PHOENIX — Freddie Freeman was working out in a gym with his father Monday morning when the news broke across his phone. He stared in utter disbelief, speechless. He didn’t know whether to cry or scream or both.
“He was in shock,” father Fred Freeman said. “He said, ‘I can’t believe it. Why didn’t they tell me? How did this happen? Out of nowhere, they didn’t tell me they were moving on. How does that happen?’ “
The Atlanta Braves had just traded for Oakland A’s All-Star first baseman Matt Olson, abruptly ending Freeman’s 11-year tenure in Atlanta.
Freeman was so stunned that his father accompanied him home, and the entire family sat together for the next two hours, with Freeman’s wife, Chelsea, the kids and everyone in tears.
“He kept saying over and over, ‘I can’t believe it,’ ” Freeman’s father said. ‘They traded for Matt Olson. It’s over.’ “
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It was the first time Freeman, the five-time All-Star first baseman and former MVP who led Atlanta to last year’s World Series championship, truly believed he wasn’t going to be spending the rest of his career with the only franchise he has known.
“I didn’t think I was ever going to be a free agent to be honest with you,” Freeman said.
It was also the first time the Los Angeles Dodgers believed they had a legitimate chance of signing him.
There he was Friday, strolling into the Los Angeles spring-training complex at 7:45 in the morning wearing a black suit, tie and suede boots, and proceeded the rest of the day turning heads, meeting new teammates, waving to fans, signing autographs and charming the media.
It was his first day as a Dodger, officially signing his six-year, $162 contract, and already the face of the franchise with fans screaming his name throughout his workout, and then the press conference.
“This has turned from shock to this is really a good deal,” the elder Freeman said. “I told him, ‘I think you made the right move, Freddie.’
“He said, ‘I know I did.’ “
Freeman valued his father’s advice throughout the harrowing free-agent process. The negotiations and uncertainty were so stressful that Freeman actually lost weight and had difficulty sleeping, said the elder Freeman’s wife, Alma. Free agency is supposed to be an enjoyable time, with teams winning and dining you, but for Freeman, it was miserable.
There were two late entrants in the sweepstakes for Freeman, the San Diego Padres and another East Coast team, but Freeman had enough. He declined their meetings and informed his agency to get the best deal they could from the Dodgers.
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“He said, ‘Dad, I’m tired of this,’ ” Freeman Sr. said. ‘I want to play baseball. The season starts in three weeks. I want to be with the Dodgers.’ So he told the teams, ‘Don’t bother.’
“No one was really serious until the trade happened, because nobody believed Freddie would leave the Braves. Then, teams started calling over the place.”
The Dodgers became relentless in their pursuit, and on Wednesday morning, president Andrew Friedman provided four different proposals for Freeman ranging in years and money. Freeman agreed that evening, accepting the six-year deal that includes $57 million in deferred payments from 2028 to 2040. It lowers the value to about $140 million, according to the union’s valuation, but it makes no difference.
Freeman got the six-year contract he always wanted. He believed he’d get it from the Braves, but they never budged. Their final offer was five years and $140 million, but they refused to entertain a sixth year.
“Freddie wanted years,” his dad said. “He’s made a lot of money. It’s not like he had to break the bank. But he wanted that extra year because he wanted to play.”
Freeman, 32, didn’t blink. He waited. And waited. Several deadlines came and went. Still, nothing but silence.
“I only heard from them twice all winter,” Freeman said.
Until the Olson trade.
And still no call from the front office.
“I had no idea that was going to happen, anything like that,” Freeman said. “When I got told, emotions were all over the place. I couldn’t really speak for a couple of hours, trying to figure out what was going on.”
Freeman leaned on his dad for advice, asking what he should do. There was strong interest from the Tampa Bay Rays. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had called. But no one showed more passion than the Dodgers.
Friedman and manager Dave Roberts spoke to Freeman on a 90-minute Zoom call around Thanksgiving, and six days later, they made one more call.
They were at Dodgers All-Star outfielder Mookie Betts’ wedding at Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. Nelly was performing at the Terranea Resort. It was 8:50 PT, just 10 minutes before the MLB lockout would begin.
Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, Friedman and Roberts ducked out, made a quick FaceTime call to Freeman, and together delivered a message.
“Don’t forget about us,” Friedman said.
Freeman never did, thanks to the daily recruiting text messages from Turner, one of his closest friends.
“The last few years every time he got to first base, Justin Turner would have a conversation with him about how good he would look in Dodger blue,” Friedman said. “I think there could definitely be some tampering charges against Justin Turner.”
Still, Freeman kept waiting on Atlanta to call, believing in his heart there was no way they would part company. Then again, he never imagined he wasn’t signed to a contract extension before the start of last season, either.
“I started having my doubts probably last spring training,” Freeman said. “I didn’t get any calls last offseason. Didn’t really get any calls last spring training either.
“You still think you’re going to come back at that point, but the doubts started to go when the phone didn’t ring. I can’t control someone wanting to call. I got one call before the lockout, a checking- in call. Then, after the lockout, a checking-in call again.
“And that was it.”
It finally started to dawn on Freeman that perhaps he wasn’t wanted back, at least not for six years.
“We were talking a couple of weeks ago,” said Fred Freeman. “He said, ‘Dad, if I’m not a Brave, what do you think?’ I said, ‘Freddie, if you’re not going to be a Brave, I want you home. I don’t even care if you want to stop playing baseball, I just want you home.’
He said, ‘So do I.’ “
Freeman grew up in Orange County as a diehard Angels fan, going to Angels Stadium at least 20 times a year. The family was in attendance at the 2002 World Series won by the Angels.
When he was drafted by Atlanta in 2007, living clear across the country, he bought his dad a home in Atlanta so the family could see him as much as possible. His brother and step-sister moved to Atlanta. And his folks would travel to see them every time he played out West, from Colorado to Arizona to every stop in California.
Why, when they were in the NLCS last season against the Dodgers, they rented a 12-person suite and stuffed 30 people into it at Dodger Stadium.
Now, family and friends can stop in and see him whenever they desire.
“I’ve got my 67-year-old dad and my 86-year-old grandfather who’s now going to be able to watch me every day,” Freeman said. “Just like 15 years ago in high school. That’s what’s special to me.”
Freeman and his family plan to find a second home closer to Dodger Stadium, instead of having a 90-minute commute each day from Corona Del Mar. Freeman may no longer play baseball in Atlanta, but he still plans to keep his home there, with the entire family already arranging this year’s Thanksgiving together in Atlanta.
The Christmas holidays will be at home in California, perhaps with Freeman having another World Series ring to show off.
“It’s a high bar to come here and think you’re going to impact our ballclub,” Roberts said. “But this guy is a different beast. … I told him how good he looks in a Dodger uniform, and he said, ‘Well, it starts with my pretty face, you know.’ “
It was payback after Freeman was constantly teased by Roberts and his teammates, who showed up wearing shorts and jeans, while Freeman was dressed as he was at a Hollywood premier.
“Dude,” Roberts yelled, “this is LA”
It’s Hollywood, baby, and 22-year-old catching prospect Carson Taylor, born and raised in Atlanta, was able to introduce the newest and brightest star to his new teammates.
And yes, just like virtually every other kid playing baseball in Georgia, he grew up idolizing Freeman.
Now, Freeman should have a new generation of kids in Southern California doing the exact same.
He is home. Maybe, just maybe, where he was meant to be.
“They know how much I care about winning and family,” Freeman said. “If I was going to leave a place I was for 15 years, coming home and being in this organization is probably the best thing that could have happened.”
Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter @BNightengale.