ATLANTA — Freddie Freeman, the longtime Atlanta star and the reigning winner of the National League Most Valuable Player Award, wants you to have a good time when you visit his home.
Even if you’re on the other side, he wants you to feel welcome. He may compliment you. He may make you laugh. He may lend a supportive ear or offer a few suggestions. But you can’t kick off your shoes and put your feet up because, of course, this isn’t his actual house. It’s first base, his much-visited home on the field for the past 11 major league seasons.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest game in the world, if you get a base hit and you come to first base, I’m going to tell you, ‘Nice job, nice hit,’” Freeman said recently.
“That’s just who I am. I know how hard this game is. I know how hard it is to get a base hit in a major league baseball game. No matter if you just put your team up 5-4 in the top of the ninth inning, I’ll come over and pat you right on the leg and say, ‘Way to swing it.’”
Since the Hall of Famer Chipper Jones retired in 2012, Freeman has been the face of the Atlanta franchise. He was part of playoff teams in 2010, 2012 and 2013. He signed an eight-year $135 million extension before the 2014 season and guided the team through lean rebuilding years. Freeman, a five-time All-Star, has remained a steady force as Atlanta surged back into contention, with four straight National League East division titles from 2018 to this season. And on Friday, he will guide them again as they take on the Milwaukee Brewers in a National League division series in the first step in Atlanta’s pursuit of its first title since 1995.
To his team, Freeman, 32, is a powerful left-handed hitter who anchors the Atlanta lineup (he has hit .300 or better in six seasons and 20 home runs or more in eight seasons), plays every day (he has missed just six of Atlanta’s 545 games over the past four seasons) and is the respected, smiley, hug-giving leader in the clubhouse. Even Freeman’s opponents feel the same way about him because of how he treats them when they visit him on the field.
“He’s a competitor but, at the same time, he appreciates the game,” said Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo, a friend and longtime rival from his time with the Chicago Cubs. “It’s not easy to have success in this league and, when guys do, congratulating them is good sportsmanship. And he always seems to be having a good time.”
While some first basemen are quieter, Freeman is chatty, jokey and observant. He makes sure to compliment opponents on their small successes and notable achievements. He remembers how nervous he was during his major league debut on Sept. 1, 2010 so he makes sure to notice who is playing his first game and congratulate him.
“There is no person that doesn’t like Freddie Freeman in the league,” said Miguel Rojas, the Miami Marlins shortstop and a frequent Freeman opponent because they share a division. Added Mets outfielder Kevin Pillar: “Part of being first basemen is you have to be a little bit outgoing and you can tell most first basemen’s mood by their previous at-bat or how they’re doing. Not Freddie.”
When Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm smashed his first career home run last season, on the road no less, Freeman remembered later that game and praised him. Sometimes, Freeman said, his opponents are taken aback by his compliments for even mundane hits, but they quickly understand why he gives them.
“This is fun and it’s a game,” Freeman said. “I know we’re trying to beat each other — believe me, just because I say ‘good job’ doesn’t mean I’m not trying to beat you. I realize I’ve been in this game a long time so I want you to just enjoy it, too. The game is so hard and we put so much pressure on ourselves.”
In August, the Cincinnati Reds were visiting Atlanta’s Truist Park and rookie catcher Tyler Stephenson, an Atlanta native, was playing at home for the first time in his career. Even though Stephenson failed to get a hit in his first two games, he reached base on a walk and an error. Still, Stephenson’s family and friends cheered, and Freeman noticed. At first base, Freeman offered some encouragement.
“I was like, ‘Just think of what happens when you actually get a hit? I hope you get a hit,’” he said. “And the next day he gets three hits and hits a homer, I told him, ‘Not that. I don’t need you to do that.’ I just wanted him to get a hit because they were going nuts without him even getting a hit.’”
Roughly once or twice every game, Freeman said an opposing player will ask him for hitting advice. When Atlanta was in San Diego late last month, Padres second baseman Adam Frazier, an All-Star this season with Pittsburgh, wanted to talk about approaches to hitting.
“Oh, I’ll give hitting tips all day long,” he said. “I want people to succeed. I never want anybody to fail.”
Older generations of players would likely cringe at that — the Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson famously hated fraternizing with rivals. But the game, Freeman said, has changed for good reason.
Freeman sees all of his opponents as part of a larger baseball family. He is close friends with many. They often share the same agency or live near each other in the off-season or have mutual friends or end up being teammates one day. And, he said, when talking about hitting on the basepaths, maybe he can learn a thing or two from them.
“If you’re not trying to learn in this game, you’re going to be in quicksand,” he said, adding later, “If you’re doing something in your approach or your plan at the plate that might click for me and unlock something, why wouldn’t I want to hear that? When you get drafted, it’s not like you’re forced to be enemies.”
Freeman doesn’t just help his rivals, though. Sometimes, he simply shares a laugh with them or toys with them.
When pitcher Julio Teheran was with Atlanta, Freeman said he tried chatting up opposing base runners he didn’t know well to distract them enough to allow Teheran to pick them off at first base.
Cameras recently caught Freeman and the Mets superstar pitcher Jacob deGrom messing with each other during games. (Freeman said they have been doing this for at least four years.) On days when deGrom is not pitching, he signals from the dugout to Freeman at first base and tells him where to stand, like a coach would — but on the same team.
“He’ll tell me to scoot over and stuff like that,” Freeman said. “I’ll do it as long as it’s not drastic. I think he likes to tell people in the dugout, ‘Look at what I’m doing.’”
The two have grown close over the years, with Freeman and deGrom texting and video calling each other. Freeman said he doesn’t do anything back to deGrom on the field but quipped, “I just make fun of him because he can’t stay healthy.”
Even when Freeman began the 2021 season slowly at the plate, his opponents said he maintained the same demeanor. With a torrid summer, he finished the regular season hitting .300 with 31 home runs and 83 runs batted in. When he won the 2020 N.L. M.V.P. during the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, he hit .341 with 13 home runs.
This season, though, is the last in Freeman’s contract. Over the weekend, he said he was “shocked” that he was nearing free agency without a new deal, particularly since both sides have expressed repeated interest in staying together.
As team executives tore down the roster and rebuilt it with young prospects, like shortstop Dansby Swanson, second baseman Ozzie Albies and outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr., Freeman believed in their plan. As those players blossomed into stars, more emerged (like pitcher Max Fried and third baseman Austin Riley) and Atlanta won, the happy jokester at first base wants nothing more than to remain.
“Unfortunately this is a business and I am 32 years old and they got to weigh that,” he said. “But as long as I keep playing well, it is what it is. This group we have here, and how good it is and how good it has continued to be, how do you not want to be a part of that?”