Cole Freeman had been warned multiple times about the location he had chosen as canvas.
“Might want to pick another spot,” his dad had suggested.
The tattoo artist concurred: “That rib area, especially the higher you get, is definitely where you feel the most severe pain.”
But Cole had a vision. He wanted his message to start at heart level — intentional alignment — and why would he ever let go of what he saw for himself? That would have been a first.
And so he refused to waver.
Late in the afternoon of Tuesday, December 29, 2015, home in Mandeville for winter break before his first season as an LSU baseball player, Cole positioned himself on a massage table in the Southern Tattoo shop. His eyes scanned a colorful display of eclectic artwork punctuating the purple walls surrounding him. He took in the low humming sound of the tattoo machine sitting next to the table.
He was filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Lying on his right side, Cole clasped his hands behind his head, clearing the way for 39-year-old Jerrod Courville, the tattoo artist, to assault his left side with an aggressive combination of needles and ink.
Cole was not alone. He had an audience of three: his dad, his sister and a hometown buddy. They were there because they all knew how much this meant to him. They wanted to share the experience.
What they saw was a young man in pain: that machine hitting Cole with seven needles, repeatedly and rapidly, countless times, forcing black ink into his skin to form decorative letters.
Cole had never felt such pain. He began sweating. He tried deep breathing. He tightened the grip of his hands … contorted his face … clenched his whole body. Nothing helped.
But then he got to thinking: This is perfect. Everything I had to do to get here, all that these words mean to me, it’s actually the perfect fit, having to battle through this to get what I want.
His thoughts did not lessen the pain. They just made it feel better.
When Courville was done — the whole process took half an hour — Cole was thrilled with what he saw: four simple words running 9½ inches down his left side, one powerful thought he would forever carry as both celebration of his past and motivation for his future. Heart Has No Limit.
* * *
Last season, after two years at Delgado Community College, Cole led LSU with a .329 batting average. He then became batting champion of the Cape Cod Baseball League, hitting .374 in the nation’s top collegiate summer league. And now — with LSU opening its 2017 season Friday night — Cole will wear jersey No. 8 for the Tigers, a team honor representing leadership and work ethic.
We see him now — a defensive wizard at second base, an offensive weapon at the plate, a speeding bullet rounding the bases — and it is hard to imagine any other version of Cole Freeman.
Here is one: He is a small boy, unusually small even for a child in middle school, so he’s visiting an endocrinologist, his parents checking to see if something is wrong with him. Blood is drawn. X-rays are taken.
Nothing is wrong. The boy just has some “small” in his genes. It is not enough that his dad, Sean, stands a sturdy 6-foot-2 and his mom, Kellie, is a fairly average 5-foot-5 — not when Cole’s maternal grandfather was so small that he had been a jockey.
Sean and Kellie consider the use of human growth hormone for their first child. But HGH is expensive, and their insurance will not cover it. They also fear the unknown: potential side effects, most notably liver damage.
Cole’s parents ask the doctor: “If this was your son, would you do it?” The doctor says no. And that is the end of it. Whatever growth comes will be natural.
Here is another version of Cole Freeman: a boy standing only 5-foot-1 and weighing a mere 97 pounds when he enters Lakeshore High School as a freshman.
LSU junior catcher Mike Papierski wanted to make switch-hitting work.
He is a talented and determined young athlete, baseball and basketball being his favorite sports, but he’s also fully aware of a harsh reality: The older he gets, the tougher it will be to compete against bigger boys.
Cole’s uncertainty about how he’ll measure up is not just about sports, either. It is also about the broader issue of navigating his teen years as one of the smallest boys in school.
As Kellie now says: “It definitely bothered him — tremendously.”
* * *
His love of baseball came early.
As a 4-year-old, Cole was already playing in a park league in Metairie, where his family then lived. So what if the rules said he had to be 5 to join Pilney Little League? Cole could already wind up and fire a baseball, and he wanted to play, so dad Sean did something he now openly acknowledges: He lied about Cole’s age.
LSU junior outfielder Greg Deichmann was struck in the face by a pitch during a Friday night…
From the start, little Cole, sporting a green Pilney T-shirt, uniform No. 10, hustled around the fields of Lafreniere Park with unusual purpose for such a young boy.
He was hooked.
