Travelin’ Man

Calgarian Geoff Freeborn has seen a lot of baseball. Six continents worth, to be exact.

The 36-year-old southpaw has played in European Championships, pitched in the Colombian Winter League, toured around the South Australian Baseball League, represented Canada at the Hong Kong Invitational and he was an All Star with the Calgary Vipers.

In addition to that, the Red Deer-born pitcher has competed in golf’s world long-drive championships, worked with people with disabilities through Calgary SCOPE Society and made a name for himself through Sidearm Nation,  which offers instruction to sidearm and submarine pitchers.

We caught up with the busy Bowness high school grad for a quick Q&A and here’s what he had to say:

Q: Baseball-wise, what are you up to these days? 

A: I’m fortunate to be coaching full-time now in Calgary. Recently in September, I started with the University of Calgary as an assistant coach. I’m really enjoying the recruiting part of it and seeing if (head coach) Aaron Dunsmore and I can turn the program around. I also work at the Coyote Den (a training facility in Calgary) and then still will be involved with Babe Ruth Calgary, just in a lesser role.

Sidearm Nation is a side project I do but it keeps growing. I run four to five camps per year and then I have started an apparel line with it, that also keeps growing.

Q: Where did the idea for Sidearm Nation come from and what has the response been? Seems like a good niche to focus on within baseball coaching, training and education.

A: The idea started about five years ago. It was originally really just going to be an online e-book with a bunch of interviews with current and former pro sidearm/submarine pitchers. Then, after all the interest and demand, I started to run camps. Our first one was in Arizona a couple years ago and I have moved them around since. Coming up will be our third Calgary one and then Vegas and Florida.

It is a good niche. When I dropped down and pitched sidearm I went online but there really wasn’t much available on the subject. It’s been fun to connect with people all over the baseball community because of it. I got to go to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ spring training a couple years ago to talk about Sidearm Nation.

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Q: You credit Viper manager Mike Busch with having you drop your arm angle. What was that transition like? How long before you were comfortable with sidearm style?

A: It was halfway through the 2006 season, my first season with the Vipers. I wasn’t pitching very well, probably had a 6.50 ERA. I was a rookie and you needed to carry four rookies I believe, and being from Calgary helped me. Buschy called me into his office when we arrived. In a nice way, he basically asked me about dropping down or I was getting released.

So, I went out to do my regular work and started fooling around with it. I threw a flat ground and it felt great! I had been battling shoulder injuries for almost five years at the time. Buschy wanted to see it off the mound so I threw a quick 10 pitch bullpen and he liked what he saw. That night he threw me in in the eighth inning of a tie ball game versus Fargo. Three up, three down. I felt great. I got three hitters out who probably would have crushed me if I was pitching over the top. We scored one run in the next inning and I got my first indy ball win. It’s kind of a crazy story but it made baseball fun again for me and gave me a couple more years to play. I picked it up pretty quick and was able to drop my ERA to I think 4.90 that season. The following year I had a 2.00 ERA in the first half of the season and I made the Northern League All-Star game.

Q: What are the long-term benefits of sidearm throwing? Is it easier on a pitcher’s arm?

A: You know, everyone is a little bit different. For me personally, it felt way better on my shoulder, but like I mentioned I had been battling shoulder problems for five years. Actually, I had a partially torn rotator cuff after my junior year at NKU (Northern Kentucky University).

I mean, your shoulder is designed to throw underhand so everything you do overhand isn’t actually natural for it. If you look at a softball team, say in college, they are able to throw three out of four games in a weekend. If using your lower half properly, I believe it’s no worse for you. If you’re just literally dropping your arm, than yes it’s going to be bad on the elbow.

Q: Take us back to your days of independent league baseball with the Vipers, from 2006 through 2008. What was the baseball like and what was the highlight of your time with them?

A: I enjoyed my three years with the Vipers. Growing up in Calgary, I had always wanted to play for the Cannons. I played Little League with Bow Ridge, so our home field was the field right behind Foothills Stadium.

