All winter long, Freddie Freeman’s family could sense the turmoil within him. The All-Star first baseman had just reached the pinnacle of his career, winning a World Series with an Atlanta Braves franchise that had drafted him, developed him and nurtured his rise as one of baseball’s biggest stars.
Yet, as soon as the season ended, uncertainty began to set in.
The first-time free agent didn’t know whether he’d be returning to the only team he’d ever known. He wanted to, making that desire clear time and again during the 2021 season, including in the aftermath of the Braves’ Game 6 win against the Houston Astros.
Negotiations, however, remained stuck in neutral. Major League Baseball’s three-month lockout delayed the process further and by the time offseason activity resumed last week, he had become fatigued by the frustration, still unsure of what was to come at the biggest crossroads of his career.
His family noticed that he wasn’t joking around as much, that he was struggling to sleep and had even lost weight from the stress.
“He was trying to hide it, but we could see it,” his stepmom, Alma Freeman, said. “He wasn’t the same.”
On Friday afternoon, at a spring training complex he’d never called home before, the relaxed, smiling Freeman reappeared. On the first day of his Dodger career, fresh off signing a six-year, $162-million deal with the club, the 32-year-old joked with new teammates and waved to new fans, posing for pictures in his new uniform after he was formally introduced at a news conference at Camelback Ranch.
Earlier in the week, the 32-year-old had been heartbroken about not returning to the Braves, who extinguished any hope of a reunion when they traded for another first baseman, Matt Olson of the Oakland Athletics, on Monday.
But then the Dodgers came calling with a rejuvenating alternative. After courting the Orange County native throughout the winter, they presented him the chance to come home.
“We were talking a couple weeks ago,” Freeman’s father, Fred, recalled in a Friday interview, “and he said, ‘Dad, if I’m not a Brave, what do you think? Should I go back East?”
“Freddie," Fred replied, "if you’re not going to be a Brave, I want you home.’”
“So do I,” Freddie said.
On the afternoon of Dec. 1, as the clock ticked down toward an owner-imposed lockout, Dodgers players, coaches and front office personnel had gathered at the Terranea Resort along the Palos Verdes Peninsula for Mookie Betts’ wedding. As night fell, a party commenced inside — “she did it up big,” Betts said and laughed about his wife, Brianna — that included a live performance from rapper Nelly.
President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner, however, had ducked outside. Huddled around a phone, they called Freeman on speaker, eager to leave a lasting impression before the clock struck nine on the West Coast, which would trigger the lockout and bar all contact between players and team personnel.
“We were like, ‘Let’s go call him,’” Roberts recalled. “We wanted to be the last team to talk to him [before the lockout].”
On Friday, Friedman recalled their message to the free agent, who was feeding his baby son a bottle when they rang him up: “Hey, don’t forget about us. During this period, don’t forget about us.”
At the start of the offseason, the Dodgers had little expectation Freeman would be a legitimate target, sharing the industry-wide belief that he’d end up back with the Braves.
When free agency opened in November with Freeman still unsigned, however, the Dodgers slowly escalated their pursuit. Turner, a friend of Freeman’s who for years had badgered him during games about coming to L.A., said he sporadically texted Freeman over the winter about “how good he would look in Dodger blue.”
“I think we need to give an assist to Justin Turner,” Freeman said Friday. “His name popped up on my phone quite a bit throughout this whole process.”
Friedman jokingly chimed in: “There’s definitely tampering charges that can be filed against Justin Turner.”
A few days after Thanksgiving, Roberts and Friedman laid out a more extensive pitch during an hour-plus Zoom meeting that further piqued Freeman’s curiosity.
“It was just such an easy conversation,” Freeman said.
“I think we need to give an assist to Justin Turner. His name popped up on my phone quite a bit throughout this whole process.”
And throughout the pre-lockout period, the Dodgers front office stayed in constant communication with Freeman’s agents at Excel Sports Management, making their interest abundantly clear even though they remained convinced Atlanta was his most likely landing place.
“We appreciated and respected his feelings towards Atlanta, and said that to him on the Zoom call,” Friedman said. “Just saying, 'Hey, neither one of us is sure exactly how these things are gonna play out, but let's stay in touch.'”
It was a stark contrast to Freeman’s experience with the Braves over the last year. Last spring, he was disappointed when “nothing really happened” in negotiations over an extension. Before the trade deadline, the Braves presented an offer that ESPN reported was initially worth $125 million over five years (and was later increased to $140 million).
