ATLANTA — Freddie Freeman counted them.

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“Fourteen Freeman 5s,” he said, then buried his face in the towel again, his cheeks flushed and his eyes filled with tears. Freeman saw the T-shirts as he drove into Atlanta’s Trueist Park early Friday afternoon. Seeing them for the second time – out of many, many others – meant that his emotions overwhelmed him.

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The first happened about an hour earlier, around noon, when Freeman took his 5-year-old son Charlie to Cupanion’s, a café he frequented religiously before the Omelet Freddy game — which he was happy to know was still closed. accessible.

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“There were about nine people there, and they all stood up and started cheering,” Freeman said, and then almost passed out again, holding a towel to his nose to stifle another scream.

The rest of the day was filled with emotion for the former Atlanta Braves icon and current baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Freeman struggled to hold back tears during the pre-game press conference, which began with him leaving to get ready and barely able to contain himself ahead of a ceremony held in his honor minutes before Friday’s first pitch. A three-minute tribute video shown on a big screen in center field received a standing ovation, culminating in a warm hug from Braves manager Brian Snitker, who was waiting on the pitcher’s mound with a World Series ring that Freeman only wanted in Atlanta. .

Snitker repeatedly patted Freeman on the back and begged him to relax, which seemed impossible at the time.

“Sneath is Sneath,” Freeman later said. “This is the only person for whom I am very grateful. We’ve had a lot of talks over the past few months.”

It was 102 days ago that Snitker was sitting in his spring training condominium in North Port, Florida, when the news spread that the Braves had acquired a new baseman in Matt Olson. Snitker’s thoughts immediately turned to Freeman, who wanted nothing more than to return to the organization that had drafted him 15 years earlier. He knew that he would be crushed.

“I told my wife, ‘I’ll wait and call,’” Snitker recalled. “And then he’s like, ‘No, to hell with him, I’ll call right now.’

Freeman has spent these past three-plus months working through the shock of events that have left him struggling to join a new team four months after he finally won the World Series with the organization he grew up with. Emotions were still raw when the Braves visited Los Angeles around mid-April, but even then Freeman was thinking about the weekend ahead—what the ring would look like, how the fans would react, and how he would take it all.

Yet nothing could truly prepare him.

Freeman’s eyes were puffy and teary as he returned, ring in hand, to third base’s side to address the sold-out crowd. When he entered the field moments later at the start of the first half, his legs went numb, he said. The Truist Park organist greeted him with “We Are The Champions” and the fans cheered him up again. At some point, Freeman stood right next to the batters box with a helmet in his hands and stared into the distance, for a moment comprehending everything that was happening.

The ovation lasted over a minute.

“He deserved every second,” Braves starting pitcher Ian Anderson said.

The Braves’ history dates back to the 1870s, and yet only five players have scored more home runs, RBIs, and off-base hits than Freeman. He cut .294/.380/.505, hit 226 home runs, and averaged 147 games in his first 10 full seasons from 2011 to 2019, a stretch that spanned two windows of contention and an extended recovery. But his biggest triumphs have come in the last two years, when he won MVP after a shortened season due to COVID in 2020 and when he led the Braves to an incredible run at the end of the season to the championship in 2021. Freeman hit .332 last year. /.407/.520 in the second half of the regular season, then .304/.420/.625 during the subsequent playoffs.

He eventually 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 that happens so rarely,” said Dansby Swanson, a good friend and longtime teammate of Freeman. “Sometimes you don’t appreciate players and what they can do until they’re gone.”

The most valuable item in Matt Klug’s north Georgia basement is a black Marucci bat that once belonged to Freddie Freeman. It was delivered by Freeman himself four years ago with a message that Klg says “changed the trajectory of my entire life.”

Always remember the good times and stay strong.

“It’s something I’ll literally never get rid of,” said Klug, now 21. “If it’s the end of the world, I’ll carry it with me no matter what.”

