Freeman is more to Braves than sum of his numbers

Where to start on the Freddie Freeman-is-more-than-a-big-bat-and-a-Gold-Glove story?

Because to understand the cornerstone Brave who set anchor at first base and went to work compiling a baseball card that’s beginning to read like a modern classic, you must know that his influence extends far beyond his presence on the field.   

Well, for one thing, he’s got a hotline to the general manager, and he’s not afraid to use it.

This past offseason, when it became obvious the Braves were not going to re-sign catcher Kurt Suzuki, Freeman sprung to action. He could have waited it out on a beach somewhere while the front office ran its numbers. He could have defaulted to the position of, “Hey, that’s their job, not mine.” Instead, he began lobbying. He knew former Brave Brian McCann was on the market, and he knew the Braves absolutely had to get him back.

Freeman figures he has a couple of attributes that served him well in that campaign.  

“I’m not one who’s afraid to say anything to anyone,” he says.

And, concerning the general manager who came on board November 2017, Alex Anthopoulos: “He valued my opinion early on. It’s a real good relationship that we’ve got.”

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“I called (Anthopoulos) and said I know he’s been hurt the last couple years, but B-Mac is going to be huge for this club. Huge for the young pitchers we have. Please look into it,” Freeman recalled. “If he is healthy I promise you it will be well worth it.” 

The Braves, of course, signed McCann to a one-year deal. And then informed Freeman, maybe only half-jokingly, that however the transaction turns, good or bad, it’s on his shoulders. 

“I’ll take it,” he said with a smile.

The evolution of Freeman from hail-fellow-well-met to the tone-setter for a franchise has been one of the subtle delights of these past eight, often unsettled, seasons.

As these Braves got younger, as they shed recognizable players to tear down and rebuild – and paid the price in a string of 90-loss seasons – Freeman just got older and wiser. Now as the Braves come out the other side of their renovation, here he is at 29, the authoritative voice both in the clubhouse and in the general manager’s ear. He stands as the competitive conscience of a team that has regained the taste for playoff baseball. 

“It’s been cool to see,” said Chipper Jones, another (now former) Brave who grew himself into such a position of leadership. “When I was still here, he was happy-go-lucky, loud, always laughing, practical joking. And I see him now a lot more reserved and conscious of what his teammates think and what his teammates think of him.”

“I got thrown into it after the 2014 season. Everyone started getting traded. I only had four years in and I felt like I was the elder statesman. I got thrown into it. And you kind of grow into it as well,” Freeman said.

Now, as Jones said of the next-generation Braves leader, “When he pulls you aside and says something to you, he’s EF Hutton (everybody listens, like the old commercial claimed). That’s just the way it is.”

Reach further back, to the middle of last season, at a point when the Braves had lost four of their previous five and Freeman decided it was a little too glum in the clubhouse.

Being an engaged leader means monitoring moods like a broker does the market. It means knowing when to go all pressure cooker and when to go slow-simmer. And sometimes all that’s required is a little gesture.   

“I yelled we need some music. No one moved. I yelled again: ‘Put music on!’” Freeman recalled. Pitcher Sean Newcomb, one of the quieter souls in the clubhouse, seized the moment and ramped up the music. 

“It was one of those things, everyone picks up a little bit instead of just sitting there thinking about our 1-4 record the last five games,” Freeman said. “Everyone starts having a good time.

“We won that game.”

When Freeman starts talking about his role in setting the tone in his clubhouse, it’s impossible not to be struck by just how deeply, how personally, how sincerely, he takes the responsibility. Chief morale officer – that’s in his job description, too. 

“When you leave this game,” he said, “you have your stats. But when they start writing the good stuff about you, it’s about how you were a good person, a good teammate. That’s what you really care about the most.

“You spend eight months with these guys. You hope everyone likes each other. That’s the whole goal of being in the position I’m in, to bring everyone closer, make everyone feel comfortable in this clubhouse.”

