Frank Scafati had never seen anything quite like it in his 23 years of coaching. Sixteen Major League Baseball scouts, four with radar guns, crowded behind home plate to watch one of his players, Wellesley High School senior Nate Freiman, pitch.
Frank Scafati had never seen anything quite like it in his 23 years of coaching. Sixteen Major League Baseball scouts, four with radar guns, crowded behind home plate to watch one of his players, Wellesley High School senior Nate Freiman, pitch his first game of the season. “It was unbelievable,” Scafati said. Unbelievable, and a little bit distracting, especially for Freiman.
Three years later, Freiman, 20, is the first baseman for the Cardinals — though not in St. Louis. About to enter his junior year at Duke University, he is playing this summer for the Cape Cod League, which bills itself as “the best in amateur baseball.” Top players from colleges around the country are recruited to spend a summer learning to swing wooden bats, face strong pitching and experience what it’s like to play in a professional environment.
“This is the first time a lot of them have been in a professional environment, playing every day,” said Orleans Cardinals coach Kelly Nicholson. “It gives scouts an opportunity to see what they’re going to be like in a professional career.”
Major league scouts are in the stands at every game, watching players closely, following their statistics and talking to coaches. For a lot of guys playing in the Cape League, there is the feeling — particularly among those who, like him, are going into their junior year — that this is their chance. Many decide to leave school and turn pro at this point, Freiman said .
“A lot of people are putting a lot of pressure on themselves, but I’m trying not to do that,” he said. “I’m not trying to leave school now. I’d like to stay for four years.” For him, for now, it’s all about the love of the game — and it has always been that way.
When scouts were after him in high school, Freiman said, “I think I sort of entertained the idea, but I don’t think I ever seriously considered foregoing college. Deep down, I always knew that I wanted to go to college, and I’m really glad I did that … I had a great time the second half of my senior year once I’d made that decision.”
He was recruited to pitch for Duke, but he ended up moving to first base after sustaining a pitching injury early on in his freshman year. “First base is really his position,” said Nicholson. Freiman agrees. “My favorite thing is hitting. I have a lot of fun with that,” he said, before pausing to add, “I have a lot of fun doing everything … I just like being out there and playing baseball.”
Even early on in high school, Scafati said, “Nate was so funny — he always wanted to be playing baseball, even in the winter. He would sneak into the high school gym at 6 in the morning, taking a few kids with him, and just throw. It was unbelievable, I’ve never seen anything like it. Any chance he had to throw a ball or swing a bat, he’d take it. That’s how serious he is. It’s a part of him.”
Freiman started playing T-ball at the age of 5, and has “been playing ever since,” he said. It was when he was about 11 years old that he realized he was serious about baseball, though at that point, being serious meant that he was just looking forward to playing in high school. “I think my goals have kind of changed throughout,” he said. After making the varsity team his freshman year, as a catcher, he started looking forward to the chance to play college baseball. By the end of junior year, he had already accepted an offer to pitch for Duke. And once he was playing for Duke, where did he set his sights? “I really wanted to play in the Cape Cod League,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I’m really trying to enjoy it.”
In the mornings in Orleans, he leads the Cardinals’ clinic for kids, teaching them to throw, run, hit, stretch and just have fun with the game. “If you want to work during the summer they let you, and I asked if I could work clinic because I have a blast doing that,” said Freiman, who helped coach the Terriers baseball camp in Wellesley for several summers. In the afternoons he often works out, lifting weights at the gym in Eastham where his host family lives, before reporting back to the field for batting practice. There are games almost every night — as of last Friday, the Cardinals had played 23 of the last 25 nights in a row.
Home games in Orleans are some of the best attended in the league, often drawing anywhere from 900 to 4,000 people. “It’s not us, the players, it’s really the team,” Freiman said. “People have been coming to games for years, and will keep coming after we leave. We have to be respectful [of that]. We really appreciate the fans … People cheer — they know your names. And there are 10 times more people here than at Duke,” he said, adding that he loves playing at Duke and attendance does not really matter. But still, “it’s neat to play in front of so many people.”
Fans start laying out blankets, setting up lawn chairs and staking out prime spots on the hill behind the dugout early in the morning. By game time, Freiman said, the hill is packed, as is every other available spot people can find along the third-base line, and in the outfield. Many bring picnics and sit as close as they are allowed to the field — once, when he was running to catch a foul ball, he looked down just in time to stop himself from putting his foot right in the middle of a pizza.
This summer, his mother, Marjorie, has been at every game — she decided to rent a house in Orleans for the summer when he was invited to play in the Cape League. His father, Len, and younger brother, Eli, couldn’t relocate for the whole summer, but come down often. “My parents have been the two most supportive people by far,” Freiman said. “As a family, we’ve never really spent that much time on the Cape, so it’s been a lot of fun for everyone.” It is the first time in two years, too, that his family has been able to see him play on a regular basis — he spent last summer in Ohio, playing for the Great Lakes League just outside of Columbus.
Though he loves being a student-athlete, playing for the summer leagues “is a nice change,” said Freiman, who is studying history and math at Duke. And it is great experience, hitting with wood and facing “real good pitching every night,” he said. “I’ll go back to school with confidence knowing I’ve played here. It’s a lot easier to hit with metal — you can make mistakes and get away with them. Wood bats are less forgiving.”
He ended last season at Duke batting .363; so far this summer his average is hovering around .280. “It took him a bit of time to get used to swinging the wood,” Nicholson said, but he has seen “steady improvement” in his first baseman throughout the course of the season. “I’m pretty sure he’s going to have the chance to sign professionally,” he said. “He can just do a lot of things. He’s a big kid with extreme power … Sure, at the next level there’s always room to improve, but with his work ethic and attitude, who knows what can happen.”
Scafati agreed. “I like to make an analogy to Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox,” he said. “No matter what level he’s played at, people have said he won’t do it, and he has.” Freiman, he said, has that same spark, work ethic and desire, and it is those things, both coaches agree, that set him apart. “He thinks before he acts, and he knows what he wants,” Scafati said. “It’s always been that way. He knows he wants to play baseball…he is taking it one day at a time, but to a point that it will hopefully culminate in the end in a chance to play Major League Baseball.”
For Freiman though, right now, that is secondary. “It’s an honor to play up here,” he said, of the Cape League. “I’m interested in enjoying it. I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about what happens after college, baseball wise. I’m going to let that play out. If I have an opportunity to play professionally, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”