TUCSON, Ariz. — Choo Freeman steps into the batting cage and sends a line drive to left with a loud thwack.
“Atta boy, Choo!” a teammate yells from the side.
Thwack! Another liner heads into the gap in right-center.
“That’s the one!” a coach bellows from behind the cage.
Thwack! A towering shot sails over the fence in left followed by “Choo, Choo!” from the gallery.
Sure, it’s just batting practice and it’s still early in spring training, but Colorado’s center fielder of the future is trying to force his way into the present.
“He’s done everything he can to put himself in the best possible position to show up at spring training and make our club,” Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. “All aspects of his game have sharpened up from the last time I saw him. Now we get to go play the games and that’s always going to give you a good indication.”
Colorado plays its exhibition opener Thursday against the Chicago White Sox.
Freeman just hopes the games last year weren’t an indication of what he can do.
Considered a rising star since he was drafted 36th overall in 1998, Freeman struggled in two stints with the Rockies last season, his first action in the big leagues.
There were plenty of good signs, particularly on defense. But that’s no surprise since Freeman’s speed and instincts have always made him an exceptional fielder.
Freeman’s trouble was at the plate. Able to get by on raw talent most of his way through the minors, Freeman had a tough time adjusting to the majors, where every little mistake is exploited.
Struggling with hard pitches inside and breaking balls out, he wound up hitting just .189 with one homer and 11 RBIs in 45 games.
“I learned that basically playing in the big leagues isn’t really that different than when I was playing in the minor leagues,” Freeman said. “It’s just that in the big leagues everything is magnified and you can’t make as many mistakes as in the minors. Still, I felt like I belonged when I was up there.”
That confidence has carried over into spring training.
Freeman spent the offseason working on his stroke, focusing on getting in better balance at the plate. The difference has been noticeable through the first two weeks of spring training, with Freeman turning just about every cage session into a show.
“He’s gotten better each year. This is the biggest step,” Hurdle said. “I’m not a big BP (batting practice) guy, but good BP is better than bad BP and you see a dramatic change in the fundamentals of the swing. You can tell a lot of hard work was put in.”
But it hasn’t been just physical preparation.
Projected to be a star from his high schools days in Dallas, Freeman at times got caught in other people’s expectations and timetables for him. Now he realizes he needs to progress at his own pace.
“I believe my time will come and I’m not worried about it whether it will be now or in the future,” Freeman said. “When I was on the lower levels, I worried about it more, but not as much now because I believe in myself, I believe in my talent and I feel like I belong in the big leagues.”