I played a couple seasons for the Calgary Dawgs in the WMBL (Western Major Baseball League), so to move on and play pro ball in Calgary was pretty special. The baseball was really high calibre. I’d say especially when it was the Northern League.

My highlight was making the Northern League All-Star game in my second season with the Vipers. The following year I got hurt again and realized I needed to move on. I wish at times I would have given it a couple more years but at the same time, it’s tough when you are barely making that much money in pro ball.

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Q: In 2011, you played for Jose Canseco’s Yuma Scorpions against the Vipers for a couple games. What was that experience like? 

A: It was a fun five days! Yuma was short on players coming into the trip. I had reached out to the Yuma GM a couple days before they were coming to Calgary. I was pitching a bit in the FMBA (Foothills Major Baseball Association) and getting my arm in shape for Team Canada in the World Baseball Challenge in Prince George, BC. … My first outing wasn’t the best but my second outing I threw really well and only gave up one run in four innings pitched. (Viper Manager Morgan) Burkhart actually came up to me afterwards and asked if wanted to join the Vipers again, but at that time my focus was on long-drive golf.

Q: Tell us about Jose Canseco. Did you interact with him much when you played with Yuma?

A: Jose seemed like a very relaxed manager. Easy to play for. I introduced myself to him and he thanked me for helping Yuma out. After my second outing he said he liked my stuff and hadn’t see many lefties throwing from that arm angle.

Honestly, that was a fun team to play for. I wish I played for them longer. We had Canseco, of course, and James Hoyt – who is now up with the Astros – and Joey Gathright, who got called up that September by the Red Sox. Also Chris Britton was with the Yankees.

Q: You are obviously a well-traveled baseball player. Take us through your travels. After playing college ball in the U.S. you went to Britain. What was that like?

A: Yeah, I played for Great Britain from 2000-2007. Loved it, love European baseball. I was proud to wear the jersey of where my family is from. My dad was born in England, but moved to Canada when he was two years old. My grandfather was in England for World War II and met my grandma. A lot of my relatives are in south England – in the Eastbourne/Brighton area. After the one European Championships in 2001 in Germany I was able to head over and see some relatives afterward, so that was pretty special.

It was one of those things where I wasn’t going to make the Canadian National team when I was 20,  so I switched to Great Britain. My first European Championship our team was half Brits and then half players like myself.In 2012 we were supposed to be the host team in the London Olympics but then they kicked baseball out. That was a tough pill to swallow for sure.

Q: Tell us a bit more about the decision to not have baseball at the Olympic Games in London. How did you find out and what was the reaction of you and your teammates?

A: So, when they announced that London was awarded the 2012 Games we were in Prague for the 2005 European Championships. We had a big party that night and everyone was trying to figure out how old they would be in seven years. I would have been 31 so I was ready for it. Then, two days later, while we were still in Prague they announced that baseball was being kicked out of the Olympics. It was the biggest 48-hour roller coaster of emotions!

Q: You pitched in the 2001, 2003, 2005 and 2007 European Championships. In addition to playing in Great Britain, you also played in France’s Division Elite and for Germany’s Mannheim Tornados. What was that like?

A: I was fortunate to play in France and Germany and not count as a foreign player because I had my UK passport with the European Union. Both are pretty strong leagues with good national team programs. The talent of some of the players is really good and a lot of these players get a late start in baseball. Some started when they were 15 years old and then ended up being good enough to play college ball in the States. I enjoyed both countries. I enjoyed travelling and seeing the history in both countries on days off.

When I played in Germany our spring training was in Africa in the Canary Islands. That was an amazing week! Loved it there.

Q: You played winter baseball in Australia as well. That country seems to have developed a stronger baseball reputation than many European nations. It also seems a bit similar to baseball in Canada – was that the case or was it quite different from your Canadian experience?

A: I played in Adelaide in the South Australian Baseball League (SABL). There was no Australian Baseball League at that time. I wish there was. That would have been fun to play in. The SABL, I would say would be similar to the WMBL – some good local players mixed in with some strong foreign players. Australian baseball does seem to be on same scale as Canadian baseball.

