Can L.A. Dodger Freddie Freeman Save Baseball?

The new first baseman doesn’t drink, smoke, or swear—but damn if L.A. fans don’t love him anyway. How the least surly, most friendly player in the majors just might help make the game America’s favorite pastime once again

His eyes are bluer than a Nebraska sky. His hair, when it’s not tucked into a Dodgers cap, is the golden hue of a Kansas cornfield. And his big, bright, 500-watt smile has all the sparkle and shine of—oh, what the heck, let’s go for the full cornball red-white-and-blue cliché—fireworks on the Fourth of July. About the only thing he’s missing is a bat with a lightning bolt and the word wonderboy stenciled into the wood.

Meet Freddie Freeman, the man who just might save baseball. Or help the Los Angeles Dodgers save baseball. Or perhaps just get them to the World Series again. The point is, if you called up Central Casting and asked it to send over an over-the-top, Disney-esque, all-American baseball player—someone between Robert Redford in The Natural and Gary Cooper in the opening reels of The Pride of the Yankees, with a bit of Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams thrown in—this is the guy who’d show up. 

He even talks like an old-timey baseball player. “I came up at the time of just playing the game the right way,” he says, after settling onto a bench in a dugout at Dodger Stadium on a crisp May afternoon. “So I try to play it right every single game.”

He’s playing it right, alright, both on and off the field. Freeman, 32, joined the Dodgers this past March, after 12 years as first baseman with the Atlanta Braves, lured to L.A. with one of the most lucrative contracts in recent baseball history (averaging out to $27 million a year, more than the combined annual earnings of the entire Baltimore Orioles’ roster). But already, he’s become something of a local legend. He jacked out his first home run in a Dodgers uniform at his debut at-bat during an emotional home game in April against his old teammates, the Braves. By May, he’d broken a Dodgers record, becoming the only player in the franchise’s history to hit three doubles in one game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. By the end of that month, he was leading the league in doubles, getting on base in 20 straight games, and was knocking runners across home plate at an almost cartoonish rate. 

Granted, he may not exceed Juan Soto’s batting average or Fernando Tatis’s homer count, but there’s no denying he’s the best thing to happen to first base since Gil Hodges was swatting balls for the Dodgers back when they were still in Brooklyn. In one area in particular, he excels beyond all others: there is nobody in the major leagues who scores as many back slaps.

(Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

Freeman is so famously amiable, he’s all but turned first base into a bro-down. Even members of the Dodgers’ archrivals-in-the making—that’d be the Braves, who, last year, back when Freeman was still one of them, upended the Dodgers’ shot at the World Series during the playoffs—can’t resist trading fist bumps and grins whenever they show up at first base. He’s also a well-known gabber, chatting with just about anyone who happens to end up next to him on the diamond, no matter what team they’re on. 

But Freeman is more than merely charismatic. He’s also a throwback to an old-fashioned sort of baseball hero, complete with the model-pretty wife and three adorable, towheaded kids. Deeply religious (he’s a sixth-generation Christian Salvationist), he doesn’t drink, curse, smoke, or even chew tobacco. He’s a walking, talking Wheaties box, a font of Norman Rockwell-style wholesomeness—but, miraculously, in a way that doesn’t make anyone want to barf. He has, in short, given the Dodgers and baseball—a sport where these days just about everyone but Mookie Betts seems to be running the bases with a chip on their shoulder—something it hasn’t seen in years: a winning personality.

Which is why he also brings some hope for the future of the game.

Baseball, sadly, isn’t what it used to be. Over the last several decades, football and basketball have been grabbing most of the love (and selling tons of sneakers), while baseball’s fan base has grown smaller and grayer (the median fan age these days is a rickety 57). The TV audience for Major League games keeps shrinking, dropping from a peak of 80 million in 2007 to about 68 million in 2019. Its cultural clout has diminished as well. The sport that was once heralded as the national pastime, that made Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle into American icons, is nowadays more of a national afterthought. According to YouGov’s ratings of active sports personalities, 91 percent of Americans have heard of LeBron James and 88 percent have heard of Tom Brady while only 43 percent have heard of Mike Trout, Freeman’s rival at the Angels and a superstar in his own right.

Freeman, though, may be the most likely candidate to help change all that. As in that old Simon and Garfunkel song about Joe DiMaggio, baseball’s dwindling fans are turning their lonely eyes to him. He’s got the game. He’s got the looks. And God knows he’s got the disposition. 

