LOS ANGELES — Eddie Perez was on the field at Dodger Stadium by 2:30 p.m. PT on Monday, hours before either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Atlanta Braves were scheduled to begin batting practice. The first person he saw was Freddie Freeman, who enveloped him in a warm, tight, affectionate hug that wouldn’t let up.
“Let me go,” Perez said, “because I’m gonna start to cry.”
Perez, the longtime Braves catcher who has stayed on with the team as a major league coach, isn’t one to get emotional. But seeing Freeman — in a Dodgers uniform, in person, for the first time — nearly got him.
A dozen years ago, Perez stood in the visitors’ bullpen at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia when Freeman hit his first career home run off Roy Halladay. Perez scrambled to locate the baseball but couldn’t find it. He knew then that Freeman would develop into a special baseball player, and he remained by his side while he accumulated five All-Star appearances, three Silver Slugger Awards, a Gold Glove, an MVP trophy and, on the second day of November in 2021, a World Series title with the same organization that drafted him.
Now there he was again, same as always, only different.
“I told him, ‘That’s not the right blue for you,'” Perez said. “But I don’t want to make him feel bad. I want him to enjoy being here.”
On the night Freeman agreed to a six-year, $162 million contract with the Dodgers, Perez sent him a congratulatory text message and immediately received a phone call in return. “I don’t know what happened,” Freeman said on the other line on March 16. Two days earlier — after reportedly declining an ultimatum by Freeman’s representatives at Excel Sports Management, details of which were chronicled by ESPN’s Buster Olney — the Braves had used a package of prospects to acquire All-Star first baseman Matt Olson from the Oakland Athletics. The development shocked Freeman, who was suddenly left scrambling to find a new team even though all he ever wanted to do was play for the Braves.
Once his next destination was determined, Perez urged Freeman to embrace the change and not look back. Perez talked up the benefits of Freeman’s father, who still lives in nearby Orange County, having the opportunity to watch him regularly. He told him the Dodgers, a team perpetually in championship contention, represented an ideal plan B. And he left him with the following message:
Be yourself, and the fans in L.A. will love you just like they did in Atlanta.
As Freeman navigated through his first homestand as a Dodger, those fans at times appeared to lift him.
Loud, boisterous “Fre-ddie!” chants seemed to follow Freeman around like a soundtrack. They were there when he stood alone on second base in the eighth inning of the home opener. They were there when he hit his first Dodgers home run in his first at-bat against his former team on Monday night. They were there when he crossed home plate following a line-drive homer off Charlie Morton on Wednesday afternoon. They were there as he strolled to the batter’s box for most of his 31 plate appearances over these last seven days.
“We’re all humans,” Freeman said. “We all have emotions and all that. For 50,000 people, every single night, every single time I walk into the box, to make me feel good about myself, and know that they care about me — that means a lot.”
Over the span of just three days in March, Freeman learned he wouldn’t be a Brave, decided on a new team and was introduced at the Dodgers’ spring training facility, immediately navigating not only a new organization but also a new spring training facility in a new state. Three weeks later, Opening Day arrived. Seven days after that, the home opener. Four days after that, the only major league team he had ever known came to town. It was all happening so fast, the emotions became overwhelming, and the chants meant everything.
“It’s not typical,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “In my nine years here, I don’t think I’ve seen any player where they chant his name every at-bat.”
Lifelong Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw sensed the support might have been amplified because the fans believed Freeman needed them.
“Which is very perceptive of the fans if that’s true,” Kershaw said. “It’s been cool to see. I know Freddie appreciates it.”
Monday was the first time Freeman had seen any of the Braves’ players, coaches and staff members since they all took part in a parade through downtown Atlanta and Cobb County on Nov. 5. He made his way into the visiting clubhouse to distribute hugs and reminisce about that day, then met Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos in the dugout and shared a conversation so emotional that the two moved downstairs so cameras wouldn’t catch them. Later, as the Braves went through pregame stretches, he made it a point to shake hands with Olson, who told him how welcoming his new teammates had been.
When Freeman stepped onto the field with his family to receive his Silver Slugger Award, his oldest son, Charlie, sprinted toward Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson for a hug. When he settled into the batter’s box a half hour thereafter, he glanced at his good friend, Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud, smiled and said, “This is weird.” Two pitches later, he lined his first Dodgers home run over the wall in left-center field.
It came on a fastball up and away, but d’Arnaud didn’t think the pitch type and location would’ve mattered.
“It was fate,” he said.
Braves reliever A.J. Minter engaged in an eight-pitch showdown with Freeman later in Monday’s game, ultimately getting him to fly out. The two shared a smile as Freeman jogged back to his dugout. “I wish Freddie could’ve been a lifelong Brave,” Minter said. “But we couldn’t get it done, and he had to make a decision for him and his family.”
Freeman, his wife, Chelsea, and their three children have settled on a place in Studio City, an L.A. neighborhood just beyond Hollywood, and Freeman is still trying to figure out the most efficient route to the ballpark. Charlie Freeman has made it onto the same Little League team as Kershaw’s son, Charley Kershaw. After Sunday’s game, the two of them took part in an Easter Egg hunt in the left-field area of Dodger Stadium.
At some point, Freeman hopes, his new life will start to feel as familiar as his old one.
“I just wanted to see them and hug them,” Freeman said of his former Braves teammates. “When you go through the grind of 162-game seasons and playoffs — and a lot of those guys I’ve been with for multiple years. To go through losing in the first round multiple times, losing to the Dodgers in 2020, and then ultimately winning the championship together, that bond is there forever. We’re all going to be teammates for however many years, but we’re gonna be friends longer than we are teammates. Now we get to do reunions together and all that as we get older. Hopefully I can do some reunions with the Dodgers, too.”
ESPN’s Marly Rivera contributed to this report.