by Jacob Barriga
photography by Shira O’Neal-Abend
Jacob Freedman paces the room after receiving the news that there is a chance vaccines will be mandatory to play sports at The University of La Verne. Freedman, not necessarily against the vaccine itself, does not believe in the use of force and being “bullied,” as he says, into a “complex medical decision.” “Maybe I am ignorant. Maybe the vaccine will increase my immune response because I have more antigens. I still do not agree with being directly or indirectly forced into any decision, especially medical.”
The date is March 2021. It has already been 12 months since normal life was stripped away. The coronavirus is still not letting up, especially after the 2020 holiday season where California, especially the Los Angeles area, saw a spike into record-setting cases every day. His fragmented thoughts capture him: Months and months of preparing for a baseball season. Preparing to come back and make-up for the canceled 2020 season. Preparing for a pivotal junior season that in normal circumstances would see his growth from a young contributor into an older mentor and leader. A hopeful season that came to a sudden stop because he didn’t know whether he wanted to continue.
His thoughts jumped to the present: Scott Winterburn, head coach of the University of La Verne baseball team, asked who was opposed to a mandatory vaccine. “I am not against the vaccine and believe that every individual should make the best decision for themselves. I am against the use of force. Medical decisions are private, and people should feel ultimate comfort in deciding what is best for them,” says Jacob.
It started on Monday, March 9, 2020. Practice went on as normal, and the team was cleaning the field and tightening up with its usual end-of-day duties before going home. As players threw bag straps over their shoulders and took the first steps to leave, the news was announced by one of the young players. Chapman, SCIAC conference rival and defending national champion, just canceled the rest of its season due to the rising concern of the coronavirus.
It was shocking news but not entirely alarming. Chapman was the first to cancel its season, and it was only big news because the Panthers were the defending NCAA Division III champions. COVID had yet to affect anybody personally, so no one had too much concern. The players hoped that Chapman was an anomaly. The practice week went on as normal. The Leopard baseball team prepared for its upcoming weekend slate of games, starting with a single game against their closest rival Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
March 12, 2020, was the day the ball dropped.
Thursday was gloomy, dark and pouring rain. There would be brief 15- and 20-minute intervals where the rain would stop, but not enough ultimately, to get the Ben Hines Field game in. The coaches were trying unusually hard to try and squeeze this game in, despite the inclement weather. It was a little suspicious, almost as if they knew.
The cancellation of the game was also the cancellation of the season. But no one dared to think that way—at first. Yes, a week was definite, but school was supposed to return in a week, right after spring break. Then it was quickly two weeks. As the end of the two-week time frame approached, it was over. The University of La Verne went completely online, and Jacob Freedman was going to stay home in San Diego. “I love San Diego, and when school went online it was shocking. I didn’t know how serious COVID was at the time; no one did.”
As Jacob spent time adjusting to online school, he picked up in earnest a hobby he started in summer 2020: Jiu-jitsu. The combat training fired him up, and he found passion for it. He would spend the summer playing summer baseball in the best college league in the nation, the San Diego League. Then, he would spend every evening after baseball going to jiu-jitsu classes at one of the best gyms in San Diego. He still loved baseball, but a new fire was growing within him.
As the University of La Verne geared up for its first full semester online, it was frustrating for most students. Jacob, a biology major, felt there was not the same authenticity in the classroom since labs were no longer hands-on; consequently, he lost his incentive to attend class due to the lack of social interaction of classmates and a collective effort to learn the material. School was half of what it was when in person, and for Jacob, it was not worth it anymore. Jiu-jitsu gave him youthful excitement back into his life, and his only motivation to come back to La Verne August 2020 was baseball. Plus, he enjoyed the brotherhood felt with his roommate friends with whom he lived in a house where La Verne meets Pomona on Bonita Avenue.
Each week, there was a Zoom meeting, with the baseball team discussing progress and how to handle this situation and how to move forward without missing any beats. Coach Winterburn preached weekly about overcoming adversity, practicing positive thinking and persistence through this time where everyone, nevertheless, seemed to be falling behind.
The baseball team carried this message and tried its best to apply it week-after-week with private workouts. Jacob, with his four baseball roommates, held practices in local parks. Soon, the casual practices became more intense practices—just to stay on top of the normal off-season work. They were conducted with up to 35 players, but without coaches at Cahuilla Park in Claremont, which had an open Claremont High School freshman baseball field.
These were the things that made it worth the wait. However, the entire situation still did not sit right with him. For Jacob, the coronavirus itself was suspicious. It did not make sense to shut down the functions of the entire country, causing people to lose their businesses while others were able to continue working or continue their careers online. There was general suspicion. “If the vaccine is going to save my life, why is there a commercial trying to convince me what to believe? Who is funding that prime time million dollar commercial? Shouldn’t the proof of the vaccine be related to scientific method based research, not emotionally manipulative advertising?” Regardless, much of society was stuck online. And the fact that contemporary life was so fragile that it could all be taken away so fast, changed his prior perspective.
