Brothers in baseball and bereavement

Jose Iglesias, Freddie Freeman

Iglesias mourned his father after his first hit of the season Friday; Freeman hugged and empathised with him.

José Iglesias signed with the Rockies in March. For the first ten seasons of his career, his father, Candelario, who’d played professionally in Cuba, saw over three thousand of his plate appearances. The elder Iglesias died a few weeks before Opening Day; the son still grieves even as he plays the game father and son loved together.

The son tagged his first base hit against Dodgers starter Walker Buehler in the bottom of the second Friday. He couldn’t fight his emotion as he arrived, nor could he resist a gesture heavenward. And the Dodgers’ new first baseman, Freddie Freeman, wouldn’t let him fight or resist either.

Freeman asked what was wrong. The Rockies shortstop acknowledged his grief over losing his father. Freeman—the defending World Series MVP with last year’s Braves, who has never been shy about his own grief following his mother’s death when he was ten—hugged Iglesias by his head, leaned it against his shoulder a moment, then gave him a few fraternal pats on the shoulder and head before play continued.

Iglesias had just knocked a run home to stake the Rockies to an early 2-0 lead (he went 1-for-4 on the day) that would turn into a 5-3 Dodgers win, with no small help from Freeman, who struck out, was hit by a pitch, then had a hand in the Dodgers’ five-run fourth by walking, going first to third on an RBI base hit, and scoring on a wild pitch, before he beat out an infield hit in the sixth (he was stranded) and looking at a third strike in the eighth.

But in the second inning, Freeman and Iglesias weren’t opponents but brothers in parental bereavement. “There’s nothing harder than losing a parent,” Freeman said to Iglesias before the game resumed.

“He was everything to me,” Iglesias said of the father who’d once played shortstop, too,  but would come home to play ball with his son after long post-baseball days labouring in a factory for $10 a day in Castro’s Cuba. [The younger Iglesias defected in 2008.] “His dream was to watch me in the big leagues. He told me once ‘If I can watch you play for one day, I’ll be good to go after that.’ He watched me play for ten years . . . he’s in a better place now, watching me play every day.”

“We’ll never know what any of us are going through in life,” Freeman told reporters postgame.

I think it just kind of reminds you to just have some compassion, some humility, and just be kind to others. That’s what’s so special about baseball too is you get to be around so many great people and so many people that just care about and love the game of baseball. His father was shining down on him to be able to get that single.

“You never forget your dad. All I could do is give him a hug. You know, when you lose a parent, all you can do is just give that person a hug. There are no words. No word is really going to be enough. Just let that person know you care about him.

“It was a beautiful moment,” Iglesias said, “beyond baseball, we’re human beings. That was very nice of Freddie.”

Freeman’s mother, Rosemary, died of melanoma in 2000. The son who was ten at that time can never forget climbing aboard her hospital bed despite his size for his age just to stay close to her, believing to his ten-year-old soul that she’d recover.

“Her pain was a twenty out on a scale of ten and she never said one word,” Freeman told ESPN’s Buster Olney for a profile a year ago. “She let us crawl in bed and she tried to be as much as she could to us, even though she had to lay there. And she was more than that, a mom, even in those times. We obviously thought she was going to beat it . . . She did everything she could to beat that disease.”

So Freeman eventually held on to his father. Now, an opponent pulling up to first base let his grief over his father’s death, over his father no longer seeing him play except from a heavenly perch, overcome him. Freeman more than most understands such loss, no matter what age parental bereavement comes, and cares. He cares enough not to give a damn who’d object to his comforting a stricken opponent.

“We have different uniforms on,” Freeman said, “but you take the uniforms off and we’re all friends in this game. That’s the key. That’s the beauty of this sport. We all switch teams throughout our careers so you get to come across a lot of amazing people. From the looks of it, [Iglesias’s] family loves baseball just as much as we do, so I’m just glad to be able to be a part of anything I could do for him.”

Bet that Rosemary Freeman and Candelario Iglesias sat together in the Elysian Fields exchanging hugs and agreeing that there’s one word for what Rosemary’s son did for Candelario’s in the second inning. The word is class.