“I’ve just tried to be a good person,” he says, scuffing a cleat into dugout dirt. “Being a human can be so hard. We all make mistakes every day. Being kind, that’s all I can really do.”

He’s a walking, talking Wheaties box . . . but in a way that doesn’t make anyone want to barf.

If you were to stick a pin in a timeline of Freddie Freeman’s life at the precise moment he began his journey to the major leagues, it would likely land on the day in 1997 when the eight-year-old future slugger hit an outfield light pole during a pickup game in his hometown of Fountain Valley, California. “We have a home run hitter!” his mom, Rosemary, shouted as his father, Fred, watched in what one can only presume was slack-jawed wonder.

Tragically, though, it was another event that most shaped Freeman’s childhood; just two years later, when he was ten, his mother passed away from skin cancer, leaving his dad, a CPA, to raise Freddie and his two elder brothers, Andrew and Phillip, on his own. But again, it was baseball that kept the family glued together. “Baseball was always our outlet,” Freeman says. “That was what we did to take our minds off the craziness of losing your mom and him losing his wife—the only way to not think about things.”

At around 13, while attending Orange County’s El Modena High School, he joined the varsity team and met baseball coach Steve Bernard, who would steer young Freeman to his fate on the playing field. “He wasn’t just the baseball coach,” Freeman says. “He was doing his best to help me be ready for life.” 

Freeman with his wife, Chelsea, and their three sons, Charlie (center), Brandon, and Maximus. (COURTESY OF FERDDIE FREEMAN)

Bernard, who is now an administrator at another Orange County school, recalls Freeman as a sensitive kid who happened to be blessed with extraordinary athletic talent. “One time, there was a particular date that triggered him—it might have been his mom’s birthday—and I remember him tearing up behind the dugout,” he says. “I remember hugging him, saying, ‘You’re going to be OK. This game is where you don’t have to worry. This is your spot. Enjoy this game. This is an escape.’”

 Freeman graduated high school at 17 and came face to face with the first monumental decision of his life. On the one hand, he’d been offered a Cal State Fullerton scholarship—a free ride through college and a pathway to joining his dad’s CPA business. On the other, the minor leagues had come calling, with a scout dangling a spot in the Atlanta Braves’ farm system, waving a $409,000 signing bonus in front of the teenager. 

Bernard thought he should take the bonus and play ball. His dad thought he should take the scholarship and become a CPA. Ultimately, a compromise was reached: “A couple of days after [the Braves] drafted me,” Freeman says, “I went to my dad’s room at three o’clock in the morning, knocked on the door, and said, ‘Dad, I just want to play baseball.’ He agreed but said if I didn’t make it to the big leagues in five years, I’d have to go back to school. But getting to the big leagues in five years is actually really hard to do. Most people get called up after six or seven years. When you think about it, what he was asking was not realistic.” 

Then again, Freeman wasn’t “most people.” He got called up in three.

At first, Freeman must have seemed like an odd duck to his teammates on the Braves. A video posted by a local TV channel in 2010, just as he was entering the big leagues, shows a sweaty, slightly chunky, lost-looking 20-year-old talking mostly about his faith in God. “I just make sure I put him first and don’t let temptations get in front of me,” he offered the interviewer. But, of course, the Lord works in mysterious ways, and the the ballplayer who would become Freeman’s first mentor on the team happened to be Chipper Jones, the hard-partying, philandering infielder who famously impregnated a Hooters waitress. Oddly enough, the two became close allies. In fact, there weren’t many on the team who didn’t become close with Freeman. Despite his teetotalling ways, most everybody found him impossible not to like. Especially as his batting skills kept his teammates  circling the bases. 

Over the next 12 years, Freeman would fill more than a few shelves with awards: he was a five-time All-Star selection, a three-time winner of the Silver Slugger award, winner of the Gold Glove in 2018, and the recipient of a couple of awards named after Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron.

In 2014, at 24, he married Chelsea Goff, a model and actress who’d once appeared on Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta, a TLC reality show set in the Georgia bridal store where Goff searched for her own wedding gown. They had their first son, Charlie, in 2016, who soon became something of an unofficial mascot at Braves games, sometimes sprinting onto the field postgame to greet his dad.

But the biggest year in Freeman’s tenure at the Braves—certainly the most dramatic—would be 2020. He and his team were about to start practice sessions for the new season when he learned his wife was pregnant again. This was surprising, since doctors had told Chelsea she could no longer get pregnant after Charlie’s caesarean delivery. In fact, the couple were so certain she couldn’t have another baby, they had already undergone in vitro fertilization with a gestational surrogate. “It’s a crazy story,” he says, chuckling. “My wife was pregnant and we had the surrogate and I didn’t know what was going on.”

