Freddie Freeman finally feels at home with Dodgers

Freddie Freeman finally feels at home with Dodgers

There are some days Freddie Freeman’s commute is simple.

He’ll take the 405 Freeway to the 110 Freeway, cruise into the far-left fast-track lane and arrive at Dodger Stadium from his house in Orange County in well under an hour.

Then there are days like Monday.

“I started on the 73,” Freeman said. “Then, I went to the 405, I went to the 605, to the 105, to the 710, to the 5, to the 101.”

He stopped for a breath, and a laugh.

“Today was every freeway you could possibly take,” he said. “But I actually did it alright. It was only like an hour, 10 minutes today, which is fine.”

For Freeman, it’s been perhaps the best and worst part of his transition back to Los Angeles this year.

The worst because, well, it’s Southland traffic.

“It’s hard to just see where I need to go,” he quipped, “and not move.”

But the best because, no matter how inconvenient the drive, it ends at a ballpark where the first baseman now feels he belongs.

“I’m just glad it was a fit,” Freeman said. “That’s what you want. You just want a fit.”

On the field, Freeman was a natural addition to the Dodgers lineup from the start.

He batted a team-best .325, the highest by a Dodgers player since Hanley Ramirez in 2013. He matched Trea Turner with a team-leading 100 RBIs, the first time the Dodgers had two players drive in that many since Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp in 2009. And he became the most consistent threat for a team that led the majors in scoring and recorded a franchise-record 111 wins.

But off the field, it wasn’t always easy.

After spending his entire professional career with the Atlanta Braves, his adjustment to life with the Dodgers wasn’t instant.

After an offseason that unfolded far differently than he ever expected, the shock of leaving Atlanta followed him to Los Angeles.

Seven months later, though, from the home dugout of his new home ballpark, Freeman looked back on the season with a smile planted on his face.

“I was just thankful these guys knew I was going through all those emotions,” he said. “No matter what I was going through, they were here for me.”

It wasn’t a traditional homecoming, even for a player with Southern California roots.

Freeman grew up in Orange County, not Los Angeles.

He was a childhood fan of the Angels, not the Dodgers.

Most of all, by the time he reached free agency this winter, he felt as much at home in Atlanta as he did on the West Coast, hopeful that after 15 years in the Braves organization, he would finish out his career with the club that originally drafted him out of El Modena High in Orange back in 2007.

Negotiations instead fell apart.

Freeman rejected a couple contract offers from the Braves last August. His agents at Excel Sports Management had two counterproposals rejected following the end of the MLB lockout in March.

Then, amid apparent miscommunication between the Braves, Freeman and his agents at Excel, the first baseman was “blindsided” by the Braves’ trade for his de facto replacement, Matt Olson, on March 14.

Freeman, who later fired his agents at Excel, declined to comment on various reports about the negotiations that surfaced in the aftermath — including whether Excel’s final March offers were presented as ultimatums, or if he was expecting the Braves had made any last-ditch counterproposal before the Olson trade (in a libel lawsuit filed in July by Excel against radio personality Doug Gottlieb, the agency claimed the team’s rejected proposals in August were the final formal offers extended by the Braves).

Three days after the Olson trade, Freeman signed with the Dodgers. Later that week, fans chanted his name as he was publicly introduced at Camelback Ranch.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman announces the arrival of Freddie Freeman on March 18 in Phoenix.

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, left, announces the arrival of Freddie Freeman on March 18 in Phoenix.

(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Outwardly, he put on a smile and claimed he’d moved on from his shock divorce with the Braves.

But deep down, he conceded this week, he still felt a wave of emotions in its wake.

“It was a tough couple months at the beginning,” he said. “You had to go through all those emotions.”

And it all came to a head when he returned to Atlanta in late June.

For much of that weekend, Freeman was in tears. He got choked up at rousing ovations from his old home crowd. He was red-eyed when presented his 2021 World Series ring by his old manager Brian Snitker. He even broke down during a news conference with the Atlanta press.

“It was a tough couple months at the beginning. You had to go through all those emotions.”

— Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman

He had expected it to be an emotional reunion. But even he was surprised about how raw it all felt, at how many unresolved feelings that came gushing to the forefront.

“I said at that press conference [in Atlanta] that I wasn’t really looking for closure,” he recalled this week.

Once it was over, however, “that’s when the two-ton boulder came off my shoulder,” he said, adding: “That’s when I knew my feet were in the ground, that I had got everything settled.”

The text was part thank-you, part apology, part promise.

The day after the Dodgers left Atlanta, Freeman sent a message in a roster-wide group chat, thanking his new teammates for “bearing with me as I go through all this” and “letting me go through what I needed to go through.”

“It was just a way of saying, I’m here,” Freeman added. “I know I’ve been going up and down, weaving, trying to figure it all out. But I’m present and ready to roll.”

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman receives his World Series championship ring from Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker.

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman receives his World Series championship ring from Atlanta Braves manager Brian Snitker before a game on June 24 in Atlanta.