Cole enjoyed doing pretty much anything outdoors. He went fishing. He had fun riding his go-kart. But tossing a baseball with his dad — playing catch anytime, anywhere — became the signature activity of his childhood.
“You want to throw, Dad? You want to throw?” The words played like an echo.
“Ten times a day,” Sean says.
After a few years of this, the words led to a Father’s Day gift: a customized license plate for Sean’s Ford F-150 truck — 1ATHROW (“one-uh-throw”) — because that was the best anyone could do to say “want to throw” in such limited space. As a residential appraiser, often out in his truck, Sean enjoyed explaining the plate to anyone who asked about it.
The Freeman family of four — Cole’s younger sister, Kacey, was also a budding athlete — had by then moved to Mandeville. It was there that Cole had one of his earliest transformative experiences on a ball field.
On June 15, 2002, when he was 7, Cole was awarded his first game ball for his play in a youth baseball league. The dirty ball, dated with black ink, now sits on a shelf in his father’s office, proudly displayed as if a precious pearl.
Kramer Robertson is loved.
The specifics of what Cole did to earn that ball are lost to the passage of time. But what he felt has always stayed with him.
“It’s one of the first actual memories that I have,” Cole says. “We were at Pelican Park. I remember the exact spot right next to the field, the coach huddling us up after the game, all the kids sitting in the grass, parents standing behind us. And then the coach calls me up to give me the game ball. Everybody’s clapping.
“It was my first real taste of acknowledgment. It felt good. And then I got almost obsessed with that feeling. I always wanted to do something to help the team — always wanted to do something to help us win.”
Travel ball was next. Cole was always playing for one team or another.
When he was 10, he started working individually with a coach named Chris Westcott, a one-time Boston Red Sox minor leaguer who happened to be a neighbor. Westcott saw an undersized kid with an oversized desire to achieve.
He knew everyone’s first impression of Cole would be the same: too small, not strong enough, never going anywhere. So Westcott told him he needed to have a chip on his shoulder.
“You need to outwork everyone else,” Westcott said. “You need to do all the extras to make people see you — running out every ball you hit, always hustling, all the stuff that can’t be measured but will always be noticed. And everything you do has to be fundamentally sound.”
Cole listened carefully. Then he went to work.
“He was always willing to work, always wanted to do more,” Westcott says. “What I came to see was a kid who really loved the game and really wanted to be good.”
Actually, Cole wanted to be more than just good. He wanted to play for the LSU Tigers. That was the dream.
When he was 12 — mouth full of braces, blue eyes wide open to discovery, heart jumping with excitement — Cole attended the first youth camp Paul Mainieri conducted as the new LSU baseball coach. The “Christmas camp” went for a few days in December 2006.
The final day included a chance for each camper to pose with Mainieri for a photo in the original Alex Box Stadium.
Sean Freeman had an idea for Cole: “When you take the picture, you should tell Coach Mainieri you’re going to be the LSU shortstop someday.”
Cole would not do it. He was too reserved.
But he didn’t hold back in the privacy of his dad’s truck: “I will play for LSU.”
A few years later, when the Tigers won the 2009 College World Series, Cole put a framed reprint of the celebratory front page of the campus newspaper, The Daily Reveille, on a wall in his bedroom. That page still hangs there, a reminder that Cole spent his high school years chasing the dream he is now living.
“Playing for LSU was my main goal in life,” he says. “It was the first thing I thought of when I woke up and the last thing I thought of when I went to bed.”
* * *
Nobody ever doubted his desire or commitment. Nobody questioned his athleticism.
In three varsity seasons at Lakeshore High, Cole’s overall batting average was .344, and he stole bases almost at will. Defensively, his combination of consistency and flair allowed him to shine as a middle infielder. His junior year, he was named all-state as a second baseman.
Cole was also surprisingly good at basketball. He was usually the smallest player on the court. But he always enjoyed battling against bigger opponents.
He especially loved to dig in and play defense. “Scrappy” was one label for him. Another was “all-district” as a point guard. By the time he was done, Cole was the school leader in career steals and assists.
He also finished with a clear understanding of what allowed him to push past any naysayers and excel: “It doesn’t matter how big or strong you are. If you have heart, you can achieve anything you want.”
Oh, if only the college baseball recruiters would have agreed with him on that.
* * *
It was not only LSU that had no interest in Cole. It was pretty much any school with a baseball program.
