In February 2011, Sports Illustrated put Heyward and Freeman on its cover. It was clear, though, who was deemed the Alpha. Heyward is seated on a rolling basket of baseballs, his bat on his left shoulder. Freeman’s left hand is on Heyward’s right shoulder. Freeman’s bat is touching the ground. Part of Freeman’s body is obscured by Heyward’s.
Freeman would finish second in the 2011 ROY voting; teammate Craig Kimbrel was the unanimous winner. The most memorable Freeman moment of that season came at its end: He grounded into a double play in the 13th inning of the 162nd game, handing St. Louis the wild-card game and completing an epic September collapse. (Kimbrel blew a save that night.)
The next year was different. On Sept. 25, 2012, Freeman hoisted a walk-off home run against Mike Dunn that clinched the wild card for the Braves. Chipper Jones scored ahead of Freeman that night. Jones would retire at season’s end.
By the end of the 2013 season, Freeman had become the Braves' best hitter – ahead of Heyward, ahead of the much-ballyhooed Justin Upton. On Feb. 4, 2014, Wren signed Freeman to an eight-year extension for $135 million. That same day, Heyward accepted a two-year extension for $13.3 million. There were two reasons for this: First, Heyward wasn’t interested in signing away his free agency years, but also because Wren had decided only one of the two was apt to become a franchise cornerstone. The one was Freeman.
Heyward was traded to St. Louis in November 2014 by John Coppolella, Wren’s successor. A year later, Heyward reaped his free-agent windfall, signing with the Cubs for $184 million over eight seasons. Freeman became the only reason to watch some terrible-by-design Braves teams. The Braves had many chances to dump him for even more prospects. They rebuffed all. Said Coppolella: “I’ll cut off my arm before I trade Freddie Freeman.”
A total of seven Braves players - in Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta - have been named MVP on eight occasions.
Somehow Freeman managed to stay cheerful during the tanking. Not incidentally, make himself an even better hitter. During batting practice in Milwaukee in the summer of 2016, he and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer stumbled onto something. If Freeman just tried to hit a grounder to shortstop – not a grounder past or a liner over shortstop, mind you – he invariably wound up hitting something far better. The act of trying to hit the ball on the ground made him keep his head down.
Said Freeman: “If you watch me, it’s the most boring batting practice ever. Some guys use their first two (BP) reps to hit the ball up the middle, and the last three they try to launch a little bit. I just try to hit a ground ball to shortstop.”
As of May 17, 2017, Freeman was on pace to have a Baseball-Reference WAR of 10.8, which would have trumped any season a Braves' non-pitcher – Aaron, Mathews, Murphy, Chipper – ever had. This correspondent was in the press box typing a numbers-laden paean to Freddie when, in grand Bradley Jinx tradition, Aaron Loup’s fastball smacked into Freeman’s left wrist. He would miss six weeks. He finished with a WAR of 4.7. The Braves went 72-90. He didn’t receive an MVP vote.
Then the Braves got good again. With better hitters around him, Freeman kept raking. His OPS over the past five seasons: .968, .989, .892, .938 and 1.102. He finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2018, eighth last year. Now he’s the National League’s Most Valuable Player.
He played all 60 games of this irregular season and hit .341, third-best in the bigs. He led the majors in runs. He was second in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, third in RBIs. He did this after missing much of summer camp because of COVID-19, which left him with a 104.5-degree temperature and, on the darkest night of his life, drove him to ask: “Please don’t take me yet.”
When the swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972 Olympics, a teammate said: “It could have happened to a nicer guy.” The next person to offer an unkind word about Freddie Freeman will be the first. He’s a great player. He’s a great teammate. He’s a great guy. In our flawed world, virtue and excellence aren’t always rewarded. This time they were.