(Butch Dill / Associated Press)

Freeman’s early-season emotions hadn’t gone unnoticed in the Dodgers clubhouse.

No players had been publicly critical. Manager Dave Roberts emphatically denied Freeman’s tearful return to Atlanta was a distraction to the team. Freeman’s performance wasn’t suffering, either, with the left-handed slugger batting over .300 during the season’s first three months.

Yet, there was a subtle awkwardness to his start in Los Angeles, as well.

Widely circulated comments from pitcher Clayton Kershaw, in which the club’s longest-tenured player suggested Freeman might not have been comfortable with the Dodgers yet and hoped they weren’t “second fiddle” to the Braves, seemed to hint at a quiet disconnect.

Roberts also felt the first baseman wasn’t fully settled, saying this week that “leading up to that point, there were a lot of questions, anxiety, sadness, a lot of unresolved feelings — and understandably so.”

In retrospect, Freeman acknowledged his difficulties early in the transition, too.

“I knew that I was navigating so much stuff,” he said. “I would sit at my locker and just zone out, and the next thing you know, it was an hour later, and I hadn’t talked to anybody.”

After the Atlanta series, however, things started to change.

He started to open up completely to his new team.

“Tyler Anderson jokes that I became a Dodger after that series,” Freeman said with a laugh.

The same day Freeman sent the group text, he and Kershaw also spoke individually, clearing the air days after the pitcher’s “second fiddle” quote went viral.

President of baseball operations Andrew Friedman even got a call from the first baseman, who wanted to say he was “sorry it took three months” to fully move past his departure from the Braves.

“Sorry for three months?” Freeman recalled Friedman telling him. “I thought it was gonna take you a year. You don’t just get over that.”

Then, Freeman made his new boss a promise.

“I’m good,” he said. “Let’s take off.”

As the Dodgers hit their stride during the second half of the season, winning 65 of their final 88 games following the road trip that included the Atlanta series, everyone from Friedman to Roberts to Justin Turner and Mookie Betts agreed this year’s Dodgers team was one of the closest and most communicative of any they’ve had in recent memory.

When hitting coach Brant Brown was asked about the phenomenon last month, he stopped a reporter mid-question.

“You mean the Freddie effect?”

Indeed, as Freeman elevated his game down the stretch — he batted .341 over those final 85 games, by far the best mark of any hitter in the majors — his influence in the clubhouse also grew.

To younger hitters, especially fellow left-handed ones such as Gavin Lux, Freeman became a mentor, imparting wisdom in hitters meetings every time he talked about his plan of attack against specific pitchers.

“It’s interesting to see,” Lux said. “He might have a totally different approach than I do … So it’s cool to kind of pick and choose and see what you like.”

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman catches a pop-up hit by the San Francisco Giants' Wilmer Flores.

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) catches a pop-up hit by the San Francisco Giants’ Wilmer Flores in front of second baseman Gavin Lux, left, and right fielder Mookie Betts during the seventh inning in San Francisco on Sept. 17.

(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

“I think we all have seen a different Freddie. More openness. More jovial. The weight of the world is no longer on his shoulder.”

— Dodgers manager Dave Roberts

Freeman grew tighter with other superstars on the team over the year, too, forming an especially close bond with Betts — who credited Freeman, along with shortstop Trea Turner, with helping him develop a more aggressive approach at the plate this year.

“They’re really my backbones and who I talk to,” Betts said.

Brown credited Freeman with setting an example with his approach at the plate, especially in leverage situations.

“He does his homework and knows every at-bat and every pitch is important,” Brown said. “He competes when he doesn’t feel good, takes hits when it’s necessary. All the things that good teams do.”

During the club’s final homestand this week, Freeman was named the club’s Roy Campanella Award winner, an honor given to the “most inspirational Dodger” that is voted on by players and coaches.

“I think we all have seen a different Freddie,” Roberts said. “More openness. More jovial. The weight of the world is no longer on his shoulder.”

After the final game of the regular season, that natural comfort was once again on display.

As he waited for a horde of media members to finish a scrum with Trea Turner, whose locker is next to Freeman’s in the back corner of the Dodgers’ clubhouse, Freeman joked for the shortstop to hurry, knowing the long commute that awaited him at 5 o’clock on a weekday.

When it was his turn to address reporters, Freeman laughed off narrowly missing the batting title, after coming up one hit short of beating the New York Mets’ Jeff McNeil for the award.

He deemed his regular-season performance as a success, having accomplished his annual goals of batting .300, posting a .900 OPS and reaching both 100 runs scored and driven in.

And then, he looked forward to the postseason path lying ahead, happy that after an often emotional but ultimately rewarding first year with the Dodgers, his debut season in Los Angeles wasn’t done yet.

“They were bumpers as I was getting to this end point,” Freeman said of his new teammates, coaches and colleagues with the Dodgers, using his hands to mimic the side guards of a bowling alley. “There were a lot of bumpers here. That’s what I needed.”

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