Freeman gets the sixth year he wanted—from the Dodgers

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman, crossing the plate after hitting what proved last fall’s NLDS-winning home run gainst Josh Hader and the Brewers. The Dodgers now give him what the Braves wouldn’t.

Freddie Freeman got what he wanted most . . . from the Dodgers. A sixth year on his next contract. The dollars are nothing to dismiss at $162 million total and $27 million annual value. And Freeman now has the pleasure of playing for the team stationed about an hour away from where he grew up in southern California.

The Dodgers weren’t the only team in play for Freeman if the Braves inexplicably and falsely decided they couldn’t afford to give him the sixth year he wanted. The Padres had eyes for him. So did the Blue Jays. So did the Red Sox. Aside from the benefits the Red Sox would have reaped from Freeman’s hitting and leadership style, there’d have been another mad fun factor.

The Yankees re-upped Anthony Rizzo after all on a fresh deal. Rizzo and Freeman have a long-standing friendship that translates now and then to deliciously hilarious moments on the field together. Especially Rizzo, sent to pitch to Freeman while the Braves were blowing the Cubs out last April, striking Freeman out swinging on five pitches in the bottom of the seventh last April.

The laughter between the pair was priceless. In the thick of the usual Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, it would have been much needed levity if the Yankees might be blowing the Red Sox out and Red Sox manager Alex Cora could have ordered Freeman to the mound to pitch to Rizzo; and, if Freeman could have exacted friendly revenge by striking Rizzo out.

So much for fields of dreams. Right now that sound you hear is Dodger fans crowing, “We had him all the way!” From the moment Freeman hit his first free agency after his Braves won last year’s World Series, you couldn’t swing a bat without it smashing into the hind quarters of a Dodger fan believing to his or her soul that a Dodger uniform would be the next wardrobe addition for the native of Villa Park, California, just a few miles east of Anaheim.

From the same moment, though, you couldn’t swing a bat with it smashing into the hind quarters of a Braves fan praying from his or her soul that the Braves, somehow, some way, would do right by the franchise face who’d done nothing but right by them from the moment he first turned up at first base in Braves’ silks.

Then, during the owners’ lockout, when Braves owner Liberty Media’s 2021 financials were released as mandatory for a publicly-traded corporation, you saw just the Braves’ considerable 2021 revenues and very considerable 2021 profit. And you realised any talk of the Braves being “unable” to afford to make Freeman a Brave for life was a shameless lie.

This Braves ownership couldn’t bring itself to do what a previous Braves ownership did whenever Hall of Fame third baseman/former franchise face Chipper Jones came to within striking distance of free agency, get him extended or signed to a coming new deal before he could hit the market, knowing Jones’s baseball heart remained with them.

This Braves ownership preferred to spend less on an import first baseman, four years younger than Freeman, dealing for him a day before extending him eight years and $168 million worth. Matt Olson won’t earn per season what Freeman will, and he may well shake out as essentially the Braves having swapped a Freeman for a Freeman Redux. May.

But the Braves’ corporate overlords sent the message clear enough and shameful enough: The only ones in baseball expected to be loyal are the players. Just the way they always were. This isn’t purely a free agency era thing, and anyone who says otherwise either needs a refresher in baseball history or is too willfully blind to allow it.

Have a good gander at the roll of Hall of Famers whose careers were entirely or mostly in the reserve era, the era before Andy Messersmith finally finished in 1975 what Curt Flood began in 1970. Those would be players elected before 1980. There are 127 of them. Now: 89 played for two teams at minimum; fourteen played for five teams at minimum. That would leave you with (count them) 24 single-team Hall of Famers from the reserve era.

Let’s look at the Hall of Famers elected after 1980, men whose careers careened into the free agency era or who played all or most of their careers during the era. There are sixteen such single-team Hall of Famers—including Jones. The free agency era has yet to surpass the reserve era for length, so it’s fair to say that both eras sent an equivalent portion of single-team players to Cooperstown.

