Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman reunited as teammates nine years later

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Boys of Spring 2011 are still teammates, though not in a way they would’ve imagined.

First baseman Freddie Freeman and outfielder Jason Heyward were both members of the Braves’ 2007 draft class. Both became two of the biggest names in recent team history. Both have taken different paths as their careers transpired, yet they’ve remained best friends.

That friendship played a role in their reunion. The pair wound up together again with the Dodgers this season. They faced their old team in Atlanta – a city that’s meant much to them – this week. It was only appropriate both players homered during the series, too.

“(We’re back together here) nine years later,” Freeman said. “We’ve been enjoying it the last couple months, especially spring training, being back together again. This one is a little different, coming back to Atlanta together for the first time. … It’s kind of surreal. It’s come full circle 14 years later. It’s a special experience with him.”

With Freeman and Heyward back together in Atlanta, at age 33, how could one not reminiscence? How could one not think about that Sports Illustrated cover, the same one that graces the walls of the Truist Park press box?

Sports Illustrated featured Freeman and Heyward on its cover for Feb. 28, 2011, with the title, “The Boys of Spring.” Included on the cover: “Only 21, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward are the cornerstones of Atlanta’s Brave New World.” Ben Reiter wrote the cover story, which delved into why the Braves were so giddy about their future.

“We were kids,” Heyward said, speaking with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and WBS-TV. “Not knowing what was ahead of us, not really understanding how to appreciate where we were at that time. I think I’ve been on three Sports Illustrated covers, three different franchises. It’s cool. You don’t understand though, at the time – we were both 21 – that it’s a big deal.”

Credit: Sports Illustrated

Credit: Sports Illustrated

While their careers separated them, Freeman and Heyward remained close. They’re bonded by their love for baseball and fatherhood.

“I compare it to brothers, family when you have to move away for work and you keep each other close the best you can,” Heyward said. “He’s had three kids. I was around for Charlie, but Brandon and Max, it’s been really cool to catch up with them through pictures, FaceTime, this past offseason getting to hang out with them some when I was working out in Cali.

“Things aligned and we got back together.”

Former Braves reliever and Bally Sports South analyst Peter Moylan told the AJC: “Jason broke with the team and Freddie came a little bit later (in 2010), but just seeing them come up together, it’s the first time I’d seen two guys like that come at the same time. It’d always been in dribs and drabs. I think them seeing their careers at the start of it, then seeing a day like today where they’re playing in the same uniform, probably seemed far-fetched. But they’ve managed to do it. They’ve come back with different teams, but they’re still doing it at a level it’s fantastic to see.”



Freeman and Heyward left the Braves under far different circumstances. For Freeman, the situation was well-documented. He departed the Braves, something he never imagined doing, following the 2021 championship season and a messy free-agent process. He returned to Truist Park as a Dodger last June in what became a tearful, emotional weekend.

This time, Freeman was all smiles.

“Having Jason this time around, it’s been a lot nicer,” Freeman said. “Having your best friend here makes it a little bit easier. But this time around, it was always going to be a little better.”

For Heyward, this might be his last chance to extend his career. His path is an inimitable one, a 14-year journey that began with him hammering home runs into parking lots as a prospect. Heyward grew up in the Atlanta area and graduated from Henry County High School. The Braves – drafting in the top half of the first round for the first time in quite a while after finally relinquishing their 14-year hold on the National League East in 2006 – selected Heyward 14th overall.

It took the Braves a bit longer to get to Freeman. They drafted infielder Jon Gilmore with the No. 33 pick, and he never made it past Double-A. They selected Georgia pitcher Josh Fields at No. 69, whom they didn’t sign (Fields went on to pitch for six seasons in the majors).

The Braves took Freeman at No. 78. He became the most decorated Brave since those oft-cited glory days of the Big Three, Chipper and Bobby. He helped smooth the franchise’s transition by providing stability. He even signed a long-term extension as a youngster long before the Braves seemingly did that every other month.

When the Braves initiated their grand teardown in 2014, Freeman was the man left standing. He stayed patient while the organization cycled through forgettable players and piled up losses. Freeman bought into the promises of better days, even when those better days couldn’t have felt further away.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

In 2018, Freeman was rewarded as the Braves won their first of five consecutive division titles. Freeman won NL MVP in 2020, the truncated season that began with him fearing for his life while battling COVID-19. A year later, in his final game with the franchise, the five-time All-Star caught the game-winning out in Game 6 of the 2021 World Series, finally seeing his ultimate ambition come to fruition.