It got even crazier when Freeman contracted COVID early in the pandemic, when not a lot was known about the virus. Quarantining from his pregnant wife and young son in the master bedroom of their sprawling home in Roswell, Georgia, he watched with growing alarm as his temperature kept climbing. At 104.5, he began to pray. “I got down, just by myself, and said, ‘Please, don’t take me. I’ve got a young family. I’m not ready,’ ” he recalls. 

Freeman with Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman on the day he announced to the world that Freeman would be joining the team. (PHOTOGRAPH BY AP PHOTO/CHARLIE RIEDEL)

Two weeks later, he was back on the practice field, marching toward the greatest (albeit, pandemic-delayed) season of his career. Not only did the Braves win the league championship, Freeman was also selected as the National League’s Most Valuable Player, but it was the Dodgers who would go on to win the World Series that year.

And then, catching Freeman completely by surprise, the Braves broke his heart.

Freeman didn’t want to leave Atlanta. He’d built a life there, now had three kids, and had grown close to his teammates. But the Braves inexplicably lowballed Freeman during his contract-renewal negotiations, despite his having just won that MVP award, and instead quietly maneuvered to acquire a younger first baseman, 28-year-old Oakland Athletic Matt Olson. Suddenly, Freeman—the player the New York Times once described as “the heart and soul” of the franchise—found himself on the open market. For the first time since he was 20, he was no longer a Brave.

“To be honest,” he says, “I felt blindsided.” 

Still, there were compensations—namely, an invitation to play in the biggest baseball market in the country for $27 million a year. Plus, his dad, still living in Orange County, made a pretty compelling argument for him to join the Dodgers.

“I want you to come home,” he told his son.

For the Dodgers, picking up Freeman was a no-brainer. “We competed against [the Braves] three of the last four years, and everything in our game planning orbited around Freeman,” says Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ head of baseball operations. “He’s obviously a very gifted hitter.”

Having them chanting my name every single time I’m up to bat, that’s been special.

Freeman didn’t exactly make a conventional entrance at Dodger Stadium, showing up for his first press event in a suit and tie, looking more like a banker than a ballplayer. But once he put on the uniform, he performed as advertised. And Dodgers fans took to him in no time, roaring “Fre-dee, Fre-dee” when he came to bat and hit that first payback homer against the Braves during the home game in April. 

Dodgers announcer Joe Davis describes that moment as something of a group hug between Freeman and his 50,000 new fans in the bleachers. “It was the entire stadium, the entire city saying, ‘We know you wanted to be in Atlanta. We understand. But we’re going to make this a great place to play.’”

His new teammates seem to have taken to him as well. “He has a certain way,” notes manager Dave “Doc” Roberts. “Like in the batter’s box when he makes eye contact with the pitcher, breaking the tension of the moment. Or being friendly with a guy who gets on base. But don’t get it twisted. He doesn’t lose his focus or his edge ever.”

There are, of course, differences between Dodgers and Braves fans. But Freeman has been quick to adapt. For instance, his new walk-out music—the tune played on the P.A. system as he comes to the plate to bat—is the Latin dance hit “Baila Conmigo,” which Freeman claims six-year-old Charlie picked for him. Charlie clearly has a sterling career ahead of him in political demography. Unlike in Atlanta, a huge chunk of the Dodgers fan base is Latino. Choosing that particular song as his personal anthem was a savvy nod to his new constituency. 

At 19, Freeman was an infielder for the Atlanta Braves. (PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES)

Despite his reluctance to leave Atlanta, Freeman seems to have settled into L.A. pretty seamlessly, moving his family into a spacious house in Studio City, about 12 miles from Dodger Stadium. The family also still has its longtime off-season home down the coast, in Corona del Mar, close to his dad. 

“Obviously, it’s a big change when you’re somewhere for 15 years—12 of that in the big leagues—but it’s been pretty amazing to have fans welcoming me and my family,” he says, hefting a bat as he gets ready to mount the dugout steps and hit the batting cage. “To be able to come here and have them chanting my name every single time I’m up to the plate, that’s been special. I don’t know if they’re connecting to me because I’m from here and coming home, or if they’re just trying to make me feel warm and welcome. But they’ve done a great job of doing that.”

And all he has to do to keep those fans cheering is continue knocking out those homers and yapping it up with those base hitters. Also, if he could swing it, it wouldn’t hurt if he made baseball America’s national pastime again.

(Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

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