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Freddie Freeman makes emotional return to Atlanta as Dodgers win

The tears started before he could even say a word.

Freddie Freeman knew he would be emotional this weekend as he returned to Atlanta as a guest player for the first time.

He knew his feelings would still be raw after he and his cherished former club failed to sign a new contract last offseason, resulting in the 2020 National League’s Most Valuable Player signing with the Dodgers instead.

But as he walked into the Truist Park press conference room hours before the Dodgers’ 4-1 win Friday night — Braves staffers, Atlanta reporters and other faces from his past life stared at him — Freeman couldn’t keep it together.

He put his hands on his head and briefly left the room, gathering himself in a hallway near his old clubhouse.

“Give me a moment,” he sighed as he walked out.

When he returned a minute later, he was wearing a towel and wiping away tears while keeping his eyes averted, afraid looking ahead would trigger another meltdown.

“I don’t know if I can get through this,” he said, his voice cracking. “Ok I’ll try it.”

Then, for the next 15 minutes, Freeman tried to gather his feelings and describe his thoughts — working through a mixture of gratitude, appreciation, and love for the franchise he starred in for 12 years, but also sadness and heartache at it, no more to be part of it.

“Man, I love the Braves organization with all my heart,” said Freeman, who had one hit, two walks and two runs on Friday. “That will never change.”

As of Friday afternoon’s press conference, Freeman said he’d been keeping his emotions in check since the Dodgers arrived in Atlanta the night before.

He and his family returned to stay in their old home, which they still own.

They went to their favorite spot, Cupanion’s, for breakfast that morning, where Freeman said everyone in the restaurant stood and applauded as they walked in the door. (He added with a laugh that they still had his “Freddie Omelet” on the menu.)

After getting his hair cut by his old barber, he showed up at the stadium and counted 14 people outside wearing his old jersey — something he said he “never took for granted” during his 12 years with the Braves.

But the closer the first pitch got, the more emotions ran high.

He’d been preparing for this reunion all season. He still couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed.

“I think you can tell how much I really love this organization,” he said. “I don’t even know how I’m going to get through this weekend, to be honest.”

***

It was a situation Freeman never anticipated – he was returning as a visitor to what, despite having grown up in Southern California, had become his home.

When he was drafted by the Braves in 2007, Freeman was just 17 years old. He had just graduated from Orange County high school. He knew little about the franchise or the city it was set in.

“You’re just lucky to be picked by anyone,” he said last week, as thoughts of his impending return to Atlanta already crossed his mind. “You just want the opportunity.”

That came quickly. In 2010, at the age of just 20, Freeman made his big league debut. The next year, he began a decade-long run as the Braves’ daily first baseman.

He began living full-time in Atlanta in 2011, initially to train with more experienced teammates like Dan Uggla and Brian McCann during the offseason, but eventually because he belonged there.

Dodgers' Freddie Freeman reacts as Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker presents him with his World Series title ring.

The Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman reacts as Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker presents him with his 2021 World Series title ring before Friday’s game.

(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

Initially a second-tier star on the team, he emerged as an all-star slugger to help the club reach the playoff placings in 2012 and 2013, but also served in a supporting leadership role behind local icons such as Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson.

That all changed in 2014. Freeman signed an eight-year extension that cemented him as a franchise centerpiece. And during the club’s rebuilding over the next half decade, he became one of the few bright spots from an underperforming – but still locally popular – team.

“I think the fans really appreciate that they were terrible for three or four years, but he still played great, he played hard,” said Jeff Francoeur, Freeman’s former Braves teammate and current Bally Sports South -Channel. “The Braves have always been kings of Atlanta… so Freddie filled that role for the city.”

The city also began to be rooted in him.

He started a family there and married his wife Chelsea in 2014, with whom he now has three children.

It was here that his eldest son, Charlie, first played t-ball and joined a team that included Ugglas’s son and was coached by the former All-Star infielder.

There he rooted himself in the community, thanks in part to his community service with the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta.

It’s even where some of his other family members have moved, including his stepsister, sister-in-law and older brother Andrew, a banker who moved to the area in 2020 with his wife and two children.

“It’s weird when you drive around looking at your brother on a billboard while you go to work,” Andrew said with a laugh during a phone call this week. “It was kind of surreal.”

And like everyone else in his family, around town, and around baseball, Andrew believed Freeman would stay with the Braves his entire career and couldn’t imagine his brother ever wearing a different uniform.

“Atlanta became a part of Freddie,” Andrew said. “His whole identity was Atlanta.”

***

The last time Freeman was at Truist Park before Friday, it was one of the proudest moments of his career.

At the end of the team’s World Series championship parade — a title run that included a National League Championship Series loss for the Dodgers — the Braves held a rally at Truist Park.

And though it had been days since he’d witnessed the World Series Finals, Freeman was still stunned.

“It got me today,” he said that afternoon. “We are world champions forever.”

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman signs autographs for fans in Atlanta before Friday's game.

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman signs autographs for fans in Atlanta before Friday’s game.

(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

However, his tenure with the Braves was nearing its end.

All year Freeman’s expiring contract stayed in the background.

As off-season negotiations began between his agents and the team — a contentious process reportedly involved an ultimatum from Freeman’s agents, a lack of communication between Braves Brass and Freeman directly, and a disconnect over a possible sixth year of the deal — a one hit Wall.

Things finally came to a head in the first week of spring training when the Braves traded for another first baseman, Matt Olson, days before Freeman decided to sign a six-year, $162 million contract with the Dodgers.

When asked Friday if he regretted the end of his time in Atlanta, Freeman’s tone sharpened. His tears stopped briefly.

“There is nothing for me to close here. Why should I close such a special time?”

— Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman upon his return to Atlanta

“I think the question of regret is a whole other side of the story that I’m not — I’m not here to talk about,” he said. “If I went into that, we’d be here for a long time.”

And what about the need for closure?

“There’s nothing for me to close here,” he said. “Why should I close such a special time?

In fact, Freeman’s love for the club, for the city, and for a fanbase he proudly notes stretches across the South, clearly wasn’t dissipated, despite his troubled end with the Braves.

Freddie Freeman of the Dodgers steps on the plate during the first inning on June 24, 2022.

Freddie Freeman of the Dodgers kicks the plate during the first inning at Truist Park. Freeman went one for three with two walks and scored two goals.

(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

After exiting the media room and hugging all the staff, reporters and other familiar faces he has known for a long time, he was greeted by cheers from an early crowd as he stepped onto the field for batting practice.

He signed autographs for fans up to an hour before the game and then burst into tears again as a tribute video played from the scoreboard before pitch one.

He received his World Series ring during a subsequent ceremony from his former manager Brian Snitker, a longtime Braves coach whom Freeman campaigned to become manager in 2016.

He then addressed the crowd over the PA system, his voice cracking amid the cheers of the packed stadium fans who still treated him as their own.

“I know I’m in a different uniform, but I still love each and every one of you,” he said. “This is one of the toughest days of my life, but one of the most amazing days of my life.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-06-24/dodgers-freddie-freeman-makes-emotional-return-to-atlanta Freddie Freeman makes emotional return to Atlanta as Dodgers win

Emma Bowman

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