All winter, Freddie Freeman’s family could feel the turmoil in him. The all-star first baseman had just reached the peak of his career, winning a World Series with an Atlanta Braves franchise that drafted him, developed him, and fueled his rise to become one of baseball’s greatest stars.
But even after the end of the season, there was uncertainty.
The first-time free agent didn’t know if he would return to the only team he’d ever known. He wanted it and made that desire clear throughout the 2021 season, even after the Braves defeated the Houston Astros in Game 6.
However, the negotiations got stuck in the neutral state. Major League Baseball’s three-month suspension further delayed the process, and when offseason activity resumed last week, he was weary with frustration and still unsure of what was to come at the biggest crossroads of his career.
His family noticed that he wasn’t joking as much anymore, that he had trouble sleeping and had even lost weight from the stress.
“He tried to hide it, but we could see it,” his stepmother Alma Freeman said. “He wasn’t the same anymore.”
On Friday afternoon, the relaxed, smiling Freeman showed up at a spring training complex he’d never called home before. On the first day of his Dodger career, having just signed a six-year, $162 million deal with the club, the 32-year-old joked with new teammates and waved to new fans after posing for photos in his new uniform at a Press conference at Camelback Ranch officially unveiled.
Earlier in the week, the 32-year-old was heartbroken about not returning to the Braves, who ended any hope of a reunion when they traded for another first baseman, Oakland Athletics’ Matt Olson, on Monday.
But then the Dodgers came up with a rejuvenating alternative. After courting the Orange County native all winter, they offered him a chance to return to Southern California.
“We were talking a few weeks ago,” Freeman’s father Fred recalled in a Friday interview, “and he was like, ‘Dad, if I’m not a Brave, what do you think? Shall I go back east?”
“Freddie,” Fred replied, “if you don’t want to be brave, I want to take you home.”
“Me too,” Freddie said.
By the afternoon of December 1, as the clock ticked towards an owner-imposed lockout, Dodgers players, coaches and staff had gathered at the Terranea Resort on the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Mookie Betts wedding. As night fell, a party started inside — “she made it big,” Betts said, laughing at his wife Brianna — which included a live performance by rapper Nelly.
However, baseball operations president Andrew Friedman, manager Dave Roberts and third baseman Justin Turner had ducked outside. They huddled around a phone and called Freeman over the loudspeaker to make a lasting impression before the West Coast clock struck nine, which would trigger the lockdown and prevent any contact between players and team staff.
“We were like, ‘Let’s call him,'” Roberts recalled. “We wanted to be the last team to speak to him [before the lockout].”
On Friday, Friedman recalled her message to the free agent, who was bottle-feeding his infant son when they called him: “Hey, don’t forget us. Don’t forget us during this time.”
As the offseason began, the Dodgers had little expectation that Freeman would be a legitimate target and shared an industry belief that he would end up back with the Braves.
However, when free agency opened in November and Freeman was not yet signed, the Dodgers slowly escalated their pursuit. Turner, a friend of Freeman’s who for years pestered him to come to LA during games, said he texted Freeman sporadically over the winter “how good he’d look in Dodger blue.”
“I think we have to help Justin Turner,” Freeman said Friday. “His name kept popping up on my phone quite a lot throughout the process.”
Friedman chimed in jokingly, “There are definitely allegations of manipulation that can be made against Justin Turner.”
A few days after Thanksgiving, Roberts and Friedman presented a more detailed pitch during a more than hour-long Zoom meeting that further piqued Freeman’s curiosity.
“It was just such a simple conversation,” Freeman said.
“I think we need to help Justin Turner. His name kept popping up on my phone quite a bit throughout the process.”
And during the period leading up to the lockout, the Dodgers’ front office remained in constant communication with Freeman’s agents at Excel Sports Management, making their interest abundantly clear despite their belief that Atlanta was his most likely landing spot.
“We valued and respected his feelings towards Atlanta and told him that on the Zoom call,” Friedman said. “All I’m saying is, ‘Hey, neither of us really know exactly how these things are going to play out, but let’s keep in touch.'”
It was a stark contrast to Freeman’s experience with the Braves last year. Last spring he was disappointed when “nothing really happened” in the negotiations for an extension. Before the trading deadline, the Braves made an offer that ESPN reported was initially valued at $125 million over five years (later increased to $140 million).
Freeman said his representatives sent a counter-proposal, but talks stalled from there. As the off-season began, he said he only heard directly from Braves officials twice, simply check-in calls on either side of the lockout.