In November 2016, Klug lost his mother to a 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 in how his favorite player persevered after losing his mother to melanoma at the age of 10, using Freeman’s journey as motivation to play his last season of baseball in high school. His story began to take off, and the Chicago White Sox selected him in the 38th round of the 2018 draft as a goodwill gesture.
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The brave ones learned about the history of the Circle and had a meeting on June 22 that set it on a new path.

Later that fall, Klug founded the November Smiles charity to help children cope with the loss of their parents by bringing them to Braves games, taking them back to school to shop, helping them buy groceries, and providing them with a deck. And if it weren’t for his brief encounter with Freeman, Klug believes that the organization that helped about 50 children would not exist.

“Wherever he plays,” Klug said, “he’s my favorite player.”

For many other Braves fans, it’s not that easy.

Grant McAuley, who covered the Braves for about a decade and currently works for one of the local sports radio stations, 92.9 The Game, has heard fan reactions that run the gamut over the past few months. There are those who cannot forgive Freeman for joining their worst rival and those who are happy that he will 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 not handling it all right. Those who think the Braves will be better with Matt Olson and those who fear they will never be the same again.

However, by the time the Dodgers entered the city, the tension had noticeably subsided. The Braves were helped by a recent 14-game winning streak that brought them back into divisional competition with the New York Mets. Like time.

“I just think we’re getting on our nerves,” said Chris Dimino, a radio host on 680 The Fan who has been in the Atlanta market for nearly 30 years. “It was exposed for a while and it was a really hot, flickering topic in this city where people were upset. And it was on both sides. People were just upset. I think it calmed down.”

About an hour before kickoff on Friday’s game, Freeman stood in the muddy grounds on the side of first base for 10 minutes, signing up for the young fans who lined the muddy grounds. He then ran across to the other side and did the same for those on the third base side. “I try to do my best because they have done so much for me,” he said.

It was just at the time that Klug arrived. He found his seat in Section 426, behind the home plate on the top level of the stadium, and was delighted to see so many Freeman shirts around him. Klug has spent the last few weeks worrying about a mixture of hoots pouring into Freeman’s reception, but his section – and most of the sold-out crowd of 42,105 – launched into the familiar “Freddie!” chant as soon as Freeman falls out of the dugout on Friday afternoon.

They remembered how he went from being a chubby boy with a sweet personality to a rising star who eclipsed Jason Hayward, the organization’s brightest prospect. How he was the only one who survived the fire sale that took place after the 2014 season and turned into a leader after that. How he set the tone for a run of four consecutive division titles. How he hit the ball where it was served and hit all the ground balls and hardly ever took a day off. How he hugged and how he smiled and how he cried.

“I think the number 5 should hang in Atlanta forever, no matter how his Braves run ended,” Klug said. “I think what he did while he was here more than outweighs his departure.”

Jeff Frankoeur spent half of his 12-year major league career with the Braves. When he played alongside Freeman in 2016, they quickly became friends. And when Franker traveled to Los Angeles on April 19 as part of his broadcast duties for TBS, he decided to check on Freeman. He saw a man still absorbing the shock of playing elsewhere, still aware of how things had fallen so quickly, still looking for a way forward.

Frankoeur said the “perfect storm” of events caused Freeman not to return to the Braves. Franker believes that if the COVID-affected 2020 fan-free season hadn’t prompted Braves owners to cut costs, or if the 99-day lockdown hadn’t prevented teams and players from communicating last offseason, Franker believes Freeman would be a Brave today. When he first saw Freeman in a Dodger Blue, he chalked it up to fate.

“I told him, ‘There’s a reason you’re here, man,'” Franker recalled.

Freeman remains visibly dissatisfied with how the talks ended, although he chose not to reveal details. On March 12, shortly after the baseball lockout was lifted, Freeman’s agent Casey Close submitted two aggressive offers to Braves general manager Alex Antopoulos and gave him an hour to respond, according to a post by Sportzshala’s Buster Olney. Anthopoulos interpreted this as a “take it or leave it” scenario. Two…