation. You really don’t know how good he is until you get in the box against him. You have to see his ball move from that perspective. He’s always talked about and you always hear stories about guys who faced him. My at bat against him was pretty intimidating, but it’s one of my favorite at bats. He ended up breaking my bat. He’s one of the greats and I wanted that challenge. Randy Johnson was intimidating too. It looked like he could reach out and touch you as he was striding down the mound. It makes you realize that you had to have this extra level of focus.

Absolutely – you’d better be locked in against those guys. Switching to defense: Coors Field is always talked about for the way it effects hitting, but I don’t think the challenges of playing the outfield there are talked about enough. Those are some huge gaps and I think the outfield space is the biggest in baseball. Did you find it difficult playing centerfield at Coors with all that room out there?

Our AAA team was in Colorado Springs and we played against Albuquerque too. The ball flew in those parks the same way it did at Coors Field. Being out there with the deep gaps, you have to make sure that you get to the ball. There can’t be any loafing going on and you have to have good angles. All of the outfielders in the organization were schooled on that. One time early on I was coasting on a fly ball and it just kept carrying and ended up dropping. From then on, I knew I had to haul tail to every fly ball, even if I knew I was going to catch it. You had to make sure you got to that spot and that your angles were really good, otherwise the ball would carry on you.

Choo Freeman #21 of the Colorado Rockies slides safely into third base for a triple ahead of the catch by 3B Hank Blalock in the fourth inning on June 23, 2006 at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

You mentioned your home run at Yankee Stadium and you had some other big games too. Were there any other games that stood out to you as some of your best memories?

There was a series against the Giants and I had a pretty good game against Barry Zito. The emotion of the crowd that game was great because we always went back and forth with the Giants. I hit a triple and enjoyed being able to show off my speed. That was a big moment for me. Another big game for me was hitting a home run against the Rangers. It was cool to know that my family back home in Texas was watching that game and I got to hit a home run against the Rangers.

The 2024 Hall of Fame announcement is just a few days away. You were teammates with Todd Helton, who is the big story this year around the voting. In my opinion, he should have been in long ago. As his former teammate, do you think Todd Helton should be a Hall of Famer?

I think he should be a Hall of Famer. He was a great defensive player too. He was always locked in as a player. To me, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. If I had a vote, I would vote for him for sure.

I totally agree. Hopefully this is his year. I wanted to ask about your coaching career too. It’s great to see that you’re giving back to the youth as a high school coach. Could you talk to our fans about your career as a coach?

I am the head varsity coach at the high school I went to, Dallas Christian School. This is my seventh year as head coach. I also coach middle school football and basketball here. I coach a 14U select team with United Baseball. I want to show them my love for baseball. I want to give back to the game by teaching kids the things that I was taught. I want to pass down the knowledge that I learned through pro ball to the kids I coach today.

That’s awesome. Those kids are lucky to be getting those lessons from a former big leaguer like yourself. Is there one message or area of focus that you try to help your players with as they mature in their sport?

I teach my players to respect the game and play the game the right way. One important thing I teach is teaching kids how to deal with failure. In life, there are going to be ups and downs. If you teach them how to fail, they’ll know how to deal with that and react to it. There was a point in my career where I was the best athlete and best player in any sport that I played. Then I got to the minor leagues and I didn’t know how to deal with failure. I had a coach, Dave Collins, sit me down and talk to me about failure. If I can teach kids how to deal with failure, then I did my job with that. It’s always good to see them react and to see the rewards of coaching.

That’s a fantastic message and something that isn’t really focused on today as much as it should be. It’s been great talking with you and I appreciate you sharing your story. My last question for you is about reflection. When you look back at your own playing career and reflect on what you have been able to do as a professional ballplayer, what are some thoughts that come to your mind?

I think about the process of playing and the ups and downs of the journey. I think about how I can take that and help the kids I coach now. I am very grateful for the opportunity I had to play in the big leagues. Looking to the future of the game with the players I coach, and my daughter who is playing softball, I want to try to help them get a leg up in the game that they play and get a leg up in life as well.      

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

Comments
  • Tim Perkins

    Choo. Amazing athlete…amazing person.

    January 22, 2024
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