What Joe and Jane Fan and no few writers (who really ought to know better) still forget is that, during the reserve era, players had absolutely no say in where they played, and owners could and did trade or sell them at will, and not always for reasons that made purely baseball sense.

Fans and writers alike have broadened their view in recent times, appropriately. You could see more than the fans and writers fuming over the owners’ lockout before it was finally resolved and baseball could get back to the serious work of play.

You could see them fume over the prospect that the Braves would do exactly as they did, declaring expendable the guy who stayed the course from the lows to the competitive highs, all the way to their first World Series triumph since the Clinton Administration. If the Braves wouldn’t give Freeman the sixth year he wanted, the Dodgers were only too willing.

That’s going to be some packed Dodger lineup coming your way. With a small pack of All-Stars including five-timer Freeman. With a small pack of MVP winners, including Freeman, apparently resurgent Cody Bellinger, and Mookie Betts. With Trea (The Slider) Turner acquired at last year’s trade deadline now able to play his natural position at shortstop following Corey Seager’s free agency departure to Texas. With aging but still effective future Hall of Famer Clayton Kershaw re-upping for 2022 at least.

If Olson gives the Braves both solid performance on the field and at the plate, and proves to be a solid clubhouse presence, that might take some of the sting of losing Freeman away. Some. Olson knows he might “succeed” Freeman without truly “replacing” him. Returning Ronald Acuna, Jr. knows he, too, might “succeed” Freeman as the Braves’ face without truly replacing him.

But if the Dodgers tangle with the Braves in the postseason to come, the Braves may learn the hard way what their ownership’s concept of “loyalty” can cost in more ways than one. May.

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.

About those “unprofitable” franchises, continued

Freddie Freeman

Freddie Freeman—here hitting his World Series Game Six home run—is really more affordable for the Braves to re-sign than you think . . . but that’s not the only reason the Braves’ disclosed financials should give pause while the owners’ lockout continues apace. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

The answer is: $564 million dollars. The correct question: How much revenue did the world champion Braves generate in 2021? “Where the you-know-what did you come up with that figure?” I can hear you ask. Allow me to steer you toward Forbes contributor Maury Brown.

“Liberty Media reported their 2021 year-end financial report,” Brown tweeted Friday, “and with it the Braves posted $20 million in operating income and adjusted [operating income before depreciation and amortization] was $104 million. Baseball revenues per game over the 12 months was $6 million.”

Per game. Just multiply $6 million by 79 home games (the Braves had one such game postponed last year) and, unless your math is wrong or your calculator is on the proverbial fritz, you get $474 million. “For the uninitiated,” Brown tweets further, “operating income is a form of profit.”

Now throw in the Braves’ postseason march of sixteen games: winning the National League division series in four, the National League Championship Series in six, and the World Series in six. They played eight at home and eight, including that breathtaking World Series clincher, on the road. So that’s another $48 million for them.

Throw in, too, what Liberty Media calls the Braves’ “development revenue”: $42 million. Now you should read $564 million. And the foregoing is available only because, as a publicly-traded company, Liberty Media is required by law to disclose its financials in reasonable detail every year.

“Baseball revenue,” Liberty’s disclosure says, “is comprised of (i) ballpark operations (ticket sales, concessions, corporate sales, retail, suites, premium seat fees and postseason), (ii) local broadcast rights, and (iii) shared Major League Baseball revenue streams, including national broadcast rights and licensing.”

Never mind that, as The Athletic‘s Jeff Schultz writes, “the [Braves’] numbers only amplify what an absurdity it is that [franchise face Freddie] Freeman remained unsigned before the [owners’] lockout,” though it’s certainly worth pondering. It’s worth pondering that, the next time you hear any Braves administrator or pro-ownership observer say they couldn’t possibly afford to make Freeman a Brave for life, you should duck so you’re not knocked  over by their growing noses.

Freeman evinces substance above and beyond the pure baseball ability and sensibility that’s bound to have suitors willing to give him the sixth year he seeks if the poor Braves aren’t. A decade before he became president of the National League, A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote of such substance in Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, when Seaver was purged unceremoniously from the 1977 Mets: “[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 that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.”

