'He deserved every second of it': Inside Freddie Freeman's emotional return to Atlanta

ByAlden Gonzalez ESPN logo
Monday, June 27, 2022

ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman counted them.

"Fourteen Freeman 5 jerseys," he said, then he buried his face in his towel again, his cheeks reddening and his eyes welling. Freeman saw the jerseys as he drove into Truist Park in Atlanta early Friday afternoon. The sight of them marked the second time -- of many, many others -- that his emotions would overwhelm him.

The first had come about an hour earlier, around noon, when Freeman took his 5-year-old son, Charlie, to Cupanion's, the cafe he visited religiously for his pregame "Freddie Omelet" -- which he was happy to learn was still available.

"There were about nine people in there, and they all stood up and they started clapping," Freeman said, and then he almost lost it again, pressing the towel up against his nose to suppress another cry.

The rest of the day was an emotion-packed whirlwind for the former Atlanta Braves icon and current Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman. Freeman fought back tears during a pregame news conference that began with him walking away to collect himself and could hardly keep it together for the ceremony that was staged in his honor moments before Friday's first pitch. A three-minute tribute video played on the big screen in center field, triggering a raucous ovation that culminated in a warm hug from Braves manager Brian Snitker, who waited near the pitcher's mound with the World Series ring that Freeman only wanted to receive in Atlanta.

Snitker repeatedly patted Freeman on the back and implored him to relax, which at that point seemed impossible.

"Snit being Snit," Freeman said later. "It's the one man that I'm very thankful for. We've had a lot of talks over the last few months."

It was 102 days ago that Snitker sat in his spring training condominium in North Port, Florida, as news circulated about the Braves acquiring a new first baseman in Matt Olson. Snitker's mind immediately went to Freeman, who wanted nothing more than to return to the organization that drafted him 15 years earlier. He knew he'd be crushed.

"I told my wife, 'I'm gonna wait and call,'" Snitker recalled. "And then it's like, 'Nah the hell with it, I'm gonna call right now.'"

Freeman has spent these past three-plus months navigating the shock of the events that left him scrambling to join a new team four months after he finally won a World Series with the organization he grew up with. The emotions were still raw when the Braves visited L.A. around the middle of April, but even then Freeman was thinking ahead to this weekend -- how the ring would look, how the fans would respond and how he would process it all.

And yet nothing could truly prepare him.

Freeman's eyes were swollen and teary by the time he returned, ring in hand, to the third-base side to address a sold-out crowd. When he came to bat in the top of the first inning moments later, his legs, he said, went numb. The Truist Park organist welcomed him with "We Are The Champions," and the fans rose in appreciation once more. At one point Freeman stood just outside the batter's box with his helmet in his hands and stared off into the distance, taking a moment to absorb it all.

The ovation lasted more than a minute.

"He deserved every second of it," the Braves' starting pitcher, Ian Anderson, said.

Braves history dates back to the 1870s, and yet only five players have accumulated more home runs, RBIs and extra-base hits than Freeman. He slashed .294/.380/.505, amassed 226 home runs and averaged 147 games in his first 10 full seasons from 2011 to 2019, a stretch that spanned two contention windows and a prolonged rebuild. But his greatest triumphs occurred over the past two years, when he won an MVP after the COVID-shortened season in 2020 and when he led the Braves to an improbable late-season run to the championship in 2021. Last year, Freeman batted .332/.407/.520 during the regular season's second half, then .304/.420/.625 during the ensuing playoffs.

In the end, he joined Hank Aaron, Chipper Jones and Johnny Evers, who played in the early 1900s, as the only players in franchise history to win both an MVP and a championship.

"He cemented a legacy here, man, and it's so rare when that kind of thing happens," said Dansby Swanson, Freeman's good friend and longtime teammate. "Sometimes you don't appreciate players and what they're able to accomplish until they're no longer there."

The most prized possession inside Matt Klug's basement in north Georgia is a black Marucci bat that once belonged to Freddie Freeman. It was hand-delivered by Freeman himself four summers ago with a message that, in Klug's words, "changed the trajectory of my entire life."

Always remember the good times and stay strong.

"That's something that I literally will never get rid of," Klug, now 21, said. "If it's the end of the world, I'll carry it with me no matter what."

In November 2016, Klug had lost his mother to lung disease. He lost his father to cancer 12 months later, in the middle of his senior year of high school. But Klug, a diehard Braves fan, found strength through the way his favorite player persevered after losing his mother to melanoma at the age of 10, using Freeman's journey as motivation to play out his final season of high school baseball. His story began to gain traction, enough for the Chicago White Sox to draft him in the 38th round of the 2018 draft as a goodwill gesture. The Braves found out about Krug's story and, on June 22, set up the meet-and-greet that set him on a new path.

Later that fall, Klug started a charity called November Smiles to help children cope with the loss of their parents by bringing them to Braves games, taking them back-to-school shopping, helping them buy groceries, providing them with a sounding board. And if not for his brief meeting with Freeman, Klug believes the organization -- which has helped somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 kids -- wouldn't exist.

"No matter where he plays," Klug said, "that's my favorite player."

For many other Braves fans, it isn't quite so simple.

