Loyalty, in the eye of the beholder, still

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman, hitting his 2021 World Series Game Six home run, but the face of the Braves no more. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Let’s talk about “loyalty.” But let’s do it reasonably. It never truly existed in baseball, whether during the reserve era or the free agency era. In the former, teams could trade or sell players at will and players had no choice in the matter, but in the latter a player has the right to play his job market once his contract expires.

Today’s players also have the rights to insert into their contracts lists of teams to which they’d consent to be dealt. Often enough, too, their contracts include clauses allowing them to opt out of their incumbent deals and test their markets a little earlier.

Joe and Jane Fan often still think it’s the players who’ve lost the meaning of the word “loyalty.” They need reminders that players learn or re-learn that loyalty is too often in the eye of the beholder, especially among their employers. The defending world champion Braves just handed them a beauty of a reminder.

Their franchise face since around 2011 (when he finished second to his then-teammate Craig Kimbrel as the National League’s Rookie of the Year), Freddie Freeman remains an unsigned free agent, albeit one whose heart and soul told him there was still no place like home so long as the Braves would do right by him in return for him having done so right so long by them.

The Braves elected instead to trade for another first baseman, Matt Olson, who looks a lot like Freeman on the surface and is four and a half years younger. Then, seeming to add insult to grievous injury, the Braves managed somehow to sign Olson to an eight-year, $168 million contract extension within 24 hours or so after making the deal to make him a Brave in the first place.

Throw in the four prospects the Braves sent the Athletics to make Olson Freeman’s successor, and the Braves paid a phenomenal price for deciding that even Freeman’s attachment to the team by which he’d done nothing but right over his first twelve seasons didn’t necessarily matter when it came to cold, hard business.

All of a sudden, it didn’t matter that Freeman kept the faith as the Braves went from reconstruction to contention to a return to the Promised Land at long enough last. (Until last fall, they hadn’t gotten there since the first year of Bill Clinton’s second term in the White House.)

Signing an eight-year deal to stay the course and stay a Brave, which is just what Freeman did in 2014, he kept that faith during four putrid seasons followed by four of the Braves returning to contention. The climax only began when Freeman parked a Josh Hader service in the left center field seats for what proved the game and 2021 division series win that sent them to the National League Championship Series in the first place.

It finished when Freeman delivered the final two runs of the Braves’ emphatic World Series-winning Game Six triumph in Houston, an RBI double to the back of left center field in the top of the fifth, and a home run bounding off the Phillips 66 porch above Minute Maid Park’s center field in the top of the seventh. And, when he caught the final out of the set as shortstop Dansby Swanson had to throw to first on Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel’s grounder.

“It’s a situation unlikely to repeat itself,” writes Yahoo! Sports’s Zack Crizer. “Wrack your brain all you want, and you probably won’t come up with a star who bridged a rebuild quite like Freeman. He was an established, nine-figure extension-worthy player when the Braves blew it up. And he was an established, nine-figure free-agent-to-be when their reincarnation reached the pinnacle.”

And he climaxed the Braves’ improbable self-resurrection from midway last year—when their entire outfield needed to be rebuilt on the play—to hoisting one of commissioner Rob Manfred’s pieces of metal when it all ended with a flourish.

Those comparing Olson now to Freeman at the same age might care to examine both over the six seasons and counting of Olson’s career but a little deeper than normal. Like Freeman, Olson can hit and slug. Olson’s a slightly better defender at first base, but if you measure them according to my Real Batting Average metric—total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances—there’s a decent size gulf between them:

Player, 2016-2021 PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Freddie Freeman 2868 1370 362 62 15 33 .642
Matt Olson 2369 1046 272 25 14 35 .588

A 54-point gulf between them. In fairness, though, Olson spent his first six seasons with a none-too-great home park in which to hit, and he’s been measurably better on the road so far. Freeman has been practically the same hitter at home or on the road over his career thus far. But give Olson a park like Freeman’s Truist Park in which to hit at home, and he would get a lot, lot closer to Freeman’s performance papers.

So maybe, big maybe, in pure baseball terms the Braves switched a Freeman with a Freeman. If so, why on earth do it in the first place when it involves not just one of the game’s elite first basemen but a still-young man who was only too happy and proud to wear the Braves uniform and would have loved nothing more than to wear it to the end of his playing days?

The Braves are said to have offered Freeman five years to come, and Freeman is said to have wanted the sixth. Adjusted for inflation, Freeman’s now-expired eight-year extension equals the one Olson has now signed. As Crizer observes dryly, the Braves basically signed a slightly younger Freeman.

But Olson’s not Freeman redux just yet. We don’t know what kind of clubhouse cred Olson will prove to develop as a Brave. Freeman had such cred to burn. Assorted now-former Freeman teammates spoke of losing him as just about a death in the family, about losing a guy who wasn’t just a game or season-changing player but a guy who reached to pull everyone else up with him.

What of Freeman’s age? Well, now. He probably has a better chance of keeping his formidable bat for the entire eight seasons to come than his legs and reflexes at first base. The designated hitter becomes permanent in the National League this year. It’s entirely conceivable that the Braves re-signing Freeman for just the six years he sought meant they’d keep a quality first baseman for its first four and still have a quality DH over the final two.

Even general manager Alex Anthopolous sounded as though he’d made the Olson deal at all but gunpoint. In the wake of revelations that the Braves’ owners, Liberty Media, generated such revenues and profit last year that put the lie to the owner-side pleas that investing in baseball isn’t investing profitably, it sounds even more now as though, to the Braves, loyalty was about as valuable as Major Strasser described human life in Casablanca.

Olson to his credit isn’t even thinking about trying to “replace” Freeman. “I’m just going to go out there and do what Matt Olson does,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. So far, so good, for him, never mind that you can’t remember Freeman ever referring to himself in the third person.

But do you think they’re going to love Freeman’s clubhouse embrace and his penchant for the lefthanded inside-out swing in Boston? (They need anything resembling a quality first baseman who can hit.) In San Diego? (They’re unafraid to spend and they’re shopping incumbent Eric Hosmer, who’s no Freddie Freeman and has barely been an Eric Hosmer since leaving Kansas City.) In Toronto? In Los Angeles?

Freeman meant enough to the Braves, their fan base, and even the opponents who respected and, yes, enjoyed him, but they meant something to him, too.

“We’d lost 97 games six years ago. And we’re looking at four straight division titles [since] and a world championship now,” Freeman said in a television interview right after the World Series ended in triumph. “It’s just a testament to this organisation, the guys they brought in, the front office, they pushed all the right buttons and we played so well for the last three months . . . Being in this organisation means everything to me . . . Everyone knows this is a crazy game, a crazy business, but everyone knows where my heart is, and this is the Atlanta Braves.”

The Olson deal sealing Freeman’s future away from Atlanta reminds one who was there of the manner in which a certain university president, destined to become a baseball commissioner, nailed how Mets fans felt when contentious negotiations (and scurrilous media attacks) turned into the unceremonious purge of a certain Hall of Fame pitcher in 1977:

[A]mong all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and . . . such a man is to be cherished, not sold.

Or, left to the waiting arms of another team for whom those very qualities of heart, mind, and body might mean another trip to the postseason that includes another lease upon the Promised Land.

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