In his race with Yasiel Puig for the final spot on the National League All-Star team, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman offered fans who voted for him a pair of rewards: tickets to a Braves game and a hug. The tickets are but a consolation prize. Hugging Freeman is like praying with the Dalai Lama or drinking with Wade Boggs.
Nobody in sports gives hugs with the vigor, technical acumen and enthusiasm of Freeman – and after he shocked Puig to win the Final Vote on Thursday afternoon, he owed them to the people who cast 19.7 million votes for him. Though he tries to save hugs for home runs and victories, on occasion Freeman's emotions will overwhelm him and prompt spontaneous outbursts of dugout embrace. After two seasons of under-the-radar hugging, Freeman has gone viral this year. There is a Tumblr called Freddie Freeman Hugging People. The Braves erected a billboard off Interstate 75 touting "Free Hugs" and a shot a commercial with Freeman, Braves second baseman Dan Uggla and a hugging coach.
As if they needed one.
"Sometimes you've got to wait for the right moment for everyone to release it to the world," Freeman said. "I guess it took a couple years, but it's out there now. I think this world needs a little more hugging in their lives."
The evolution of Freeman's hugs parallels his ascendant career. Fully healthy after struggling with vision problems last season, Freeman, entering play Thursday, is hitting .307/.388/.470 with five of his nine home runs giving Atlanta the lead. For each of those, and nearly all of the 100 other homers hit by teammates, Freeman has unleashed one of his patented squeezes.
"You can't help but embrace a big, cuddly, 6-5 giant when he wants to give you a hug," Uggla said. "His hugs are genuine. There is nothing fake about 'em. He's a big, strong man. But he handles with care. He doesn't give strong, crazy, jerk-around hugs."
This is the truth. A survey of Braves players affirmed Freeman's tenderness. Catcher Brian McCann went so far as to call Freeman "gentle," a notion Freeman himself did not dismiss, though he made sure to establish certain rules.
If another team starts hugging like the Braves, he said, "They'd better cite their source."
Weak hugs are for weak people.
Bro hugs – with one hand clasped following a high five and the other wrapped around the recipient's shoulder – are strictly prohibited.
"As long as it's skin to skin, wrapped around – you've got to embrace it," Freeman said. "You can't try to be cool. Some people need to do the one arm, so they're not fully embraced. No. No way. I'm an embracer. I'm gonna bring you in, get real close. I'm fully invested in it."
The investment in Freeman by fans has been perhaps the most shocking part of the run-up to the All-Star Game. Puig, the biggest story in baseball over the last month, was thought to be a shoo-in for the all-online vote. The Braves made a smart tactical move, aligning with Toronto's Steve Delabar to give Freeman the power of all of Canada, and Freeman's popularity throughout the southeast compounded it to give him the lead going into the last day of voting.
The hug-for-votes ploy was his candidacy's final push. Freeman's reputation as the game's best hugger won his #VoteFreddie hashtag more support on Twitter, even if his teammates aren't certain that he's even the huggingest of all Braves.
"If anyone can challenge him, it's me," Uggla said. "I've always been told by my aunts I'm the best hugger in the world. When I was younger and would be so excited to see them, I'd squeeze 'em as hard as I could. I earned that reputation."
"Daniel is pretty good," Freeman admitted. "Uggs is good at hugging. Put an H on it and it's Huggla."
A new nickname perhaps?
"I would never call him that," Freeman said. "It's terrible."
"It does make sense," Uggla countered. "People say they want a Huggla from Uggla. I think it's pretty cool."
Beyond the debate over hugging supremacy, Uggla and Freeman have two common goals: win a World Series with the Braves, whose five-game lead in the NL East is the biggest in baseball, and get manager Fredi Gonzalez to embrace the culture of embrace.
Gonzalez is not a hugger. Freeman tries to reason with him: dugout hugs – hugouts? – mean something good is happening. Gonzalez is not convinced.
"I'm more of a handshake-type guy," he said. "I hug my kids, and I hug my wife."
Fair enough. Not everyone can compete with Freeman and Uggla, Craig Kimbrel and David Carpenter, all of the Braves' top huggers. It takes time to develop a malleable stoop – one height for the 5-foot-9 Uggla, another for the 6-foot-5 Jason Heyward – without looking awkward. It takes desire to understand a hugee's preferences – long or quick, arms under or over, silent or soundtracked.
Nobody – not even Huggla – does that like Freeman.
"Coming in here and having fun with the guys, loving everyone, playing this game – it's a lot of fun," Freeman said. "You can take it too seriously. I don't want this to feel like a job. And this team is a perfect example of having fun.
"And we get to hug dudes every single day."
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