So, go further back yet, back to before the Braves even began their surprising, division-championship 2018. Here was Freeman, a survivor of the purge that preceded the great rebuild. He had lived through the big sell-off, and sometimes chafed at the losing that resulted. He had hard-earned status as the alpha player in this room, and here comes this wave of young players making all this racket, getting all this attention. How would he handle it?   

Freeman remembered reading a story about pitcher C.C. Sabathia in which the pitcher talked about how miserably the veterans had treated him when breaking into baseball with Cleveland 18 years ago. And he took it to heart, making a point to convert that story into currency he could use in his own clubhouse, the one filled with so much impetuous youth.  

“When I came into the league, you kind of walked on eggshells when you were a rookie. And that’s OK, I was fine with that,” Freeman said. “Today’s game has changed, and for me it’s important to make the young players feel comfortable because they’re a huge part of this team. They need to feel comfortable to be able to go out and play their game. That’s one of my biggest goals, to make sure all 25 guys – or the 60 we have in spring training – feel comfortable, just be themselves. It took me a while to learn that.”

Nobody’s ever going to talk of life with these Braves the same way Sabathia did of his experience with those Indians, not while Freeman has anything to say about it.

Because, well, why wouldn’t you want a happy workplace?

“It’s fun to come to the field if you’re not having to worry about walking through the clubhouse and having someone yelling at you. That’s not what it’s about anymore. It’s about the guy who has one day in or 20 years in, it’s all the same,” Freeman said. “We’re all working for the same goal. That’s the culture you’ve got to be able to create in the clubhouse.”

That’s the only kind of atmosphere that could have possibly served the Braves last season given the emergence of then 20-year-old Ronald Acuna, 21-year-old Ozzie Albies and a rotating cast of young pitchers. Who wants to wait any longer to win while these guys pay their dues? Freeman certainly doesn’t. 

There is “old school” written on many aspects of Freeman’s career. He plays hard, he plays for real, and he doesn’t make a lot of fuss on the field. You practically need a court order to get him out of the lineup. 

Just ask his general manager. “It’s always easier when your best player is doing things the right way. When your best player happens to have the best make-up, that makes it a lot easier to put a team together,” Anthopoulos said. 

Or his manager. “The other players can look to him. They see the consistency in the preparation. There are no highs and lows with him. He hits a homer like he’s done it before,” Brian Snitker said.

But at the same time, Freeman can look at a flamboyant presence such as Acuna, adjust, and come to believe that there is nothing wrong with a little bat flip after a home run. 

“When I think about it, it’s just fun,” he said. “It’s not about the rookies having to earn and earn and earn to be accepted. You’re accepted the day you walked into this clubhouse because we’re trying to win a World Series, and I don’t want you to feel uncomfortable. Enjoy the bat flip – as long as you don’t get people hit or throw the bat into the stands. It’s fine.”

In Freeman lives an uncommon combination: The player who belongs somewhere high on both a team’s batting order – where else are you going to put last season’s National League hits leader – and its corporate org chart. He is invested in more than his own career.

Into his ninth season he’ll carry a .293 career batting average, 189 home runs, three All-Star invitations and three visits to the top six in the MVP voting. He also carries a larger sense of responsibility for elevating these Braves to a championship level.  

Now, don’t confuse this as a completely selfless approach. Winning is something that he very much wants for himself, too, and this is the only way he knows how to quench that thirst.

He has seen other teammates leave the Braves and win titles elsewhere. Buddy Jason Heyward won in Chicago. McCann won in Houston. Tim Hudson in San Francisco. Even Dan Uggla, who was cut after playing only four games with the Giants, got a ring. 

“I’ve been in this organization since 2007. I don’t want to go anywhere else. This is where I want to be. This is where I’m comfortable. I love everybody here from the top to the bottom. We haven’t won since 1995, and I want to win,” he said.

“I’ve missed out, and I don’t want to miss out any more. So why not try to help this organization get back to where it was? And I’ll do that in any way I possibly can.” 

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