ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman walked into the interview room at Truist Park on Friday afternoon and couldn't contain his emotions. He took a deep breath, turned away from the cameras, crossed his hands above his head and walked out. "Gimme a second," he said. "Hold on."
A few minutes later, Freeman returned and did his best to navigate an emotionally charged interview that marked his return to the place he still adores. Through quivered speech, shaky hands and welling eyes, Freeman -- a lifelong member of the Atlanta Braves until signing a six-year, $162 million free-agent contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 17 -- did his best to express what this city and those fans and that team still mean to him.
"I always told you guys how much I love the Braves, this city," Freeman said. "I thought I loved this city and this organization a lot, but I think you can tell how much I truly do love this organization and this city. I don't even know how I'm gonna get through this weekend, guys, if I'm being honest."
With only an hour left before Friday's first pitch, Freeman spent about 20 minutes signing for young Braves fans on both ends of Truist Park. The Braves played a video tribute on their giant center-field screen moments later, then Freeman spilled out of the dugout and walked toward the pitcher's mound to receive his World Series ring -- the one he didn't want to see until he returned to Atlanta as a visitor -- from Braves manager Brian Snitker. After a prolonged, tear-filled hug, Freeman addressed a packed stadium crowd that remained standing.
"I know I have a different uniform on," he said at one point, "but I still love each and every one of you guys."
Freeman had already reunited with his former teammates in L.A. two months ago, but he expected this weekend to trigger more emotion. As his highly anticipated return drew closer, some of the people close to Freeman suggested this series would represent some much-needed closure for a man who is noticeably still coming to grips with no longer playing for the Braves.
Freeman dismissed that.
"There's nothing to close for me here," he said, still fighting back tears. "Why would I close such a special time in 15 years that I spent here? There's, for me, nothing to close. The regret question is a whole different side of the story that I'm not here to talk about because I think, one-on-one, the people I've talked to know that's a different side of it. 'Cause if I got into that, oh, we'd be here a long time. And that emotion might change -- big-time."
Freeman, 32, first joined the Braves in 2007, as a second-round pick out of high school. He emerged as a star toward the tail end of the team's prolonged run of success, established himself as the face of the franchise through a subsequent rebuild, then set the tone as the franchise climbed its way back into contention -- a run of four consecutive division titles that culminated in the 2021 World Series championship.
The expectation all along was that Freeman would return as a free agent, but no deal had been reached by the time owners imposed a lockout on Dec. 1. Shortly after baseball resumed in March, Freeman's agent, Casey Close, presented two offers to Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos in what was described as a take-it-or-leave it scenario, sources told ESPN's Buster Olney.
Anthopoulos then went ahead and traded a package of prospects to the Oakland Athletics to acquire Matt Olson, Freeman's replacement, on March 14. Freeman signed with the Dodgers, who play close to where he grew up in Orange County, three days later and was left stunned by the way everything played out.
On Friday, however, Freeman shifted his focus toward what was accomplished just before that.
"We went through a lot of ups and downs in my 12 years, and as we reached the pinnacle last year of winning it all, that ring is just not a ring to me," Freeman said during his pregame news conference. "It's all the sacrifices. All the missed family time. All the hours. The broken wrist [in 2017]. The 14-hour bus rides in the minor leagues. The 4 a.m. getting to the hotels. The grind, every single year. To finally win it -- man. There's no better feeling in the sport."
Freeman batted .296/.385/.510 with 270 home runs and 940 RBIs in his 11 full seasons with the Braves, capturing the National League's Most Valuable Player Award after the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. During the Braves' World Series run last fall, Freeman was at his best, batting .304/.420/.625 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 16 playoff games.
The Braves' organist played "We Are The Champions" as Freeman came to bat in the top of the first inning, and the Braves fans once again stood and cheered. Freeman took his time to settle into the batter's box, doffing his helmet to acknowledge the crowd and his former teammates before eventually drawing a walk against Ian Anderson.
Earlier, Freeman admitted that it would be difficult to compartmentalize his emotions over the weekend.
"Gosh," he said at one point, "this is a lot harder than I thought."