When the Uniforms Seem Not Quite Right
SAN DIEGO — The All-Star first baseman who desperately wanted to stay in Atlanta is in Los Angeles.
The All-Star closer who badly wanted to stay in Los Angeles is in Atlanta.
The other All-Star first baseman, whose trade from Oakland to Atlanta started this chain reaction, is ecstatic that he and his wife were given the chance to return to their hometown on a long-term deal.
The business of baseball can be wildly unpredictable, dispassionate and soulless, but rarely is it distilled into a three-way, direct-impact collision over a five-day period as it was for Freddie Freeman, Kenley Jansen and Matt Olson in mid-March. The aftershocks will be on full display beginning Monday night in Dodger Stadium with an early-season rematch of last autumn’s National League Championship Series between Los Angeles and Atlanta.
“I can’t believe he’s a Dodger and not a Brave,” Los Angeles Manager Dave Roberts said of Freeman one afternoon near the end of spring training, still exuberant less than two weeks after the veteran slugger first tugged on his new uniform.
“We just naïvely expected him to end up back in Atlanta,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “Obviously, our interest was genuine. But the likelihood of it happening, in our minds, was very slim.”
Freeman, 32, is a five-time All-Star, the 2020 winner of the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player Award and a 13-year veteran. He broke in with Atlanta in 2010, became a face of the franchise over the next decade and was beloved by the team’s fans. He figured he would be a lifetime Brave. One of his older brothers, Andrew, had even transferred to the Atlanta area from Mexico in his job with Honeywell to be close to Freddie. His stepsister, Diana, moved there for the same reason.
“That was one of the places she could go, and she figured that would be fun,” said Fred Sr., Freddie’s father. “Now she goes to dinner with my oldest son instead of with Freddie.”
The roots were deep. But Freeman’s free agency after Atlanta’s World Series championship brought uncertainty, and the 99-day M.L.B. lockout that stretched from December until March brought darkness.
When business resumed and the lights flipped back on, Atlanta stunned Freeman and the rest of baseball by immediately acquiring Olson, who played the same position, from Oakland on the first Monday of spring training. It was a flashing neon sign that the Braves had unexpectedly severed ties with Freeman.
The 2022 M.L.B. Season
A season that was in doubt is suddenly in full gear.
- Six Outs From Perfection: Could you pull a pitcher who was six outs from a perfect game? Would you? Dave Roberts has done it twice.
- Division Rivals: The Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays will be duking it out all season in the ultracompetitive A.L. East.
- A First at First Base: Alyssa Nakken is no stranger to firsts, and she added another to her résumé by filling in as a first base coach. She was the first woman with an on-field role in Major League Baseball history.
- Strong Start: Defeats are inevitable during a six-month season. But early signs point to the Mets winning a lot.
“It changed the landscape, and we felt like there was a real chance we could make it happen,” Friedman said of his team’s pursuit of Freeman.
Two days later, indeed, the Dodgers signed Freeman, who grew up a few pop flies from Dodger Stadium in Orange County, Calif., giving him the six-year, $162 million deal that Atlanta had been hesitant to offer.
Two days after that, the Braves signed Jansen, 34, whose 350 saves entering the season ranked 13th all time, to a one-year, $16 million deal.
“I will never say I wanted to go back to L.A.; I will go wherever I feel wanted,” Jansen said during a weekend interview in San Diego, before adding: “That blue will be in my blood for my whole life. Everywhere I go, people tell me I’m a Dodger. It’s just the business side of it. It didn’t work out for both of us for obvious reasons. We both tried hard, but it didn’t happen.”
Had Jansen waited a couple more days for things to settle in Los Angeles, it is possible he could have remained with the only organization he has known in baseball. But once he signed, the Dodgers moved on by trading for a new closer, Craig Kimbrel.
“I already waited,” Jansen said. “I can’t wait for a while. At some point, are other teams going to take you seriously, or not? Sometimes in life, you’ve got to see it this way: When a good opportunity pops up, are you going to let it go? Or are you going to take it?”
Meanwhile, Freeman might have been willing to sign with Atlanta for less than he took from the Dodgers. But when that door closed, it slammed shut for good. At his introductory news conference with the Dodgers that week, Freeman strongly implied that the tears shed by Alex Anthopoulos, Atlanta’s president of baseball operations, in discussing his exit were phony.
“Everything is comfortable now,” the normally affable Freeman said during a sometimes terse, late-spring interview. “I’m just looking forward now.”
The Dodgers understand his emotional wounds, and the team is doing everything it can to make him feel at home beyond what that $162 million deal does by itself.
“Every day it gets a little easier for him to realize he’s not with the Braves anymore,” Roberts said, adding: “There’s a business side of things and certain things are out of a player’s control. Freddie has taken the high road.”
His relationships in Atlanta may be forever altered — in a tense set of recent interviews, Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. expressed happiness that Freeman was gone before saying his words had been misconstrued — but Freeman is eagerly anticipating visiting with his old teammates this week at Dodger Stadium.
“It’s going to be great,” Freeman said. “I can’t wait. Oh, yeah. I get to see all the guys I won a championship with last year. We’re connected forever. I’m looking forward to it.”
Now, however, he is tasked with wresting the N.L. title away from them. In Los Angeles, Freeman is part of an enviable roster that includes four M.V.P. winners: Freeman, Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts and Cody Bellinger. Roberts said “he’s going to help us win a championship” and, at the very least, rival pitchers will need nerves of steel.
As for their unexpected connection through the series of spring transactions, Freeman said he did not know Olson “at all” and really didn’t know Jansen, either. Jansen said he knew Freeman enough to say hello and “that’s it.”
Before Freeman or Jansen had figured out where they might go, the quick-working Braves signed Olson to an eight-year contract extension worth $168 million only 24 hours after trading for him.
“It was like the stars aligned,” Olson said. “It was the perfect storm. To get the chance to have a long-term option in the city I grew up in, joining the World Series champions, it was a pretty easy choice for my wife and I.”
His new teammates have been welcoming, he said, and, upon returning to Atlanta for a season-opening homestand, he said he felt no cold shoulders from fans upset about Freeman’s departure.
“I was pleasantly surprised with how it went,” Olson said.
It was also a homecoming of sorts for Jansen. Growing up in Curaçao, the Braves were Jansen’s team because of Atlanta’s Curaçaoan center fielder, Andruw Jones. Jansen said he was happy to be playing alongside another countryman, Ozzie Albies, and his warm smile is familiar, even if his new uniform isn’t, at least not yet.
“He’s a big part of this team,” Manager Brian Snitker said. “You wouldn’t know that he hasn’t been here five or six years when you see him in the clubhouse.”
Jansen, his wife, Gianni, and their three children will continue to make the Los Angeles area their permanent home, the closer said. So far, he has tried not to think too much about this week’s early-season homecoming. But he is glad to get it out of the way sooner than later.
“When the time comes, I’m probably going to be emotional,” he said. “I’ve got to make sure I control it.”
For most of the past decade, displayed above his locker in the Dodgers clubhouse has been a flag of the state of California, modified to “Kenley-Fornia.” It will now go into his home gym “as a souvenir,” he said.
When old roads come to an end and new starts begin, some souvenirs can be nice.