Technically, Freeman won’t be sold, not by the Braves, anyway. A free agent sells himself, assuming the market isn’t rigged. But sold out by the team for whom he’s performed enviably and, yes, quite profitably for both sides in his career is something else entirely.

What’s worth pondering is what’s taking the Major League Baseball Players Association so long to demand the rest of baseball’s owners open their books and prove what commissioner Rob Manfred has pleaded to be their “unprofitability,” to be their franchises’ inability to increase in value annually.

“[O]n the broadest scale,” Yahoo! Sports’s Hannah Keyser wrote a little over a fortnight ago, “they don’t want to make all the economic concessions that the union is asking for and one of the reasons they’re citing is that they can scarcely afford it.”

Remember: This lockout was the owners’ idea entirely. They could very well have said to the players, “Look, the CBA’s expired, but we can continue operating baseball under the terms of the expired deal while we work together to hammer a new one out.” Each side might have been hotter than hell to make sure the next CBA was more reasonable as they saw it, but nobody put a gun to the owners’ heads forcing them to impose a lockout.

Remember, too: The players have offered several compromises from their original positions and the owners, in effect, have told them to go fornicate themselves. Which amounts to saying, as well, “Leave us alone to continue suppressing your cumulative compensation, allowing teams to tank for fun and profit instead of playing competitive baseball, monkeying around with your major league service time, jamming our broadcasts with commercials taking longer than pitching changes do, finding ways to rig your legitimate employment market, etc. etc., blah-blah, woof-woof . . .”

Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler tweeted last week, since deleted, “This isn’t millionaires versus billionaires. This is workers versus owners.” A critic quoted one and snorted, “But it’s also millionaires vs. billionaires, right, Walker?” citing Buehler’s current deal concurrently. My Internet Baseball Writers Association of America colleague Daniel Epstein shot that one out of the park faster than Eddie Rosario’s division series Game Five-making three-run homer off Buehler flew into the right field seats.

No, it isn’t. Only 31.4% of MLBPA members earn more than a million. 28.2% are minor leaguers on the 40-man roster earning $40,500. Walker Buehler just happens to be one of the millionaires (bc he’s great and he earned it). His career net worth is 0,002% of the average owner’s.

Think about that, too, the next time you forget that fans don’t pay their ways into ballparks to see their teams’ owners, all but two of whom are not bound legally but ought to be bound—by amended baseball rules and by plain, ethical sense—to open their books and allow the players to see what is, as opposed to what’s propagated.

With his bosses’ approval, Manfred says unless the deal is done by the close of business 28 February (that’s tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen), Opening Day isn’t guaranteed and neither is a full 162-game season. (Fair disclosure: I have skin in that game, tickets for myself and my son to the Angels’ home opener.)

Forget his former free cookie on second to begin extra half innings. Manfred and his have run this thing to where they open the ninth with the bases loaded. Compared to that, the 1919 World Series was played straight, no chaser.

WS Game Six: Bang!! Zoom!!!

Jorge Soler

Jorge Soler’s detonation in the bottom of the third. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

Blowhard bus driver Ralph Kramden only threatened to bang-zoom his acid but loving wife Alice to the moon in the days of old. (She might have clobbered him if he’d really hauled off.) The Braves may not have threatened to do it to the Astros, exactly, but that’s what they did to win the World Series Tuesday night.

The way Braves starting pitcher Max Fried and relief aces Tyler Matzek and Will Smith worked the Astros over, the Braves needed only one bang-zoom, after all. Getting three and a half was beyond gravy. It was a six course meal crowned with a baked Alaska dessert.

Shutting out the team that led the entire Show with 5.3 regular season runs per game averaged, and the postseason with 6.7 runs per game averaged, also does that for you. However brilliant Fried, Matzek, and Smith were on the mound, though, it goes for naught if you can’t bring anyone home.

