Categories: Sports

World Series 2021 – Freddie Freeman’s Fall Classic moment with the Atlanta Braves has finally arrived

Freddie Freeman‘s batting practice sessions, by his own admission, are the most boring in baseball. He does nothing but hit line drives into left field, over and over. Picture a slicing liner that barely clears the glove of a leaping shortstop and you’ll get the idea of each ball’s trajectory. And now picture this happening repeatedly, with metronomic precision, every swing the same, and you’ll get an idea of its meditative quality. It’s like watching someone casually paint a wall, each brushstroke traveling the same distance.

The swing itself, though, is a marvel of architectural efficiency, constructed from the ground up. It emanates from his feet and travels vertically to his arms, where it seems to accelerate — against all notions of physics — after it connects with the ball, like a chain saw finishing off a tree limb.

The preparation, and that swing, is intended to create a slump-proof life for the Braves’ first baseman and reigning National League MVP, who is making his first World Series appearance in his 12th season in Atlanta. A swing that intricate, that repeatable, does not appear by chance.

After practice every day at El Modena High School in Orange, California, Freeman would set up an L screen and sit on a bucket containing 40 baseballs. His teammates would pack up and head home, and Freddie would sit on that bucket and wait for his father to finish work as a CPA and arrive at the field. Fred Freeman would stand behind that L screen and throw three buckets’ worth of baseballs — 120 pitches — to his son. Freddie hit the first 40 to the opposite field, the second 40 up the middle and the last 40 to wherever his father pitched them. He has never — not then, not now — worked on pulling the ball to right field.

Freeman’s consistency in planning and execution — his trust-the-process process — has never been more evident than during the Braves’ improbable run to the World Series. The tightened focus of a postseason exposes a player’s flaws harshly and unforgivingly; it’s the fluorescent lighting of a seven-month season. Conclusions are drawn and opinions formed quickly and definitively, based on precious little evidence. And that’s why Freeman, who provided the winning margin with a solo homer in the eighth inning of the Braves’ 5-4 win over the Brewers in Game 4, found himself in an odd and awkward position: forced to defend himself after going 0-for-8 with seven strikeouts in the first two games of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers. (Games the Braves won, it should be noted.)

Had the Dodgers figured him out? They pounded fastballs in on his hands, which kept him from getting his arms extended and served to reduce his reaction time. So close to the World Series — and free agency — for the first time, was he pressing? The long, smooth swing path looked rushed and off balance. He swung at pitches he would normally take and took some he’d normally demolish.

Before any answers could come, it was over. The slump-proof swing returned in Game 3; Freeman employed the first-bucket philosophy — the batting-practice philosophy — and went 3-for-4, beating the shift senseless by hitting the ball to left field all four times, three of them singles. From there, the swing accelerated and got progressively angrier. In Game 4, the third-bucket philosophy: 2-for-4 with a long homer to right-center and a double to right. In Game 5, the second bucket: a regal 425-foot homer to dead center. In the decisive Game 6, after six hits in 12 at-bats, including two homers, the Dodgers threw up their hands, walking him four times in five plate appearances.

Braves manager Brian Snitker referred to Freeman’s first eight at-bats of the NLCS as “Freddie’s thing,” like he was afraid of giving it more credibility than it deserved. “That was a blip on the radar,” he said. “You don’t keep an elite player like Freddie down for an extended period.”

Nevertheless, a new storyline emerged: the seven strikeouts in eight at-bats followed by the magical resurrection. The fluorescent lights were turned off, replaced by a soft, flattering glow. Future success would be measured against past failure, and there would be no budging from this.

“It doesn’t have to be different,” Freeman said after Game 5. “It’s just baseball. I had a couple of bad games. I haven’t done anything different. It’s eight at-bats. I’ve done worse over more than eight at-bats in my career. That’s the thing: two games. I was shown video, and it showed that there was nothing different. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve been 0-for-8 before. I’ll be 0-for-8 again at some point, hopefully not this postseason, though.”

Of course he didn’t do anything different. From the time he sat on that bucket waiting for his dad, different has never been necessary. So why, on the precipice of his first and possibly last World Series with the only team he has ever known, would he start now?

It is difficult to envision Freeman in the World Series, harder yet to envision him in another uniform. He is referred to as the face of the Braves’ franchise so often it can seem like part of his name, and Atlanta’s presence in the World Series is seen in some parts as poetic justice for his years of service to a team that didn’t always have a coherent mission. All of this makes the prospect of these two events happening in quick succession — Freddie Freeman playing in a World Series and Freddie Freeman becoming a member of another team — feel like a clumsy fictional plot twist.