Freeman said his representatives sent a counterproposal, but that talks stagnated from there. Once the offseason began, he said he heard directly from Braves officials only twice, simply check-in calls on either side of the lockout.
“The communication wasn’t there as we went through the offseason,” Freeman said.
For Freeman, a six-year deal was a major priority. It was one year more than Paul Goldschmidt received in the $130-million contract he signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019, the best comparison among elite-level first basemen.
“All along, Freddie wanted years,” his dad, Fred, said. “He’s made a lot of money. It’s not like he has to break the bank. He wanted to be paid fairly, but he wants to play. He wanted that extra year because he wanted to play.”
The Braves, however, failed to tempt him with a better offer, leaving Freeman torn between his allegiance to Atlanta and desire for his preferred structure of a deal.
“I didn't think I'd ever become a free agent,” Freeman said. “I didn't think this was going to become a reality. But ultimately it did. And all bets are off when that happens.”
Freeman and his dad were at a gym in Newport Beach when the final bridge back to Atlanta burned.
Five days removed from the end of the MLB lockout on March 10, little had changed in Freeman’s negotiation with the Braves. Despite fan pressure fueled by the February release of the team’s financial reports, which revealed a profit of more than $100 million, the team didn’t budge on its final offer. And Freeman didn’t cave before a reported deadline March 12.
“I think they have a business plan … and they’re not going to deviate from it,” Fred said. “That’s the way it is.”
Nonetheless, the younger Freeman still held out hope of a return to the Braves, heading to the gym believing his career with the team wasn’t yet toast.
Then, his phone started to buzz. Twitter notifications popped up announcing the Braves had made the blockbuster trade for Olson, a younger left-handed slugger acquired to replace him as the club’s first baseman.
“To be honest,” he said, “I was blindsided.”
The rest of the night was an emotional roller coaster. Alma, Freeman's stepmom, and Chelsea, his wife, cried. Freeman said that, for a couple hours, he could hardly speak. His father tried to grapple with the news, too, coming to grips with the fact his son would no longer play for the Braves.
“I really thought he was going to be there the rest of his career,” Fred said. “They weren’t talking, but it was still a shock.”
From their despair, however, new opportunities quickly arose.
Other teams had been linked to Freeman throughout the offseason, namely the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox. But it wasn’t until the Braves cut the cord with the Olson trade that the interest really heated up.
“After that trade went down, I think every team realized, 'Whoa, wait a second, there's a chance here,'” Freeman said. “That's when things started to get going in that next 48 hours.”
That’s also when the Dodgers’ previous connection with Freeman, which had resumed immediately upon the end of the lockout, began to pay dividends, too.
After talks throughout the afternoon Tuesday, the Dodgers submitted several proposals late that night. Fred was scheduled to meet with his son at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, but by 8:30 that morning Freeman was already calling to tell his dad all the details.
“They sent over four proposals and were like, ‘Which one do you want?’”
-Fred Freeman, Freddie's dad
“They sent over four proposals and were like, ‘Which one do you want?’” Fred said. “It’s just amazing somebody would do that. [Friedman] was open and honest and said, ‘Our CBT tax is this. This is what we could do, this is what it is costing us and why we can do it.’ He was upfront about everything.”
As the sides hammered out details over that two-day stretch, Fred said two rival teams tried to make late, aggressive pushes for Freeman’s signature, one offering to fly in for an in-person meeting.
Freeman, however, had already made up his mind.
“He told me, ‘Dad, I’m tired, I want to play baseball,’” Fred recalled. “Even though he didn’t have a deal with the Dodgers [yet], he told the teams, ‘Don’t bother.’ He had decided.”
But while reflecting on the process Friday, Freeman said the outcome had a lot to do with the Dodgers’ pitch, too, a sales job that planted images of a celebratory homecoming in his imagination.
“When the team that plays at home wants you to come home,” Freeman said, “I think that’s what made it such a special and easy decision.”
All that was left Wednesday night were some final details. Fred and Alma, who live in Villa Park about 25 minutes from Freeman and Chelsea's winter home in Corona del Mar, spent most of the evening over at their place, anxiously awaiting a deal to be agreed.
With no news by the end of dinner around 8 p.m., they decided to head home. They thought maybe it would take one more day, after all, to get across the finish line.
But 10 minutes after they got back home, Fred’s phone began to ring. His son was calling over FaceTime.
“The deal is done,” Freeman exclaimed.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.