But when Jorge Soler hit that monstrous three-run homer in the bottom of the third, it let the air out of Minute Maid Park almost as fast as it took away what wind remained to the Astros. Now . . . everybody, breathe again.

The sun didn’t fall. The heavens didn’t go to hell. The great oceans didn’t dry up and blow away. The stars didn’t go out. When Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel grounded out to Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson, throwing right on the button to longtime Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman, for game, set, and Series, Armageddon didn’t begin.

But a few things that helped sour the Series for people who don’t live in either Atlanta or Houston ended, too. For now, anyway.

No more race-demeaning Tomahawk Chopping in the Truist Park stands or by traveling Braves fans present in Minute Maid Park. No more of the more stubbornly obnoxious among Astro fans acting and carping (falsely, on both counts) that their heroes were “scapegoated” when Astrogate exploded almost two full years ago.

But, also, there’ll be no more treating the entire Astros roster as barely-repentant cheaters because of the remaining presence of four Astrogaters. (Pitcher Lance McCullers, Jr. missed the entire postseason with an arm injury.) Even the Truist Park crowds for Games Three through Five isolated the point: they saved the “Cheater! Cheater!” chants purely for any of the four.

So now we can review and re-enjoy Fried surviving a near-disastrous near-ankle injury on a play at first base in the first inning to pitch six shutout innings. We can review and re-wonder about Luis (Rock-a-Bye Salsa) Garcia starting on short rest for the Astros, a move risky enough for manager Dusty Baker. He got away with it for two innings. In the third, disaster.

Now, we can re-enjoy Ozzie Albies poking his first base hit since Game Two. We can re-enjoy Fox Sports cameras captured a couple in the stands wearing makeshift World Series trophies for headdresses while Eddie Rosario waited out a five-pitch walk. We can re-enjoy Soler—the American League’s home run king in 2019, but somewhat lost this season, until two weeks before the Royals traded him to the Braves at this year’s deadline—hitting back-to-back, full-count liners foul out of play, before Garcia decided to sneak a cutter past him.

Dansby Swanson

Swanson reaching the Crawford Boxes in the fifth. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

And, we can re-enjoy Soler swinging as though trying to bring a great oak down but settling for bringing Garcia down instead, with the Minute Maid retractable roof open, and the ball flying over the left field seats, over the train tracks, out of the building, and rolling to the street off an awning outside.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“I got to [full count],” Soler said postgame, “and I didn’t want the same thing to happen as the first inning at-bat, where I struck out on the off-speed pitch. So I was just kind of getting prepared for that.” That was like the Navy saying it didn’t want a Pearl Harbour rerun and was just kind of getting prepared for the Battle of Midway.

“He’s been swinging the bat so good,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker. “This whole World Series. Even just the walks he was taking were really big.”

Fried looked at last as though he had under complete control his familiar, nervous-looking glove-snapping around his hand on the ball when he takes his sign before delivering. He’d shaken off that first-inning play covering at first and getting thatclose to turning his right ankle, his landing ankle, to crumbs when Michael Brantley stepped on it crossing the pad on a ground ball.

A television replay closeup showed that not only had Fried’s foot missed touching the pad, Brantley never touched it either, even as Fried got the gloved ball on it as he fell backward. The Braves chose not to challenge the safe call. Fried picked himself up, dusted himself off, walked back to the mound, and sandwiched Jose Altuve’s runner-advancing ground out between two toasted strikeouts.

After swapping two scoreless innings to Astro reliever Cristian Javier’s one—they both  ended with slick double plays including the one he launched himself to end the bottom of the third—Fried had a breather and Javier went out for a second inning’s work. His first was three-and-three in the top of the fourth. He wouldn’t be that fortunate in the top of the fifth.

Not with Albies leading off with a walk, then taking second on a wild pitch. Not with a strikeout on Travis d’Arnaud proving the mere setup for Dansby Swanson smashing a down-the-pipe fastball into the Crawford Boxes. And, not with Freeman following a two-out walk to Soler by sending him all the way home with a double off the absolute rearmost center field wall.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Two innings and three Astros relievers later, Freeman decided the Braves needed a little extra insurance, with the Astros down by a mere six. How to get it with two outs was the question. The answer proved simple enough. He caught hold of Ryne Stanek’s slightly dangling slider and drove it over the center field wall a little left of the Phillips 66 sign.

