He sneaked up behind Mookie Betts and lifted him into the air. He bear hugged Gavin Lux. He exchanged smiles with Max Muncy.
Instead of nervously taking in a strange new environment, Freddie Freeman was catching up with friends.
“It’s nice knowing everybody now,” Freeman said of reporting to spring training this year compared to last year.
Freeman values comfort, which is why the All-Star first baseman is taking additional measures to feel more at home in his second season with the Dodgers.
He’s looking for a home closer to Dodger Stadium to reduce his 90-minute commute from Orange County.
And last week, he spent close to an hour on a golf cart parked by the Dodgers’ administrative offices at Camelback Ranch explaining how he thinks and how he works.
Freeman wasn’t interested in revisiting our conflict from last year, which centered on my objections over how he tried to portray himself as some kind of victim when the Dodgers played at his longtime baseball home in Atlanta. His preference was to start over.
“We’re going to be spending a lot of time together,” he said.
What was very noticeable last year, and again here, was how much Freeman wants to be liked.
Freeman didn’t disagree with the characterization. He acknowledged it was “very fair” to assume that part of him made moving from the Braves to the Dodgers particularly difficult.
“I think anybody that goes into a new job, you never really know what’s going to happen or how it’s going to go,” Freeman said. “The first day I walked in here not knowing anybody in this clubhouse, other than the guys I played against, that it’s a little unnerving. You’re always going to be a little unsettled your first couple of days.”
How human of him. How weird.
In the world of competition, results lead to acceptance, and there aren’t many safer bets in baseball to produce results than Freddie Freeman, who batted a cumulative .305 in his final six years with the Braves.
Manny Ramirez walked into the Dodgers clubhouse and right away behaved as if he owned the place. He knew he’d produce.
Yasiel Puig walked into the same room and right away behaved as if he owned the place. He at least thought he’d produce.
“That’s not me,” Freeman said with a laugh.
Freeman received the reassurance he was looking for last year in the Dodgers’ home opener, when pretty much everyone in the stadium started chanting his name after he doubled in the eighth inning of a win over the Cincinnati Reds.
“It’s almost like they knew I needed a little oomph to get going,” he said. “It was a relief that all the fans took to me and my family.”
The chants continued throughout the season. By the time the Dodgers staged FanFest earlier this month, fans were chanting not only his name but also his 6-year-old son Charlie’s. He has become one of the most popular players on the team, alongside Betts, Clayton Kershaw and Julio Urias.
Freeman offered audiences reasons to cheer. He exhibited a flair for the dramatic, hitting whenever he had something to prove.
He homered in his first at-bat against his former team, which was at Dodger Stadium in mid-April. He was four for 12 with three walks in the Dodgers’ three-game series in Atlanta two months later. He collected four hits on the day the original list of All-Stars was released and he was excluded from the National League team. (He was later added as a replacement for a player who dropped out.)
Heck, he went on a tear after I wrote a column that was critical of him.
“Which one?” he asked. “You wrote two.”
For argument’s sake, let’s say the first one, which was published online on July 1. Freeman batted .345 in the 84 games that remained after that particular column appeared. He finished the season batting .325 with 21 homers and 100 runs batted in.
But Freeman pushed back against the view that he purposefully elevated his game in critical moments.
“I’m not trying to rise,” he said. “I’m trying to stay [even].”
Freeman ran his hand across the air in a straight line.
“My goal every year is to play 162,” he said, “and for [manager Dave Roberts] to be able to pencil me in and have no worries. That’s all I can try and do.
“If you rise, you’re going to fall.”
He said he tries to remain emotionally level when playing baseball, regardless of what is going on around him, regardless of what turmoil he is experiencing off the field.
However, the consistency shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of intensity, Freeman saying he tries to give everything he has, whether he’s playing in a game or preparing for one.
Freeman’s description of himself matched what Roberts said about him. While Roberts observed a lack of energy from his team when it lost to the San Diego Padres in the National League Division Series, he said the description didn’t apply to Freeman, who batted .357 in the four games.
Roberts basically said that Freeman didn’t have to rise to the occasion because he was already there.
“He doesn’t take a pitch off” the entire season, Roberts said.
With Freeman a year more comfortable, Roberts is hopeful he can spread his form of consistent intensity throughout the Dodgers clubhouse, calling him one of the candidates to replace Justin Turner as the team’s vocal leader.
But if that happens, Freeman wants it to happen organically.
“If I come in and say, ‘I’m going to be the leader, guys,’ that’s weird, isn’t it?” Freeman said with a chuckle.
Track records are currency in clubhouses, however, and Freeman is a six-time All-Star. I told him that if he speaks, people will listen.
“For me, I do that one on one, sitting in a cage,” Freeman said.
He’s taken a particular interest in two players who could decide the course of the Dodgers’ season, Lux and Miguel Vargas. The youthful middle infield pairing could return the Dodgers to their familiar position as World Series favorites or completely blow up their season.
The starting shortstop, the 25-year-old Lux, has played almost his whole major league career at second base. Vargas, 22, is the projected starter at second even though he spent the majority of his time in the minors at third.
Vargas said he performs the same fielding drills as Freeman, including ones on his knees and with a flat glove.
“I do the same exact routine he does,” Vargas said in Spanish.
Lux cracked up when asked about Freeman’s influence on him, telling The Times’ Dodgers beat writer, Jack Harris, that he keeps his locker clean because Freeman told him to. Freeman’s philosophy is that doing small things correctly will lead to big things.
“It’s like my dad telling me to do my chores,” Lux told Harris. “I don’t think there’s a better human being than Freddie Freeman, and he’s obviously a great player. So, when you mesh those two things up, when Freddie talks, you’re going to listen. Whatever he says, I’m probably going to end up doing it.”
Freeman is a great player. He’s proven that beyond any doubt over his 13-year career. As far as Lux’s evaluation of him as a human being, I’ll have to see him in more character-revealing moments with the team before I’m entirely convinced.
We have time. Including this year, five guaranteed years remain on his contract. Like he said, we’re going to be spending plenty of time together.