On the last night of her life, Kristal Freiberg was at a Little League baseball field in Columbus, passing out new uniforms and caps as the Northern 11-year-old all-star team got ready for the district tournament.
Her twins, Carter and Collin, are on that team and she was the team mom — there for every game and most practices. The boys' father, James Freiberg, is the team's manager. Her friend and neighbor, Heather Ellison, rode to the ballpark with her and had the uniforms for the 10-year-old all-star team.
"Everything she did was centered on those boys," Ellison said. "She was at every one of their baseball practices, all of their football practices. She was the mom who volunteered to do everything. She was usually the first one at the ball fields and the last one to leave. She had friends on every team, and everyone there knew her."
Kristal, 37, died June 19, moments after leaving the baseball field. She was involved in a one-car wreck on Psalmond Road, but Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan said the crash was likely caused by a medical condition that has not been determined.
Before the week was over, the uniforms Kristal helped distribute would have a memorial patch to her on the left shoulder and her boys would play through the grief.
Getting back to normalcy
After their mother's death, Collin and Carter faced a gut-wrenching decision, one an 11-year-old should never have to make. Do they walk away from baseball and their teammates or do they play through the pain and loss?
They talked about it among each other. They talked about it with their dad and their maternal grandparents, Don and Kathy Watkins.
"When everything happened, baseball was just a way for them to get to some normalcy again," James said.
James told the boys they didn't have to play — if that's what they wanted to do. The boys said they wanted to play, but asked what their mother would say about that.
"I said, 'Guys, y'all don't even have to ask what your mom would say. You know.' They said, 'Yes, sir,'" James said. "She would tell you to get your butt out there and play ball, quit whining and go hit the field. That's just the way she was."
She loved the boys dearly and she would have wanted them to play through it, James said.
"That's why they have been able to get back out there," he said. "That ball field is like a family to us and to them. Those are friends and teammates. We have an outpouring of support from them."
First Baptist Church Pastor Jimmy Elder, in his eulogy, even addressed the matter of the boys not giving up.
"Both of you are good ballplayers," the preacher told them. "You put out your best efforts. She was proud of that in you. Now is a time when you are facing a difficult situation. She does not want you to give up either."
And the baseball journey, without their mom for the first time in seven years of playing ball, continued four days after she died when they played their first game in the District 8 Tournament at the Britt David fields.
Collin was on the mound and Carter was in the infield. By the time the Northern all-stars took the field against Peach Little League's best, everyone in the tight youth baseball community knew the situation and the horrible circumstances. Northern 12-year-old manager Randy Morris, who has taken two teams to the Little League World Series, has been around youth baseball for more than two decades and has never seen a situation like this one.
"If you have a heart at all, you are pulling for these two boys," Morris said. "You may not be pulling for their team, but everybody there was pulling for Carter and Collin. ... Life is bigger than baseball."
In the the late innings of Northern's 20-2 win over Peach, umpire Carmen Buckner went to the backstop and called Morris over.
"He asked me if the two boys who lost their mom were No. 14 and No. 15," Morris said.
Besides the numbers — Collin wears 14 and Carter wears 15 — the only other way to tell the twins apart is by their different color cleats.
When the game was over, Buckner took off his face protection and walked toward the pitcher's mound where the two teams were shaking hands and exchanging low fives. As the two teams were getting ready to go back to the dugouts, Buckner called them all together. He had also asked Morris to come onto the field.
"I am a pretty spiritual person," said Buckner, who has been involved in Little League baseball for more than three decades as a coach and an umpire. "It's tough when anyone loses their mom. And my heart went out to those two boys."
Buckner had something on his heart. He had lost his mom about five years earlier and was deeply touched by the boys' plight.
"I don't think anyone knew what I was going to say," Buckner said.
He started with one of the oldest cliches in the baseball book.
"I told them in baseball, you win some and you lose some," Buckner said. "But in life when you lose someone you love, they don't come back. I told the coaches and the players on both teams these boys were going to need their love, support and help. Even if you are on different teams, it doesn't matter."
At the end of the short talk, the umpire reached into his pouch and pulled out two game balls, giving one to Collin and one to Carter.
The next game was scheduled for June 25 against American, traditionally Northern's stiffest opposition in a district tournament. The problem was the game was scheduled for the same time as Kristal's visitation at McMullen Funeral Home. The District 8 officials and the other three teams scheduled to play that night agreed to flip the early and late games.
"People were doing whatever they could to accommodate these boys," Morris said.
The boys didn't attend the visitation, but much of the Northern Little League family was there.