Cole traveled to a variety of one-day “showcases” — pay-his-way-in opportunities to display his skills for college coaches — in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.
They led to nothing.
“Nobody was even talking to him,” Sean says.
The consensus was clear: Sure, the kid can run and field and might even be able to put his bat on the ball. But there was no way he’d ever make it as a college player. He was too small — and simply not strong enough.
He once heard it put this way: Wouldn’t a good college pitcher just knock the bat right out of his hands?
Cole needs only one word — “miserable” — to explain how he felt as the days and weeks passed without anyone showing interest in him.
As LSU's fall practice wound down, one thing became clear to coach Paul Mainieri: Freshman i…
He finally got a scholarship offer, but it came from a small school he had never even heard of: Spring Hill College, a liberal arts school in Mobile, Alabama. Cole appreciated that at least someone wanted him. But he was nonetheless deflated. Spring Hill? Seriously? After spending my whole life wanting to play for LSU?
Cole couldn’t understand why kids he knew — kids he had played with in school and on travel teams — were getting college offers while he was mostly ignored.
His lowest point came with about a month left in his final season of high school ball. Cole and his parents were talking in the kitchen one day.
No drama was intended. They were just talking about everyday stuff, and the conversation moved into yet another rehash of Cole’s deepening frustration.
His reality was crystallizing: Forget about LSU. He couldn’t even get any calls from junior colleges.
“I just don’t get it,” Cole said. “I mean, I can’t even get a look. Is it really just because of my size?”
Was this what the end of a dream — a dream unfulfilled — looked and felt like? Tears started rolling down his cheeks.
“I just broke down,” Cole says now.
Sean and Kellie consoled him as best they could. They encouraged Cole to keep working hard, to keep doing all that he’d been doing, to maintain his trust that everything would somehow work out for him. What else could they really say?
* * *
The turning point came during the summer of 2013, only three weeks before the start of school, when longtime Delgado coach Joe Scheuermann offered Cole a scholarship to play for the Dolphins.
Scheuermann had seen the same thing everyone else did when he initially scouted Cole: a high school senior standing 5-foot-6, weighing maybe 150 pounds, and having virtually no chance of going straight to Division I college baseball.
He also saw this: great defensive skills, great speed, great energy, great attitude.
“We’re always looking for guys who have the athleticism to play, but for one reason or another, they’re not being recruited by the D-I schools,” Scheuermann says. “With Cole, it was his size. But the way he played — his enthusiasm, his hustle — he gave us a reason to give him a chance.”
There was also a reason Delgado appealed to Cole. The school had a history of sending players to LSU. Scheuermann even had a current example of someone whose stature mirrored Cole’s: outfielder Sean McMullen, another undersized player, then doing well with the Tigers after two years at Delgado.
Cole did not need any convincing. If Delgado had not offered a scholarship, he was already prepared to enroll and join the team as a walk-on.
As a freshman, he was only so-so with his bat, hitting .255. But his fielding earned him a permanent spot at second base. It also earned him the one thing he had always wanted: the chance to be an LSU Tiger.
During the fall of Cole’s sophomore year, Mainieri invited him to join the Tigers as a junior. Mainieri did not offer a scholarship — and by this time other Division I schools were expressing interest in Cole — but the Freemans were not about to let finances interfere with the fulfillment of a dream.
The entire decision-making dialogue lasted only seconds.
Father to son: “Dude, where else would you want to go?”
After committing to LSU, Cole put on quite a show en route to becoming a 2015 junior-college All-American. His .385 batting average was stunning. His defensive magic earned him the NJCAA Gold Glove as the best-fielding second baseman in the nation.
Not bad for a kid who was never supposed to make it anywhere.
* * *
When Cole enrolled at LSU, he had precise plans for a tattoo. The words “Heart Has No Limit” had been stored on his phone — in “Notes” — since the summer after his freshman year at Delgado.
He and his sister had come up with the phrase to summarize his athletic journey. But it was Cole alone who imposed a strict guideline: He would allow himself to get the tattoo only when he made good on his goal of being an LSU baseball player. And he couldn’t just be on the roster. He had to be a legitimate contributor.
That’s how he ended up in the tattoo shop when he did. His initial LSU practices went well throughout the fall of 2015. Cole was confident he’d be a starter for the 2016 Tigers. So off he went for the body art he had long envisioned. His parents happily paid for the tattoo as a Christmas gift.