When his career is over, Freeman will be welcomed back as one of the greatest Braves. He could have his No. 5 retired. He still calls Atlanta home. He’ll always be part of the franchise regardless of what he achieves in Los Angeles.

Heyward was supposed to have a similar track. He was the touted one, the next legendary Braves player who’d connect the past with the present. Heyward’s physical tools were immense; he was the top prospect in the sport, someone who embodied the five-tool outfielder.

“It seemed like it happened fast, but at the same time, it feels like it was a long, long time ago,” Heyward said. “Especially coming into this stadium now. Everything I knew about playing for the Braves was left at Turner Field.”

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Heyward’s most memorable moment with the Braves might’ve been his first. After catching the ceremonial first pitch from Hank Aaron on opening day 2010, he homered off Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano in his first career at-bat.

“Jason came onto the scene like nothing I’d ever seen,” Moylan said. The 20-year-old Heyward started in the All-Star Game as a rookie. He was on track for greatness. Sports, like life, don’t always go as intended.

Heyward missed 96 games over the next three seasons. His .773 OPS over those years was well below his .849 mark during his rookie season. Heyward’s power peaked in 2012, when he slugged 27 homers and had 82 RBIs, but those ended up career bests for him to this day. His defense was superb, but the offense frustrated at times.

As the Braves signed several players to long-term deals, Heyward received only a two-year pact leading into his free agency. After the Braves fell apart in September 2014, posting a 7-18 record to finish 79-83, the team opted to swerve in a direction it hadn’t gone in decades. The Braves launched their rebuild by trading Heyward to St. Louis for a package including starter Shelby Miller.

Three years and eight months after donning Sports Illustrated, Heyward was gone.

“I learned the business side of things pretty early,” Heyward said. “Maybe one day I’ll have the chance to tell the story of how things played out and how I ended up not playing for this team for my whole career. Whatever that looks like. To me, it’s never been about money or anything like that. But it was cool as a fan growing up, playing for the franchise and then competing against them.”

Asked what Georgia meant to him, Heyward continued.

“It prepared me to do exactly what I’ve done, step out of my shell and compete and go live life in other places. Go see the world. Georgia was awesome. Growing up here, a lot of life lessons on sticking to your guns and going after whatever it is you want to, no matter what everyone else is doing. Everyone has their path. It started with signing with UCLA. Getting drafted by Atlanta obviously deterred that.

“Then it was on to catching the first pitch from Hank Aaron. Playing for Bobby Cox in his last season, playing with Chipper Jones in his last season. So many guys that I got to meet and really enjoy. To me, the best part of my career is being able to step away from home, step outside of Georgia and really enjoy being a big leaguer. Not be worried about being right down the street from the house. Just be where my feet are and enjoy those moments.”

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Miller, coincidently also with the Dodgers now, was later flipped to Arizona in a trade that brought back shortstop Dansby Swanson. Left-hander Max Fried headlined the return in the Justin Upton trade, which came a month after Heyward’s. That offseason proved pivotal for the Braves acquiring players who’d help them win the 2021 World Series.

It turned out fine for Heyward, too. He had a solid year with the Cardinals, hitting .293 with a .797 OPS. He then signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs.

Heyward spent seven years in Chicago, which remains his home. His time as a Cub is remembered for his clubhouse speech during Game 7 of the 2016 World Series – when the Cubs finally broke their 108-year championship drought – more than on-field production. He was under constant criticism for his performance falling short of his contract, but Heyward nonetheless played a role during the most important era of Cubs history.

The Cubs decided to move on last August when they announced they’d release Heyward at season’s end. Heyward intended to continue his career, which led him to the Dodgers – and Freeman. “You get a chance to play with your best friend again, you don’t want to pass on that,” said Heyward, who’s had something of a resurgence as a role player for the Dodgers. His .820 OPS is his highest in three seasons.

“You can argue whether (Heyward) lived up to the (Cubs) contract or not,” Moylan said. “Some would say no, some would say yes. Now, he’s not under all the scrutiny of having to live up to that big deal. It’s just, ‘Hey, let’s see what happens with this redemption project.’ He’s proved them right. He’s done them justice and proved the Dodgers system works. It’s good to see him doing it.”

This might be the final season Heyward and Freeman play together. And they’ll hope it ends with them being The Boys of Fall this October. There’s a good chance that’d require another trip to Atlanta to face the Braves - the franchise for which they were deemed cornerstones together 12 years ago.

“Time flies,” Heyward said.