The team I played for had only won one game in five years. I believe I was able to help get them six wins and my record was like 5-10, but those five wins for that team, I was like Randy Johnson.

Q: You also played in the Colombian Winter League. Did you enjoy great coffee playing there? 

A: I enjoyed Colombia. They took good care of us …. The league is very strong. It’s where a lot of indy ball guys go to play winter ball. Then, of course, there are lots of good Colombian players. There was some good young talent. I played against a young Jose Quintana. I think he was 17 or 18, but very good. Also a young Ernesto Frieri. Then the Cabrera brothers Jolbert and Orlando played a little bit too.

The funny thing is that I didn’t start drinking coffee until I was done with pro ball. I was working full-time with adults with development disabilities and started drinking coffee. I played in Colombia and France and never drank it! Big regret there.

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Freeborn throws sidearm for the Vipers

Q: Your final playing stop looks like it was in 2012, playing for the Calgary Diamondbacks at the Hong Kong Invitational. What was that tournament like and did you realize at the time that you had played on six continents by that point?

A:  That’s the only reason I went to go play in the Hong Kong tourney was to play on my last continent. It was a fun tourney. We had no idea what the talent would be like. It was decent but we won the tourney pretty easily. There was a team from Taiwan that gave us a good game, but the others – Hong Kong, China – weren’t that strong. It was a good group of guys and a fun team to put together.

Q: Is Antarctica next? Do you have plans to find some sort of way to play baseball there?

A:  Haha. It’s actually something my buddies have talked about. Maybe down the road. There is a softball field there we could use at a military base … stay tuned!

Q: With all of your travels, you must have developed some good travel habits. Can you share any good “cheats” when it comes to packing, flying or going through customs?

A: Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot It’s weird, I actually don’t enjoy flying though. I try my best to sleep on the plane to help make it go faster. Bring a good book and don’t forget headphones. I also try not to overpack, which is easier said than done when going away for three to four months.

Q: Sticking with the global theme, tell us one thing that is most universal about the game of baseball?

A: I’d say no matter what country you are in, if you play the game the right way, you’ll get rewarded. Give it 100% in between those lines and hustle on and off the field.

Q: What were some of the more memorable experiences you had playing baseball in other countries?

A: Colombia fans were definitely passionate. I blew the save in my first outing and got booed pretty bad. I thought I was going to get released. My next nine outings I went nine innings with no runs and only gave up one hit. I was throwing really well, but the fans still remembered me blowing that first save. Luckily I don’t speak Spanish! Another thing about Colombia was the amount of military presence at the games. Guards with guns on top of the dugout by the bullpens – definitely something I wasn’t used to.

In Hong Kong after one of our games, we were given food. Each player was given a box of mystery meat. To this day I’m hoping it wasn’t dog!

Q: How does baseball in Alberta compare to baseball on the world stage?

A: Alberta baseball is growing … lots of great players coming from here. I think compared to some of the places I’ve played, kids here have it pretty darn good. I think sometimes they take it for granted.

Q: What’s next for you and Sidearm Nation?

A: Our next Calgary camp is coming up the first weekend in November, with some great instructors at it. It’s almost filled up but there are still a couple spots open.

Last year, I created an Alberta Sidearm Nation semi-pro team for the Grand Forks Invitational. And also a Team Canada Sidearm Nation team for the World Baseball Challenge in Prince George. Basically, it was a bunch of former pro players and current college players from Alberta and Canada.

Next summer I’m planning on putting together a North American Sidearm Nation team for the Prague Baseball Week in June, mixed in hopefully with a couple of exhibition games versus the German national team. The plan is for the team to be all former MLB players, similar to the NBC (National Baseball Congress) World Series team. We shall see!

The next Sidearm Nation pitching camp takes place on Nov. 4-5 at the Coyote Den, located at 4200 46 Ave. S.E. in Calgary. It is open to all ages and skill levels. For more information, contact info@sidearmnation.com.

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