Weeks later, Sean Freeman ran into Westcott, the longtime coach who still served as a personal instructor for Cole. This was 10 days before the start of LSU baseball season — a home opener that would be played in front of a fired-up crowd at Alex Box Stadium.
“Do you realize how far Cole has come?” Westcott said.
“I think about it every day,” Sean said.
That night, he texted Cole with a few of his thoughts: “Your hard work and desire are unbelievable … you have blown everyone away with your efforts … we are the proudest parents ever.”
* * *
With his first game as an LSU Tiger finally coming, Cole felt a considerable amount of anxiety. Whoa, I’ve never played in front of so many people. Man, I just want to give the coaches and the fans everything they deserve.
More than anything, though, he was just excited.
“This is my time,” Cole remembers telling himself. “It’s going to be the greatest two years of my life. And from the first inning to the ninth inning — every game — I’m going to leave every ounce of energy I have out on the field.”
He quickly answered any questions about his ability to hit at the highest level of college baseball. Batting ninth in the LSU lineup, Cole began the season on a tear, hitting .459 (17 for 37) in the first 11 games.
That eye-popping batting average was unsustainable. But Cole’s overall performance made him a key contributor on a team that reached an NCAA super regional and finished with a record of 45-21.
Cole was one of only four Tigers to start all 66 games. In addition to leading the team in batting average (.329), he was first in on-base percentage (.427) and second in stolen bases (26). He was also named to the Southeastern Conference all-defensive team.
“Cole was a great ballplayer for us,” Mainieri says. “And that’s really a tribute to all the hard work he put in — his effort, his hustle, his belief in himself. As a coach, it’s a story that warms your heart.”
Two chapters were added before Cole went to play for the Wareham Gatemen in the Cape Cod Baseball League.
First, the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the 18th round of the Major League Baseball draft. They made several contract offers — reaching a signing bonus of close to $300,000 — but Cole did not want to forgo his senior year at LSU. Not after everything he had gone through to get there.
Second, Mainieri asked him if he’d want to switch from his jersey No. 22 to wear the honorary No. 8 that had come to mean so much in the LSU program. The tradition started with All-American Mikie Mahtook and had continued with Mason Katz, Alex Bregman and Jake Fraley.
Cole could hardly believe he was being asked to join such a special lineage.
“I’d never even thought about it,” he says. “To have people throw my name in with those other guys? Just to hear that — wow! I mean, I was just trying to be in the lineup. That’s all I was ever thinking about.”
* * *
As batting champion of the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League, Cole was given an impressive trophy. But he left the Cape with something else that meant even more to him. It was a letter — 16 heartfelt lines on a single page — written by a 74-year-old man simultaneously filled with pain and joy.
Mike Gobeille’s pain came primarily from the recent death of his wife, Joyce, with whom he had shared 46 beautiful years of marriage. It also came from his continuing battles with cancer. The joy came from something much less complicated: the presence of two young men who simply needed a place to stay.
Junior designated hitter Bryce Jordan was filling in at third base during a scrimmage Tuesda…
Gobeille was initially hesitant when he saw something in his local newspaper about a shortage of housing for players in the Cape League. He had always enjoyed baseball. But what did he know about having young men in the house? He had never had a son — only two daughters — so what would it be like to open his home to two guys he had never even met?
One of his daughters encouraged him to do it. The house had been so quiet since his wife’s passing the previous fall. Maybe having some company would be good for him. Why not? Gobeille finally decided. I have extra bedrooms.
Cole and Robert Garcia, a pitcher from California-Davis, had no idea what to think when they moved into the four-bedroom house. Cape League players never really know what they’re getting into when matched with host families. But Cole and Garcia did not even have a family. They had an elderly widower with considerable health challenges — a retired chemist who was generally quiet and shy.
Cole had two immediate thoughts: One, he was thankful to have a room with air conditioning. (Some of his teammates were in houses with no AC.) Two, he was concerned that his assigned “family” might make for awkward living.
Soon, he had another thought that changed his outlook: Maybe this was more an opportunity than a predicament. What if he could somehow help lessen the emotional load weighing down his host? What if he could somehow help Gobeille out of his darkness by offering at least glimpses of light?
Cole was mostly off playing baseball or visiting with teammates and friends. When he was home, though, he made a point of engaging Gobeille in conversation.