"I thought it was best that they not see their mom for the last time lying there in a casket," James said. "I wanted them to remember her for all of her smiles and laughter and hugs and love she gave them."
The boys tried to play that night, but the weather would not allow it. But Mother Nature threw a beautiful curve ball that stormy night when a double rainbow, one far more pronounced than the other, was visible from the Britt David fields.
The postponement meant the next day the boys would have to bury their mom in the morning and play a baseball game that night.
The funeral was at 11 a.m. in a packed First Baptist Church sanctuary. The boys sat on the front pew. Their teammates, wearing their uniform tops, sat behind the family and served as honorary pall bearers.
Elder was in the pulpit about to deliver the eulogy when he looked down. Between him and the boys was their mother's casket.
"The boys were going to have to look over their mother's casket and up at me," Elder said. "That wasn't going to work."
The preacher left the pulpit, grabbed a lectern and set up right in front of the boys, between them and the casket. On that lectern, Elder placed the two game balls the boys had been given a few days earlier by a caring umpire.
"It was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen," Morris said. "He was talking to two boys, on their level, and 500 of us just listened."
Elder assured the boys how much their mother loved them.
"Carter and Collin, your mother is a wonderful lady," Elder said. "She loves you, as she would say, 'To the moon and back.' She and I had a number of conversations about different things, but you were always part of every conversation."
The eulogy would not have been complete without a Little League story as Elder urged to the boys to remember the best of times.
Last summer, the Northern Little League team won the state 10-year-old championship in Savannah. The preacher then reminded the boys of a late-night fire alarm that forced the evacuation of the hotel.
"Your parents got you out safely," Elder said. "True to your mom's normal way of doing things, when all was safe and sound, y'all had to get a picture in front of the fire truck. It had the spinner light on front of it. Your mom had a way of taking a frightening moment and turning it into a fun, happy memory. By the way, I know that you won state — that was pretty awesome, and she was so proud of you."
When the service was over, Kristal was buried at Parkhill Cemetery. Outside of the boys' view, the two baseballs were placed inside their mother's casket. Carter and Collin signed the balls and wrote "Love you to the moon and back," stealing their mom's favorite phrase. They also wrote that one day they would see her again in heaven.
'Mom is watching'
As if the day wasn't emotional enough, there was a baseball game to play. Carter was on the mound against American, with his brother behind him at second base.
The skies had been threatening again, but the teams played. For the second night in a row, a rainbow appeared, visible by all of those at the ballpark off Airport Thruway.
Ellison got a text message during that game from a friend, Lisa Norsworthy, who was sitting on the other side of the field. Her son, Luke, was playing for American, but he had played football with the twins. The text was a picture of the rainbow over the field.
"Looks like their mom is watching," the text read.
She got another picture of a rainbow, this time with Carter on the mound. "God is good," it read.
The boys played through the pain, and Northern had a four-run lead late in the game and Carter was still throwing.
"You could see how much that boy wanted to finish that game," said Buckner, the umpire. "He wanted to pitch the whole game."
In the last inning, Carter reached the Little League-mandated pitch limit and had to come off the mound. His brother came on in relief and got the last two outs in the 8-4 win. That put Northern in the championship.
Peach, the team Northern had beaten in the early rounds, fought its way into the title round. But this was Northern's tournament to win. And with Collin on the mound, Northern won the title handily.
Morris said throughout the tournament and the tragic series of events, the boys have been covered in prayer — by all of those who know them and many who don't.
"The power of prayer these kids have over them has to be working," Morris said. "That's the only way they could make it through this."
Elder is not surprised the boys were able to play baseball while they were grieving.
"These are fine young men — they are good kids," Elder said. "That is not only something that was instilled in them, they have character that is extra special."
They also have another baseball tournament to play. They travel to Cartersville for the state tournament, which starts this weekend.
"Kristal was planning for this team to go all the way," said Ellison, one of her closest friends. "She had her book ready and she really thought this team was going to go through the district, through the state and to the region tournament. I am the team mom for the 10-year-old team, and she was helping me get my book ready and be prepared."
Baseball and the boys were central to Kristal's life.
"Baseball has literally become a saving grace to everyone," Ellison said.
This week, Carter and Collin sat down for an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer. Like most 11-year-old boys, they didn't say a lot, but they mastered the one-word answer and the head nod.
But one question got them to talk. What do you want people to know about your mom?
"She was always competitive, too," Collin said.
Carter, the oldest by a minute, had a little different answer.
"She was always caring."