Grant McAuley, who has covered the Braves for about a decade and currently works for one of the local sports-talk radio stations, 92.9 The Game, has heard fan reaction that covers the entire spectrum over these past few months. There are those who can't forgive Freeman for joining their fiercest rival and those happy he'll now play his home games closer to where he grew up. Those who blame the front office for not offering enough, blame the player for being too greedy and blame the agent for mishandling it all. Those who think the Braves will be better off with Matt Olson, and those who fear they'll never be the same again.

By the time the Dodgers came into town, however, the tension had noticeably cooled. The Braves' recent 14-game winning streak, which vaulted them back into a division race with the New York Mets, helped. So did time.

"I just think there's a raw nerve that is deadened," said Chris Dimino, a radio host on 680 The Fan, who has worked in the Atlanta market for nearly 30 years. "It was exposed for a while, and it was a really hot, flashed topic in this town, where people were upset. And it was on both sides. People were just upset. I think that's calmed down."

About an hour before the start of Friday's game, Freeman stood in foul territory on the first-base side for 10 minutes, signing for young fans who had lined up along foul territory. Then he jogged to the other side and did the same for those on the third-base side. "I'm trying to do as much as I can because they did so much for me," he said.

That was right about the time Klug arrived. He found his seat in Section 426, behind home plate in the stadium's upper level, and was delighted to see so many Freeman jerseys surrounding him. Klug spent the past few weeks worrying that a mix of boos would infiltrate Freeman's reception, but his section -- and most of a sold-out crowd of 42,105 -- began that familiar "Fre-ddie!" chant as soon as Freeman spilled out of the dugout on Friday afternoon.

They remembered how he went from a chubby kid with a sweet swing to a rising star who outshined Jason Heyward, the organization's brightest prospect. How he was the only one to survive the fire sale that took place after the 2014 season and evolved as a leader thereafter. How he set the tone for a string of four consecutive division titles. How he hit the ball where it was pitched and ran out every ground ball and hardly took days off. How he hugged and how he smiled and how he cried.

"I think No. 5 should be hanging up in Atlanta forever, regardless of how his Braves run ended," Klug said. "I think that what he did while he was here more than outweighs him leaving."

Jeff Francoeur spent half of his 12-year major league career with the Braves. When he played alongside Freeman in 2016, the two built a fast friendship. And when Francoeur traveled to L.A. on April 19 as part of his broadcasting duties for TBS, he made it a point to check in on Freeman. He saw a man still absorbing the shock of playing elsewhere, still processing how it all broke down so quickly, still searching for a path forward.

Francoeur said a "perfect storm" of events caused Freeman to not return to the Braves. Had the fan-less, COVID-impacted season of 2020 not prompted Braves ownership to reduce spending, or had a 99-day lockout not prevented teams and players from communicating this past offseason, Francoeur believes Freeman would be a Brave today. When he first saw Freeman in Dodger Blue, he chalked it up to fate.

"I told him, 'There's a reason you're here, man,'" Francoeur recalled.

Freeman is still noticeably angry about how the negotiations played out, though he has opted against going public with specifics. On March 12, shortly after baseball's lockout was lifted, Freeman's agent, Casey Close, presented Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos with two aggressive offers and gave him an hour to respond, according to reporting from ESPN's Buster Olney. Anthopoulos interpreted it as a take-it-or-leave-it scenario. Two days later, the Braves sent a package of prospects to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for Matt Olson. Three days after that, Freeman signed a six-year, $162 million contract with the Dodgers.

People close to Freeman have since wondered why he didn't take more control of the negotiations. He didn't want to leave, and his actual demands weren't so far removed from the Braves' best offer, which, as Olney reported, reached $140 million over five years -- so why didn't he just get on the phone with Anthopoulos and figure it all out? Why didn't Anthopoulos cut out the middle man and reach out himself?

There's blame everywhere, it seems, but Freeman is doing his best to put it behind him.

"If you think about the past, it's only going to affect your happiness in the present and in the future," Freeman said after Friday's game. "That's what we have settled on. You can't change anything that happened. All you can do is learn from your experiences, and I have definitely learned a lot. I think some of you know exactly what I'm talking about; I'm just not gonna be one to be in quotes saying anything I need to say right now. I'm just trying to move on."

It has become clear over these past three months that Freeman cares deeply about his legacy in Atlanta and is extremely sensitive to what the baseball fans here think of him. It's why so many of those close to him were hoping Friday's reception would be warm.

"If he gets booed, that's gonna hurt him," a longtime Braves coach said earlier this week. "That's gonna really hurt."

As the weekend progressed, it often seemed as though Braves fans were processing this a little easier than Freeman. Apathy greeted Freeman before every other plate appearance on Friday and Saturday, except in Saturday's seventh inning, when the bases were loaded with two outs and the Dodgers trailed by a run. At that point, another sold-out crowd began to boo. And when Freeman struck out, they cheered -- treating him no different than they would any other opposing player on a fierce rival.

There are plenty of Braves fans who seem to have moved on by now, perhaps content with a new first baseman who is similarly talented and four years younger. Freeman, some believe, still seems to struggle with it all.

Maybe he just needs to get this series out of the way.

Or maybe a piece of him is still somewhere else.

"When all the dust settles, I still believe in all my heart that Freddie will come back here and finish his last year here," Franceour said. "I really do."

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