He learned that Gobeille had always loved baseball — having played it as a kid and now as a big fan of the Boston Red Sox — so they usually talked baseball. But what they talked about didn’t really matter to Gobeille. What mattered was that his house was again filled with life.
“Having Cole around, it really helped with the grief I was feeling,” Gobeille says. “Now I had company. I had sounds in the house. It was just so great to have sounds in the house again.”
Archery had always been one of Gobeille’s favorite activities. Cole had never shot a bow and arrow. So out they went one day — out into the backyard for what felt almost like a family moment of passing something down from old to young. Shooting arrows at a target, they created a shared memory.
It was one of the moments that moved Cole toward a realization he never could have seen coming: Being with Gobeille was almost like having a new grandfather.
Gobeille came to a conclusion of his own: “If I had a son, I would want him to be just like Cole.”
Gobeille was happy for Cole when he won the batting title. Proud of him, too. But the end of Cole’s spectacular season also meant the end of a special summer — the end of sounds and the return of silence.
“No more company in the house,” Gobeille says. “It felt to me like I was experiencing loss all over again.”
Gobeille knew he’d have trouble saying goodbye to Cole. He was concerned he’d be a crying mess. So, instead of trying to speak his farewell words, Gobeille decided to write them.
“There is a flood of emotions,” he began, and then he poured them onto paper.
“You can’t possibly know how much both you and Robert have helped me through a very difficult time. Your presence here brought life back into this home once again.”
“I want to thank the both of you for helping an old man repair a fractured heart and relive part of his youth.”
When he was done, Gobeille folded his letter and put it in an envelope. He gave it to Cole on his way out. The two of them hugged — Gobeille’s eyes starting to leak — and then Cole was gone.
Cole still cherishes that letter, now kept by his mom in Mandeville. To him, it will always be a wonderful keepsake from a great summer and a good man. To his parents, the letter is something more: a tangible reminder that their son’s self-defining declaration — Heart Has No Limit — extends well beyond any fields of play.
* * *
Cole was back at LSU when, in late August, he heard that D1Baseball.com had just released its list of the top 100 professional prospects from the Cape Cod League … and that he was ranked 89th.
To writer Frankie Piliere, who made the list, that ranking was intended as a compliment, and his report included this: “If you were starting a College World Series contending team today, you’d want Freeman on that team.”
To Cole, being 89th had very different meaning. It meant that 88 players were ranked ahead of the one player who had just led the league in hitting. It meant that he had been slighted — and that his size had clearly been held against him.
Here we go again.
“I’m never going to have that stature that everybody’s going to fall in love with,” Cole says. “But I just keep working. I just keep using that as motivation.”
In this case, he uses it in a way that will be with him — physically with him — throughout his final season of college ball. He had a new DeMarini bat customized with “89TH” printed in yellow on the silver of its barrel.
The marking might as well say: “You’re no good! Now go prove me wrong!”
Cole is holding that bat now as he steps up to the plate at Alex Box. It is the afternoon of Friday, January 27, the first day of full-squad preseason practice for the 2017 LSU Tigers, three weeks before the home opener against Air Force.
Number 8 stands almost 5-foot-9 and weighs 175 pounds as his senior season approaches. He is now on an athletic scholarship — a well-deserved reward after turning down the Dodgers and returning to school. He is also back at full strength after early-November knee surgery necessitated by an injury during fall practice.
Cole plants his feet in the batter’s box and steadies his stance to take a few swings at machine-fired fastballs. He seems about ready, both hands on his bat, but then he removes his right hand and reaches across his body for a final preparation that could easily be mistaken for a meaningless tug at his gold jersey — maybe just a quick adjustment for comfort.
Actually, it’s a subtle gesture with great meaning to him. He is reaching for the spot where his jersey covers his tattoo, giving it a touch, using it as a reminder of all that he has become and all that he still hopes to be.
He does this not only as a 22-year-old man standing in the moment.
He also does it for the middle-school version of himself who kept going back to see that endocrinologist. He does it for the high school senior who cried that day in the kitchen because nobody wanted him. He does it for any little kid with a dream that the rest of the world might say is simply too big for him.
* * *
Pulitzer Prize winner Jeffrey Marx is the author of “Walking with Tigers: A Collection of LSU Sports Stories” and five other books. Follow him on Twitter, @LSUTigersBook.