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AP file photo by Kathy Willens / First baseman Freddie Freeman missed the start of summer training camp with the Atlanta Braves while ill with COVID-19, but the 30-year-old team leader has recovered quickly enough that he is working to be ready for their season opener Friday against the New York Mets.

All of us who love and miss organized sports, both professional and college, have needed a reason for realistic hope of their return amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Nothing mind-blowing necessarily, not something on the order of a remedy or a vaccine, though that would certainly be nice. Just something to counter the almost daily, if not hourly, negative news of skyrocketing cases and cancellations.

On Saturday, Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman provided just such a bright moment, even if it also served as yet another worrisome warning of what we could all experience if stricken with COVID-19.

In describing his initial night battling the virus during a video conference call, Freeman detailed the 104.5-degree fever that hit him "like a ton of bricks.

"I've never been that hot before," he added of what happened July 3. "My body was really, really hot. I was scared to go to bed, because what if I spiked that high again when I was sleeping? What would happen? I said a little prayer that night. I said, 'Please don't take me,' because I wasn't ready."

Doses of NyQuil and Tylenol knocked the fever down to 101 by the morning. By the close of the first week, Freeman said he felt back to normal. Eight days after that, this past Friday morning, he was at Emory Hospital, undergoing heart and blood tests to make sure his body really was ready to begin workouts.

"I got the news at 1," he recalled of being cleared to play that afternoon. "I was ready to work out by 2."

Assuming all goes well between now and the end of the week, including exhibition games against the Miami Marlins on Tuesday and Wednesday, Freeman could be back in the starting lineup for the long-delayed, much-anticipated season opener against the host the New York Mets on Friday.

"I feel like I'm a kid in a candy store again," the 30-year-old four-time National League All-Star said Saturday. "I feel great. I only lost one pound. I didn't lose any strength. You forget sometimes how much you love this game. I did truly miss it. I was so excited when I got to the yard."

This isn't to say every elite athlete hit hard by COVID-19 will bounce back as quickly as Freeman apparently has. There are multiple reasons why the virus has now killed more than 140,000 Americans and infected close to 4 million Americans total, and one of those reasons is that it doesn't attack everyone the same way or with the same intensity.

Freeman briefly had a dangerously high fever. He couldn't taste or smell anything for four or five days, even when barbecue sauce was placed right under his nose. Those first few days, even after the fever disappeared, he couldn't stay awake for more than three hours at a time.

But while many folks have taken months to get over the virus, Freeman was back on the job 15 days after he first showed symptoms. In a Saturday night intrasquad game, he reportedly smacked a run-scoring single over the head of right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. and caught a foul popup over his shoulder.

"The plan is to get me 30 at-bats over the next five days," said Freeman, who smacked 38 homers and drove in 121 runs last season.

Major League Baseball's plan is to get in 60 regular-season games for each team, then stage a postseason that would crown a World Series champion no later than the end of October. Maybe that will happen and maybe not, but Freeman's quick recovery from serious symptoms has to be a positive sign in a summer filled with negative ones.

Nor was it the only uplifting story involving a COVID-19 victim from the sports world over the weekend.

During Sunday's telecast of the PGA Tour's Memorial Tournament, all-time golf legend Jack Nicklaus told CBS that he and wife Barbara, who are both 80, contracted the virus during the spring while staying at their Florida home.

"It didn't last very long, and we were very, very fortunate, very lucky," Nicklaus said. "Barbara and I are both of the age, both of us 80 years old, that is an at-risk age. Our hearts go out to the people who did lose their lives and their families. We were just a couple of the lucky ones."

Nicklaus, despite being the longtime host of the tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio — his home state — has only occasionally been seen at the course during this year's event and has always worn a mask in public.

Yet to beat it at 80 is another sign that even the elderly can overcome it without long-term damage.

Does this mean that any of the dire predictions regarding COVID-19 are wrong? No way. No. Way.

As Freeman noted Saturday: "It's very serious. (My family and I) did everything right (to avoid the disease). It still somehow got to me."

It could get to us all — young, old and middle-aged alike. It does not discriminate. It sometimes kills. It often treats its victims far, far worse than it treated Freeman and Nicklaus.

But after so much discouraging news the past few weeks, it was also nice to hear that you can recover and continue to play a game so many of us have loved to watch at Freeman's skill level for so long.

Or as Braves manager Brian Snitker told The Associated Press on Saturday: "Obviously when you get your best player back, it's a positive thing and a good thing. I'm excited for him and us, too."

Right now, beyond the positive and the good, it also feels like a much-needed thing for sports fans the nation over.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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