“The communication wasn’t there as we went through the offseason,” Freeman said.
A six-year contract was a top priority for Freeman. It was one more year than Paul Goldschmidt received in the $130 million contract he signed in 2019 with the St. Louis Cardinals, the best comparison among elite-level first basemen.
“All along, Freddie wanted years,” his father Fred said. “He made a lot of money. It’s not like he needs 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.”
However, the Braves failed to lure him with a better offer, leaving Freeman torn between his allegiance to Atlanta and wanting his preferred structure of a deal.
“I didn’t think I would ever be a free agent,” Freeman said. “I didn’t think that would become a reality. But ultimately it worked. And when that happens, all bets are off.”
Freeman and his father were at a Newport Beach gym when the last bridge back to Atlanta burned down.
Five days after the MLB lockout ended on March 10, little had changed in Freeman’s negotiations with the Braves. Despite fan pressure, fueled by the release of the team’s financial reports in February, which revealed more than $100 million in earnings, the team didn’t budge on their final offer. And Freeman didn’t back down until a reported March 12 deadline.
“I think they have a business plan… and they’re not going to deviate from it,” Fred said. “It’s just the way it is.”
Nonetheless, the younger Freeman still had hopes of a return to the Braves and hit the gym, believing his career with the team was not yet toast.
Then his phone started buzzing. Twitter notifications surfaced announcing that the Braves had struck a blockbuster trade with the A’s for Olson, a younger left-hander acquired to replace him as the club’s first baseman.
“To be honest,” he said, “I was blind.”
The rest of the night was a rollercoaster of emotions. Alma, Freeman’s stepmother, and Chelsea, his wife, cried. Freeman said he could barely speak for a few hours. His father also tried to come to terms with the news, and he came to terms with the fact that his son would no longer play for the Braves.
“I really thought he was going to spend the rest of his career there,” Fred said. “They didn’t talk, but it was still a shock.”
However, their desperation quickly gave rise to new opportunities.
Other teams have been linked with Freeman throughout the offseason, namely the New York Yankees, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Boston Red Sox. But it wasn’t until the Braves cut the cord with the Olson trade that interest really heated up.
“After that trade went down, I think every team was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, there’s an opportunity here,'” Freeman said. “That’s when things started to get going over the next 48 hours.”
It was also at this point that the Dodgers’ previous association with Freeman, which had resumed immediately after lockdown ended, was beginning to pay off.
After discussions Tuesday afternoon, the Dodgers filed several proposals late that night. Fred was due to meet his son at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, but by 8:30 a.m. that morning, Freeman was already calling to give his father all the details.
“They sent four suggestions and said, ‘Which one do you want?'”
-Fred Freeman, Freddie’s father
“They sent out four suggestions and said, ‘Which one do you want?'” Fred said. “It’s just amazing that anyone would do something like that. [Friedman] was upfront and honest and said, “Our CBT tax is this. That’s what we could do, that’s what it will cost us and why we can do it.’ He was open to everything.”
As the sides worked out details during that two-day stretch, Fred said two rival teams were trying to make late, aggressive pushes for Freeman’s signature, one of which offered to fly in to meet in person.
However, Freeman had already made up his mind.
“He said to me, ‘Dad, I’m tired, I want to play baseball,'” recalled Fred. “Even though he didn’t have a deal with the Dodgers [yet], he told the teams, ‘Don’t worry.’ He had made up his mind.”
The money (which, according to the terms of the contract filed by Major League Baseball Players Assn., includes $57 million in deferred payments) played a part, of course. So does the sixth year.
But while reflecting on the process Friday, Freeman said the result also had a lot to do with the Dodgers’ pitch, a sales job that planted images of a celebratory homecoming in his imagination.
“If the team that’s playing at home wants you to come home,” Freeman said, “I think that made it such a special and easy decision.”
As of Wednesday evening, only a few final details remained. Fred and Alma, who live in Villa Park, about 25 minutes from Freeman and Chelsea’s winter quarters in Corona del Mar, spent most of the evening with them, anxiously awaiting a settlement.
Since there was no news by the end of dinner around 8 p.m., they decided to go home. They thought maybe it would take another day to cross the finish line after all.
But 10 minutes after they got back home, Fred’s phone started ringing. His son called on FaceTime.
“The deal is closed,” Freeman exclaimed.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/story/2022-03-19/all-bets-are-off-the-inside-story-of-how-the-dodgers-lured-freddie-freeman-home The inside story of how the Dodgers lured Freddie Freeman home