Bang!! Zoom!!!

“He’s been through good times. He’s been through the worst of times and now through the best of times,” said Swanson postgame of Freeman, the longtime Braves franchise face, who’s made no secret of his desire to stay with the team despite his free agency to come this winter. “Nobody deserves it on our team more than him. He stuck it out and really believed in the vision and mission that this place had. I’m just thankful for him to be on our team.”

Fried, Matzek (the seventh and eighth), and Smith (the ninth), kept the Astros so far in check there may have been suspicions that they’d been kidnapped and replaced with android replicas whose designers forgot to include batting eyes and arm strength.

As favoured sentimentally as his post-Astrogate Astros were disfavoured almost universally, Baker still doesn’t have that elusive World Series ring. Snitker, a Braves lifer who’s a mere six years Baker’s junior, has his first in five full seasons manning the Braves’ bridge.

Two old-school baseball men—who’ve learned and worked by the precept that analytics gives you what you need to know going in, but the moment in front of you and slightly ahead of you tells you what you should or shouldn’t do with that information—matched wits all Series long.

Freddie Freeman

Freeman, still the franchise face, going over the center field wall in the seventh. (Fox Sports screen capture.)

It took stout pitching and a little new old-fashioned long-range bombing to put the Braves over the top and to bury a collection of Astros with too little left in the tank,finally, to repel the invaders.

“First off, you’ve got to give a ton of credit to [the Braves],” said still-struggling Astros third baseman Alex Bregman postgame. “They were unbelievable. They pitched really well. They swung the bats, played good defense. We normally do hit a little bit more for power, and we didn’t. But you learn and move on. You use it as fuel during the off-season to get better and learn from it.”

What the Braves learned this season and taught or re-taught everyone else is that it’s possible to ride the arguable bumpiest road to the postseason and still come away from the ride hoisting the World Series trophy. “We hit every pothole, every bump you could possibly hit this year,” said the otherwise jubilant Freeman postgame, “and somehow the car still made it onto the other side.”

Potholes? Bumps? The Braves came out of a few nasty pileups. They lost franchise face heir apparent Ronald Acuna, Jr. to a season-ending knee injury in the outfield in early July. They entered the season without pitcher Mike Soroka, thanks to his re-injuring the Achilles tendon he’d barely finished rehabbing in the first place. They lost bombardier Marcell Ozuna to domestic violence charges and administrative leave.

The eventual rulers of the none-too-powerful National League East didn’t even have a winning record overall until 6 August. They broke the record for the latest season arrival above .500 they themselves held . . . since their 1914 “Miracle” ancestors arrived only on 3 August that year.

General manager Alex Anthopolous—who had to miss the Game Six and championship fun after being hit by COVID-19—swung four trade-deadline deals to land Soler, Rosario, Adam Duvall, and Joc Pederson. They went 36-14 in their final 55 regular season games. They still looked like postseason underdogs. Until.

They overthrew the NL Central-champion Brewers three straight after losing Game One of their division series. After getting blown out in National League Championship Series Game Five, they overthrew the wild card-winning Dodgers—owners of baseball’s second-best regular-season record with 106 wins—with their lights-out bullpen tandem Matzek and AJ Minter to win the pennant.

Then they lost starting pitcher Charlie Morton to a line drive off his leg in World Series Game One. And defied everyone who said losing the likeable, respected veteran for the rest of the set meant temporal and spiritual disaster for the upstarts.

When they finally reached the Promised Land, the Braves also defied several other factors. They became the first team ever to show a League Championship Series MVP and a World Series MVP who weren’t even with the team in the regular season’s first half. Their four outfield imports hit more postseason home runs together (twelve) than the rest of the team combined (eleven).

Bang!! Zoom!!!

Max Fried

Fried shook off a potentially shattering ankle injury in the first to shatter the Astros’ formidable offense.

