Phenom fever grips town
Scouts pursue fastballer as Wellesley adjusts to national attention
DEDHAM -- The radar guns rise in unison. Grown men behind the backstop cut short their conversations about taxes and the Red Sox and crane their necks to peek at the digits that pop up when the lean, tall high schooler throws the ball.
Nate Freiman zips a knee-high fastball for a strike over the outside corner. The Stalker Sport radar gun, held by a squat, gum-chewing Chicago Cubs scout, spits out 88.
The men nod their heads approvingly; a San Francisco Giants scout scribbles the number in his notebook. In a few seconds, they'll do it all over again.
When the 6-foot-7 Wellesley High School senior pitches, it's no longer a game. It's an event. The shy, thoughtful 17-year-old is struggling to cope with a flood of attention from professional teams as the June major league draft approaches.
''I try not to think about it," said Freiman, who was recently ranked by Baseball America as one of the top 50 high school prospects in the nation. ''I'm really trying to block it out and remember what's important. That's to focus on the team, the season, and winning games."
Freiman's teammates, coaches, and parents say the last couple of months have been surreal for a tight-knit program accustomed to drawing a handful of fans and losing more games than it wins.
''I was like a little kid when the scout from the Red Sox started talking to me," said his father, Len. ''I love Nate. I know he's got some ability. But it is beyond our wildest imagination that people from pro teams would be coming out to watch him. We feel blessed and fortunate that they're doing that. But it's unlike anything my wife [Marjorie] and I have ever been through."
If Nate Freiman is rattled, he's not showing it.
The stringy pitcher with the angular jaw, electric smile, and platinum right arm has been dominating opponents. He won his first three starts without allowing an earned run. He's been nearly unhittable, striking out 31, while giving up just nine hits and four walks in 25 innings pitched.
The numbers are impressive. But Wellesley coach Frank Scafati still worries that the burden of expectation is weighing on his ace's slender shoulders.
''Nate's a quiet, reserved person, and sometimes the way he expresses himself on the outside isn't the way he is on the inside," said Scafati, who has been coaching baseball at Wellesley for 30 years. ''Look, the first game we played, there were 15 or 20 scouts there. Every time he pitched, the radar guns went up. I've never witnessed anything like that. It must be overwhelming for him. I mean, how much can a 17-year-old handle?"
Freiman wasn't much of a prospect two years ago. He was a catcher -- a good one, who started for Wellesley as a freshman, hit for power and average, and was considered a potentially solid Division 1 college player.
Then, the summer before his junior year, someone suggested he try pitching. Freiman's life changed the second he threw his first fastball. He had morphed into Major League material.
His stock skyrocketed last year when he went 7-1 with a 1.50 ERA and led Wellesley to a 15-7 record -- its first winning season in eight years -- despite starting the season in the bullpen and balking twice in his first start.
''He didn't know how to pitch," Scafati said. ''He was so nervous. He's come a long way since then."
Freiman is an outstanding student. He received high scores on his SATs and ranks near the top of his class. He accepted a scholarship to Duke University last fall. But the attention he received from college coaches scrambling for his signature hardly compares to the scrutiny he's receiving this spring from pro scouts.
Wellesley athletic department secretary Maryanne
''You have to understand, this is all new for us," she said. ''We've never had anything like this happen in Wellesley before."
But the calls get through. So do the e-mails.
Scafati is talking to a reporter on the phone, discussing the importance of an upcoming game, when he suddenly stops. ''Sorry," he apologizes. ''I have my computer on, and I just got a message from a Brewers scout. He can't make it today. He wants to know when Nate's going to pitch again."
Dover-Sherborn coach Steve Ryan and Framingham coach Dan Avery know how difficult it is to keep a program running smoothly when a player receives as much notoriety as Freiman is getting.
Ryan went through the scouting process two years ago with pitcher Patrick Bresnehan. Avery has dealt with it twice: in 1989 with infielder Lou Merloni and in 2001 with outfielder Tony Gonzalez.
Bresnehan was drafted by the pros but opted to go to Arizona State. Merloni has played in both the major and minor leagues since entering pro baseball in 1993. Gonzalez was drafted by the Red Sox but decided to play football instead at Boston College.
''It can be an extremely stressful, pressure-packed situation," Ryan said. ''These kids have a lot of big decisions to make. It can become a real distraction for your program, and it takes an incredible amount of maturity as a player to handle it. We were lucky because Pat was very confident in his ability."
Avery's advice? ''Have fun. That's what I told Tony. It's still a high school game. Go out there and enjoy it."
Freiman is doing his best. But he admits he sometimes feels like a distraction to his team.
Wellesley has 12 seniors. They've been playing together since Little League and dreaming about this season for years. But the first month didn't go according to plan. After advancing to the sectional semifinals of the state tournament for the first time last year, Wellesley got off to a sluggish 5-3 start.
''All of the attention got to us a little bit," senior pitcher Mike Robert said. ''That could have been one of the reasons we were struggling. We knew it was making Nate uncomfortable, and him being uncomfortable made the rest of us uncomfortable."
Freiman doesn't hide his aversion to media attention. He wishes someone would write about his good friend Robert, who's going on to play baseball at Babson College, or centerfielder Matt Stanzler. He's going to play for Tufts. Or how about catcher Brendon Kelly? He recently enlisted in the Marines. Isn't that more important than an 88-mile-an-hour fastball?
''That's Nate being Nate," Len Freiman explained. ''He absolutely wants to make sure his teammates get the recognition they deserve. He doesn't want anyone thinking this is just about him. He knows it's not."
Freiman said he's slowly learning to deal with his unique situation. His solution? Block it all out. Don't look at the scouts and the radar guns. Don't pay attention to the Greek chorus behind the backstop, handicapping his future. Pretend they don't exist. Instead, focus on Kelly's glove and listen for the authoritative pop of that fastball when it hits the leather.
Freiman's got a month of high school baseball left. Everything's undecided after that. Rumors are circulating that the Cubs want to take him early in the draft. Other teams are reportedly trying to figure out how much money it will take to get Freiman to abandon his scholarship to Duke.
Even if he gets drafted, Freiman knows there are no guarantees he'll ever realize his dream of setting foot on a major league diamond.
When Freiman struck out the final batter in a 3-1 win last week at Dedham, he jumped off the mound, pumped his fist twice, and embraced his catcher. He was still smiling when he ducked his head and quickly disappeared onto the bus waiting to drive the Raiders back to Wellesley.
''I've got a long way to go," Freiman said quietly. ''I honestly haven't thought about the draft or what could happen. I just take every day as it comes and go out there and try to do the best I can. That's really all I'm concentrating on."
James Whitters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.