Freeman, 32, was picked by the Braves out of El Modena with the second pick of the second round in the 2007 draft, scuttling his plans to attend Cal State Fullerton and follow his father into the CPA business. He made his debut with the Braves in 2010, as a gangly, wide-eyed 20-year-old with an elegant swing that looked about the same as it does now. But the eight-year, $135 million extension he signed after the 2013 season expires as soon as the season ends, and he will — for the first time — become available to the most attractive bidder.

Freeman has repeatedly insisted he would prefer to remain a Brave, and at the end of the regular season he went so far as to say he considered it shocking that he finds himself in this position. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos told The Athletic in late August, “The goal is to sign him. He’s been very clear his goal is to stay.”

As with most extensions signed by young players, it’s safe to say Freeman’s roughly $17 million-per-year salary has been a bargain, at least in baseball terms. Had he hit free agency after the 2016 season, after turning 27 and coming off a sixth-place MVP finish for a team that lost 93 games, whatever contract he received would have made the extension look small. And even now, five years later, there are many indications that Freeman has productive years ahead of him. He has been durable, missing just six games in the past four seasons, and he has finished in the top five in MVP voting three times, which includes winning the award for his .341 average and 1.102 OPS in 2020’s 60-game season. His consistency is close to legendary. For the past nine seasons, his OPS+ has not dipped below 132. (The big league average is 100.) This season he hit .300 with 31 homers and scored a league-leading 120 runs, and his OPS+ of 133 was his lowest since 2015.

None of that touches on his personality. He is an inveterate smiler, unfailingly polite, and almost comically humble in his plaid-shirt-and-jeans kind of way. He treats first base like his front porch, and no matter how long you stay he’s going to do what he can to make you feel welcome. He talks to everyone and dishes out compliments to opponents so easily it can be hard to figure out where he stores his competitive fire.

There are also many times when the moment is so overwhelming words alone can’t do it justice. When he doubled in Game 4, he said something to Dodgers second baseman Trea Turner, giving him a little shoulder squeeze. When Albert Pujols lined a single in the second inning of Game 5, a happy conversation — both men throwing their heads back in laughter — escalated to a heartfelt hug, right there on the field, in the middle of the game, sending shivers through every hard-line traditionalist.

For that reason, the often-fractured baseball world, eternally struggling with the ethical dilemma of the Houston Astros, seems united behind its happiness for Freeman’s opportunity. “He’s been through the really tough times with this team when they weren’t really winning at all,” said 24-year-old third baseman Austin Riley. “If you ask every player, he’d say it would mean a lot for us to be able to do this for him.”

Some of those players just recently met. The Braves added and subtracted players at an alarming pace in the second half of the season, acquiring players — most prominently Joc Pederson, Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario. It fell to the clubhouse sage, the smiling, welcoming one, to provided ballast amid the shifting seas.

“To me, Freddie’s the definition of a professional baseball player,” Riley said. “Day in, day out, he’s so poised in every situation. It’s not so much what he says; it’s just the way he carries himself. If he’s 0-for-4 or 4-for-4, he’s the same guy every day, and I think guys catch on to that and gravitate toward it.”

Baseball is notorious for its silly superstitions and reliance on mystical theories, like hitting and slumping being teamwide contagions. The Braves, in a bit of mysticism that is at least more evidence-based, believe Freeman’s work ethic is contagious. Three Braves — Swanson, Riley and Freeman — played at least 159 games this season, while the fourth infielder, second baseman Ozzie Albies, played in 156. This could be attributed to Snitker’s unwillingness to give his best players days off. Or it could be, as Snitker prefers to believe, Freeman’s work ethic permeating the clubhouse. “The biggest thing I’ve learned from Freddie,” Riley said, “is learning how to deal with success and failure. To deal with this game every day, you need to learn both.”

Fittingly, Freeman caught the throw from Dansby Swanson that accounted for the final out of the NLCS. He immediately shot his arms in the air, his body in a goofy backward lean, and screamed into the night. He held the pose for a count longer than expected, maybe to savor the moment, maybe as a sign of disbelief.

“I think this might be the definition of pure joy,” Freeman said afterward. “I don’t really know how to feel. Usually we’re sitting at our locker thinking about the whole season and getting ready for next year — and this year we actually did it.”

He said he couldn’t really find the words to express just what it meant to him, and that alone — Freddie Freeman, speechless — says more than words could ever hope to say. There’s a lot going on: the World Series, the possibility these might be his final games in a Braves uniform. The safe bet is that he’ll find a way to put it all out of his mind. He’ll remember what works — what’s always worked — and then go about the unapologetically boring task of doing it over and over and over.

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