When Sock-a-Bye Soler took Rock-a-Bye Samba downtown Tuesday night, only five men before him had ever hit three go-ahead home runs in a single World Series: Babe Ruth (1926), Lou Gehrig (1928), Gene Tenace (1972), Curtis Granderson (2015), and George Springer (2017). Soler joins Gehrig, Tenace, and Springer for doing it for World Series winners.

Only one other man ever got close to where Soler’s blast ended up. That was before the Astros became the team to be named later in the league swap that made a National League team out of the Brewers and sent the Astros to the American League.

The only thing keeping then-Cardinals superman Albert Pujols’s ninth-inning three-run homer from landing in Soler territory in 2005 NLCS Game Five was the closed roof. If the Minute Maid roof was open then, Pujols’s rip off then-Astros closer Brad Lidge might have bounded off the same awning—if not flown right to the street.

Somewhere in their Elysian Fields stomping grounds, the Braves’ late Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, and Warren Spahn smiled down upon these rascally Braves while applauding madly.

The Astros went from steamrolling the White Sox and the Red Sox out of the postseason into spending most of this World Series being about as offensive as an ice cream sandwich. Except for stinging the possibly pitch-tipping Fried in Game Two, and overthrowing a first-inning battering in Game Five, the Astro offense either slept or turned up when it didn’t or couldn’t do them many favours.

“We just kind of ran out of gas pitching-wise,” Baker said postgame. “Our guys, nobody complained, nobody alibied. And I’m not going to alibi. We got outplayed. What can you do, except go home, take a shower, figure out how you’re going to come back and win it next year. Look, last year we got one game short of the World Series, and this year we were two games short of the championship.”

Baker was right about their spent pitching. Missing future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander to Tommy John surgery recuperation hurt. Being without their best 2021 starter, Lance McCullers, Jr., hurt. Baker bringing his should-have-been Game Six starter Jose Urquidy in for an inning of Game Five relief probably hurt. Veteran Zack Greinke starting to show his age at last hurt.

If you ask Minter, he’ll tell you the Braves transformed themselves from a small legion of also-rans into the guys who put the big boys into their places by hook, crook, and anything else they could think of so long as failure was no longer a dismaying, disgusting option.

“We are a bunch of misfits this year,” Minter said postgame. “I mean, we’re a group of failures. And that’s what makes this team special, because we know what it feels like to fail. We know what it feels like to lose, and we weren’t willing to accept failure this year. So we pulled it together somehow—and now we’re World Series champions. It’s cool, man.”

The Astros, of course, see themselves as anything but misfits. They were very gracious in World Series defeat. (“They deserve what they have,” said Altuve postgame.) But they see themselves now the way the Yankees did in the ancient, mid-20th Century. Shortstop Carlos Correa—one of their team leaders, one of the remaining Astrogate Five, and a possible departure in free agency this winter—said it right out postgame:

“Second place is not good enough for us. I know it’s not good enough for you guys. But it speaks volumes of how good our organization is, how talented our clubhouse is. Five ALCS in a row. Three World Series in five years. I don’t know what else you want to ask from a great ball club.”

Some might want to ask that they win a World Series without the taint of something like Astrogate.

They may yet win one, even next year, since the pitching remains deep even with Greinke and Verlander likely out of the picture and their youth includes a pair of solid stars in Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez. Even if Alvarez was a one-man wrecking crew in the ALCS brought low in the World Series. Even if Altuve (32), Gurriel (37), and Michael Brantley (34) can’t keep Father Time from coming too much longer.

“People expect greatness when you talk about the Houston Astros,” said Correa, who still seems at once embarrassed by Astrogate yet unable to resist playing the rogue. “They expect us to make the playoffs every year. They expect us to be in the World Series every year.”

But now the guys nobody really expected at mid-season to be in the World Series have won it. With a pitcher defying those critics who thought he wasn’t really ready for center stage just yet. With three big swings having nothing to do with illegally stolen signs sent to the batter’s box by trash can transmission.

Bang!! Zoom!!!