Freeman's new deal makes him Face of the Braves
Slugging first baseman will have to take on more responsibility as leader, with media
Suddenly, courtesy of his signature on a contract worth a team-record $135 million over eight years, Freddie Freeman is the designated Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and Chipper Jones for this generation of Braves.
Let that sink in.
Here's another way to put it: Freeman is now The Face of the Braves, and given his predecessors in that role (featuring the ones I just mentioned along with John Smoltz, David Justice and others), this is huge. Whether the whole situation is too huge for Freeman is debatable. This isn't: He hasn't a choice. The Braves just paid their slick-fielding first baseman with the impressive bat and the unlimited future at 24 to become their ever-present spokesperson.
As a result, Freeman has to make the adjustment from a guy in the clubhouse who prefers to stay in the shadows to a highly visible mouthpiece among Braves players no matter what.
About those "no matter what" situations: Pretty wins or ugly losses, whether you go 4-for-4 or hitless, batting slumps in general, error-free games or those in which you are a bumbling mess in the field. Days of personal joy in your life or those when you wish you could crawl underneath a blanket.
Jones definitely was that guy for the Braves. Not only was he gifted with his bat and his glove, but with his tongue. Chipper was straightforward during conversations, and he was clever. Mostly, he was there -- no matter what. Jones even was there in October 2012, when his throwing error during his last game as a Hall of Fame player contributed to Atlanta's loss in a home Wild Card Game. In postgame interviews, he answered every question, then he answered some more, and he was there within moments after his gaffe.
I also think of Smoltz, another future Hall of Famer who wasn't shy before cameras and notepads with the Braves. He was either a starter or a closer throughout their record streak of 14 straight division titles. Even though that streak led to five National League pennants and a World Series championship, it also produced a slew of excruciating losses for Atlanta during the postseason. Smoltz always was there in the aftermath, usually with Jones across the way, and the same was true of Justice during the early part of the streak.
Justice took his role as the Braves' "face" so seriously that he used the media to take the pressure off his tension-filled teammates the day before Game 6 of the 1995 World Series. With the Braves holding a 3-2 advantage over the Indians going into that home game, Justice stood before reporters and ripped Atlanta fans for what he said was their lack of enthusiasm compared to their Cleveland counterparts. He said, if the Braves lost the World Series, they would have their houses burned by Braves fans in Georgia. Justice was given the chance to back away from his comments the next day, but he refused.
As planned, the pressure went from Justice's teammates to the man himself, and then he did what the "face" of a franchise often does: He matched his words with action. Justice hit a solo homer in Game 6 that was the only run the Braves needed to clinch a World Series championship in a 1-0 victory.
Before Jones, Smoltz and Justice, there was Dale Murphy, who collected two NL MVP Awards, five Gold Gloves and four Silver Slugger Awards despite spending most of his 15 years with the Braves through 1990 on awful teams. More impressive, Murphy was there, no matter what. And you know Aaron was the epitome of that "face" with the Braves, especially when he showed dignity and patience while battling Babe Ruth's ghost and death threats to become baseball's all-time home run king.
Which brings us to Freeman, whose huge contract is the result of hitting more than 20 homers during each of his three Major League seasons. Just last year, he batted .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Freeman's .443 average with runners in scoring position was second in the Major Leagues to Allen Craig's .454. He also is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder.
Freeman didn't have to worry about that "face" thing last season, because veteran pitcher Tim Hudson was around, and so was perennial All-Star catcher Brian McCann. Prior to that, Jones still roamed Atlanta's clubhouse. Now those players are gone, and the ones that remain -- spanning from the Uptons (B.J. and Justin) and Jason Heyward to Chris Johnson and Evan Gattis -- don't have the credentials with the Braves to become the "face" of the franchise. That leaves Freeman, whether he likes it or not.
I'm guessing not. Freeman wasn't the most available soul in the Braves' clubhouse during his previous three full seasons when it came to his interaction with the media, and dealing with the media is the biggest thing The Face of a Franchise must handle the most regarding any team in sports. This isn't to say Freeman is malicious with reporters. It is to say, during the fleeting times when he does speak to the media, his interviews are brief, usually with Freeman suggesting he would rather be watching grass grow in the infield.
That has to change.
About $135 million says Freeman hasn't a choice.