LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Long before he was on the receiving end of the famous snow rescue conducted by Atlanta's newest Hall of Famer, Freddie Freeman was an eager, bright-eyed rookie who was essentially at Chipper Jones' beck and call.Seven years later, as Freeman stands as the face of
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Long before he was on the receiving end of the famous snow rescue conducted by Atlanta's newest Hall of Famer, Freddie Freeman was an eager, bright-eyed rookie who was essentially at Chipper Jones' beck and call.
Seven years later, as Freeman stands as the face of the Braves' franchise and one of baseball's top players, he gratefully remembers how he went from being Jones' gofer in 2011 to one of his closest friends.
"It was a little bit different back then," Freeman said. "I would get him his Red Bulls and anything he asked me to get. I was the carrier of the poker chips on road trips. I'd get the call in my hotel room at one o'clock in the morning, and I'd run the poker chips to his room. I never complained. I just wanted to be the guy that just did everything he wanted. He took that to his liking."
Many remember the frigid January night in 2014, when Jones pulled his all-terrain four-wheeler out of his suburban Atlanta garage and drove a couple miles to rescue Freeman, who had already navigated his way through icy roads and gridlock traffic for more than eight hours.
But not many have heard how this friendship began to truly blossom during Spring Training in 2012, when Freeman was interrupted during a restful day with his wife by a call from Jones, whose message was, essentially, "I think it's time we start to hang out."
"I looked at my wife and said, 'I'm going over to Chipper's house,'" Freeman said. "So I went over and we kind of hung out. It just kind of took off. I don't know if he saw a little of himself in me or what it was. But it was different. He was 40 and I was 22. I just kind of followed him around. That's a Hall of Fame player right there. You just want to be attached to his side and see what he did and how he prepared."
That February day was the first of many Jones and Freeman shared talking about the art of hitting. The young first baseman didn't immediately realize positive results as he battled vision problems throughout much of the summer. But in somewhat fitting fashion, before retiring that year, the iconic third baseman was on base when his latest successful pupil hit a postseason-clinching walk-off home run.
"Obviously, I'm not going to have his career, I don't think I ever will," Freeman said. "But maybe he sees me as a guy who is on his path. I think it's just a relationship that just kept growing and growing and growing. To this day, it's stronger than it ever was. It's something I cherish. If I need something, he's there."
Few have ever matched the accomplishments of Jones, who became a first-ballot Hall of Famer in January. But Freeman has the potential to eventually gain baseball's greatest honor. At the same time, he wants to travel the same path of his close friend, whose journey to Cooperstown was completed exclusively in a Braves uniform.
"I've been through the highs and lows with this organization," Freeman said. "I want to be here for the highs again and be here for the rest of the time. I've built incredible relationships in this organization. I don't really want to go anywhere else."
Having made his Major League debut in 2010, Freeman was part of postseason teams during three of his first four seasons. He was given a franchise-record eight-year, $135 million deal before what proved to be an influential '14 season for the organization.
One year later, club executives met with him to inform him that they wanted him to remain an integral part of the organization during which, unsurprisingly, has been a painful rebuilding process.
Though he has battled two significant wrist injuries in the past three seasons, Freeman has produced the seventh-best OPS (.938) among all Major Leaguers who have compiled at least 1,400 at-bats since the start of the 2015 season. Dating back to June 15, 2016, Joey Votto (1.059) and Michael Trout (1.048) are the only players who have a better OPS than the Braves' first baseman (1.037).
But the value of Freeman's production hasn't been maximized, as the Braves have not exceeded more than 72 wins during any of the first three seasons of their rebuild.
"It's been tough," Freeman said. "There's no sugarcoating it. When you win 65 games, what are you going to say? It's tough. But we've progressively got better each year. Hopefully, during the last four years of this deal, it will be what we all wanted to happen."
As Freeman progresses through what should be his prime and finds himself in a lineup that should soon include Ronald Acuna Jr., he can already see why the Braves could exceed expectations this year and live up to their tremendous potential over the next few seasons.
"It feels a lot different," Freeman said. "You want to see that light at the end of the tunnel, and you can almost touch it now with your hands. Those guys you've heard talked about for a long time are either here or almost here in the big leagues. We're so close.
"This is a big year for us. This is a huge year for us. You never know, this could be the year that we're the  Twins. You don't get picked and next thing you know, we're there. We have a lot of guys who could make a huge impact this year and get us back to the playoffs."
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.