The tears started before he could even say a word.
Freddie Freeman knew it would be emotional this weekend when he returned to Atlanta for the first time as a visiting player.
He knew his feelings would still be raw when he and his former club failed to secure a new contract last season, which led to the signing of the most valuable player in the 2020 National League with the Dodgers instead.
But when he walked into the news conference room in Truist Park hours before Friday’s 4-1 win over the Dodgers – a Braves team, Atlanta-based reporters and other faces from his past life staring back at him – Freeman couldn’t do it. keep together. .
He put his hands on his head and soon left the room, gathering himself in a hall corridor near his old clubhouse.
“Give me a minute,” he said as he walked out.
He carried a towel when he returned a moment later, wiping out his tears while keeping his eye to the side, fearing it would trigger another breakdown.
“I don’t know if I can go through this,” he said, his voice cracking. “Okay, I’ll try.”
Then, for another 15 minutes, Freeman tried to gather his emotions and describe his thoughts – working through a mixture of gratitude, respect and love for the franchise for which he had been playing for 12 years. sadness and heartache no longer part of it. .
“Man, I love the Braves organization with all my heart,” said Freeman, who scored one peak, two walks and two runs on Friday. “That will never change.”
To a Friday afternoon news conference, Freeman said he had been checking his feelings since the Dodgers arrived in Atlanta the night before.
He and his family returned to stay at their old house, which is still in their possession.
They went to breakfast in the morning at their favorite spot, Cupanion’s, where Freeman said everyone in the restaurant was standing and clapping as they walked in the door. (With a laugh, he said his “Freddie omelet” was still on the menu.)
After getting a haircut from his old barber, he showed up at the ballroom and counted 14 people wearing his old jumper outside – something he said, “that didn’t take off” during his a dozen years with the Braves.
But as the first pitch got closer, the emotions began to grow.
He was preparing for this reunion throughout the season. He still couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed.
“I think you can say how great I really am for this organization,” he said. “I don’t even know how I’m going to get through this weekend, to be honest.”
This was a situation that Freeman never expected – returning as a visitor to the place where he grew up in Southern California, which was his home.
When the Braves drafted it in 2007, Freeman was only 17. He had just finished high school in Orange County. Little did he know about the franchise, or the city he was in.
“You’re perfectly happy to be chosen, no matter who he is,” he said last week, the idea that he’s coming back to Atlanta is already flowing into his mind. “All you need is the opportunity.”
That came quickly. In 2010, Freeman made his first major league game at just 20 years old. The following year, he began his ten-year run as the Braves’ first daily base man.
He began living full – time in Atlanta in 2011, initially as a way to work out with more experienced teammates such as Dan Uggla and Brian McCann in the holiday season but eventually because it was there that he felt connected.
Initially, he was a secondary star on the team, emerging as an All-Star-caliber slugger to help the club to playoff measures in 2012 and 2013 but also serving in a leadership support role behind local icons such as Chipper Jones and Tim Hudson. .
That changed in 2014. Freeman signed an eight-year extension that secured him the core of a franchise. And during the rebuilding of the club over the next half-century, it was one of the few bright spots for a lost – but still beloved – local team.
“I think the fans understand that they were terrible for three or four years, but he still played great, he played hard,” said Jeff Francoeur, a former partner of Freeman Braves and current broadcaster Bally Sports South. “The Braves have always been king of Atlanta … so Freddie has taken on that role for the city.”
The city also began to ingrained there.
It was there that he started a family, in which he married his wife, Chelsea, in 2014, who now has three children.
It was there that his eldest son, Charlie, first played T-ball, and joined a team that also included Uggla’s son and was coached by a former All-Star player.
This is where he was immersed in the community, thanks in part to his charitable work with the Children ‘s Hospital in Atlanta.
It’s even when some of his other family, including his step – sister, sister – in – law and older brother Andrew, a banker who moved with his wife and two children, moved to the area in 2020.
“It’s weird when you drive around and look at your brother on a billboard as 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, in the city and in the baseball world, Andrew believed that Freeman had to stay with the Braves for his entire career, able to imagine that his brother was ever wearing another uniform.
“Atlanta was part of Freddie,” Andrew said. “Atlanta was his absolute identity.”
The last time Freeman was in Truist Park before Friday, it was one of the proudest moments of his life.
At the end of the team’s World Series championship parade – a title run that included the Dodgers’ victory in the National League Championship Series – the Braves ran a rally inside Truist Park.
And even though it was six days since he reached the World League final, Freeman was still numb.
“Today, it’s hit me,” he said that evening. “We are world champions forever.”
His time with the Braves, however, was about to end.
All year, Freeman’s contract was expiring in the background.
When negotiations began in the offseason between his agents and the team – a controversial process that included an ultimatum from Freeman’s agents, a lack of direct communication between brass Braves and Freeman, and hanging over a possible sixth year on the market – struck. balla.
Finally, during the first week of spring training, it all came to a head, with the Braves trading for the next man, Matt Olson, days before Freeman decided to sign with the Dodgers on a six – year, $ 162- deal. million.
When asked on Friday if he had any regrets about how his time in Atlanta ended, Freeman’s tone sharpened. Her tears stopped briefly.
“It simply came to our notice then. Why close such a special time? ”
– Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman on his return to Atlanta
“I think the issue of regret is a whole different side of the story that I am not – I’m not here to talk about it,” he said. “If I interrupted that, we would be here for a long time.”
And what about the need for closure?
“There’s nothing to shut me down here,” he said. “Why would I close such a special time?
In fact, despite his despicable end with the Braves, Freeman’s love for the club, the city and the fans who proudly note that he stretches across the South is clearly not obsolete.
After walking out of the media room – hugging all the staff, reporters and other knowledgeable faces he had known for a long time – he was greeted by the cheers of an early crowd as they took to the pitch with for batting practice.
He signed for the fans all the way until an hour before the game, then tore it up again when there was a video paying tribute to a scoreboard that was before the first pitch.
He received his World Series ring during a subsequent ceremony from his former manager Brian Snitker, a long – time Braves coach whom Freeman had confirmed to become manager in 2016.
He then spoke to the crowd over the PA system, his voice ripping amid the cheers of fans in a sold-out stadium who still treated him as their own.
“I know I wore a different uniform, but I still love all of you,” he said. “This is one of the hardest days of my life but one of the most wonderful days of my life.”