As the Fall 2020 semester came and went, Zoom classes were not his absolute priority. School was easier, but it was harder to stay on task without a structured environment conducive for learning. As virus waves washed over the population, the entire world was still stopped. Jacob spent most of his time working out, practicing for baseball and working on his hobbies like vegetable gardening and jiu-jitsu training.
Soon, the holidays came and went. The pressure to be ready for a potential shortened baseball season was increasing. Week in, week out, the team was preparing through player practices and staying ready to go, in anticipation when the potential return moment might come. Jacob was going to the park every day, working on his craft by taking ground balls and hitting. This was the reason he was even at the University right now. He kept those thoughts to himself. Deep down, he realized he would much rather be at home working and doing school and saving money, but being present practicing with his teammates was more important to him. He persistently dragged other teammates to practice with him when they didn’t feel like it or lacked motivation.
He was “never worried about contracting COVID and dying.” He would play by the rules, but he wasn’t worried. And he knew that baseball might come back. As the middle of the spring 2021 semester approached, ULV baseball did come back. In early April, most spring athletes were cleared for some practice with the potential of a shortened season.
Jacob was ready, but he had one foot out the door. “At this point in my career, I realized the expectations of what it would take to be a Leopard baseball player. Expectations included being fully committed to your craft. A lot of guys on the team are fully committed to their craft, and deep down I knew I was not fully committed to baseball. I did not want to hold the team back so I had to make an adult decision to quit baseball. It was a very tough decision in the end.”
He knew what it took to be a productive Leopard baseball teammate. He knew what it meant to his teammates, coaches and the alumni before him. He needed to give 100 percent of his efforts dedicated to baseball. He loved his team and appreciated the coaches for getting them back. But he knew he wasn’t ready for the commitment. He knew it was unfair to everyone.
The first weeks back were running and conditioning practices only. No baseballs, no actual baseball practices, but at least the team was on the field, doing things as a team with the coaches with them. It was a start. There was light at the end of the tunnel, and every practice that passed brought the anticipation of whether today was going to be the day they were able to fully practice again.
Two weeks went by, and no baseballs were brought out. Just conditioning and updates from the coaches each day filled the hour-long socially distanced groups of six practices. Jacob still was in a transition mode, thinking about both his future and his actions, and how they would affect his life moving forward.
After a long talk with Coach Winterburn following an intense practice, his mind became clear. Jacob decided to stop playing baseball. It was a tough decision, a breakup, “a divorce.”
“The program is extremely detail oriented, and I was not a detailed baseball player. There are plenty of guys on the team who are very hard working and detailed oriented baseball players. A lot of the guys on the baseball team work very hard and pursue the task of becoming a better baseball player relentlessly. I started doing jiu jitsu as a competitive sport when I stopped playing baseball. I realized while learning jiu jitsu I was also not detail oriented while learning precise skill,” and Jacob says he knew the team needed more from him.
Jacob played his entire life and while being on the cusp of coming back to play after quarantine, he decided it was best to not return. This was the commitment to a different way of life, and it was time to go and explore another path.
Immediately after leaving the Leopard baseball program, Jacob moved back home to San Diego and looked for a job. One of his best friends worked at a pancake shop right outside of downtown San Diego, and Jacob started working as a busser during the opening shift, starting at 6 a.m. all while going to jiu jitsu classes every evening after his shifts five to six times a week. “I decided to save money and compete in jiu jitsu tournaments.”
Two full months would pass. At the beginning of the summer in June, Jacob picked up another bussing job at Town and Country, a popular resort in downtown San Diego that consists of two restaurants. Jacob worked anywhere from 70 to 90 hours a week opening for the pancake shop and closing 10 hours shifts at the resort, getting off at 1:30 a.m. some nights.
He continued bussing at both jobs through the summer until August when he was offered a better position serving at the resort. “I wanted to get promoted to a server, and I needed to gain that experience first. I really enjoyed the bussing jobs and the serving job because it helped my communication skills and gave me confidence as a worker and with my ability to make money because I never really made my own money or had a proper job before.”
After getting promoted, Jacob left his morning job as a busser because the amount of commission and tips at the resort allowed him to leave the pancake shop. During this transition, he decided to move out of his parents’ house and move into his friends’ house where he lived with five high school friends. “I decided that it was time for me to move out of my house with my parents. No hard feelings between me and my parents or anything; it’s just I feel kind of old to be depending on someone else to put a roof over my head. I decided it would be best for me to pitch a 12-person cabin tent and live in a tent for a few months. So that’s what I did and lived in the backyard of a house with some of my closest friends in San Diego.”
Jacob’s first intention when he left La Verne was to drop out of school with 25 units left to graduate. However, after some thought and taking the fall semester off, he decided to come back spring 2022 to continue his degree. “At this point I’m excited to come back to school. I am going to appreciate being back in person and going to class. I feel I am going to get more out of it this time.”
Jacob has changed his major from biology to kinesiology in order to finish earlier. He is currently on pace to graduate in the fall of 2022.
Does he feel others should follow his path? “Personally, I don’t think I am a role model for anyone, and I do not recommend anything to anyone. I do think people should do what is best for them. I think with the right attitude there are positives or at least growth you can take from what may feel like negative experiences. I think it’s really important to be grateful. This is something I am working on and will continue to work on.” ■