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Freddie Freeman may be one of the greatest players in the world, a true Atlanta Braves icon, who one day may be enshrined in Cooperstown.
But, does he ever stink as a poker player.
Freeman, 32, should be posturing these days, holding his cards where no one has any idea whether he’s in or out, bluffing his bosses into thinking he is leaving after the season, and heading into free agency where he’ll be one of the most coveted players this winter.
Instead, he’s a walking, talking billboard for the entire Atlanta organization.
This could be the final week of Freeman’s career in Atlanta. The defending National League MVP and five-time All-Star first baseman is a free agent after the season, with Atlanta’s fate determined this week with a three-game series beginning Tuesday at Truist Park against the Philadelphia Phillies.
If all goes well, clinging to a 2 ½-game lead with seven remaining games, Atlanta will be winning its fourth consecutive NL East Division title and awarded an all-expenses-paid round trip to Milwaukee to face the Brewers in the NL Division Series.
If things go awry, everyone goes home Sunday, and Freeman is in limbo, with the likes of the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, salivating at a chance to sign him.
Freeman has been around long enough to know there’s always a possibility he’ll have to go, but when you talk to him for nearly an hour, he’ll spend the entire conversation convincing you there could be no better place on earth.
If that happens, you better cover your ears, because he’ll be the one kicking, screaming, and crying out the door.
"I’ve been in this organization for 15 years, nearly half of my life, and it means everything to me," Freeman tells USA TODAY Sports. "I am an Atlanta Brave. I love his organization. I don’t know anything else.
"The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, you know, and the grass is pretty green here. I know there is a business side to everything, but I really do hope we can work it out where I'm staying here. It’s weird it’s even gone down to this. But there’s nowhere else I want to go.
"It would mean the world to me to spend my entire career here."
You talk to Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos, manager Brian Snitker, his teammates and nobody can see him leaving.
Freeman embodies everything about the Braves organization, representing what Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera meant to the Yankees during their Hall of Fame careers.
"I have so much respect for him and how he plays the game," says Los Angeles Dodgers Cy Young candidate Max Scherzer, who competed in the same division with Freeman for nearly seven years. "He plays it like a pro, but has fun in how he plays. He just plays the game the right way."
Freeman is Atlanta’s ultimate role model, reminding teammates that you don’t wear sunglasses on the front of your baseball cap so the “A’’ is always proudly shown. The dress code has been relaxed to wear jeans on trips, sometimes even team-issued sweat suits on flights, but pardon Freeman is he still prefers sports jackets and collared shirts. You take batting practice, you better be wearing an Atlanta warm-up top. You hit a routine ground ball, you hustle like you’re in an Olympic tryout. You want to be a Gold Glove infielder, then you’re on the field every single day working with infield coach Ron Washington.
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"He epitomizes exactly what the Atlanta Braves are all about," says Snitker, 65, who has been in the organization since 1977. "It’s perseverance, consistency, how you carry yourself, the person you are. I tell [bench coach] Walt Weiss, we need to shoot videos and show the minor leaguers, 'This is how you’re supposed to play the game.' He’s one of the best players in the game, and he plays it right.
"What he brings, and what he means to the organization, you can’t quantify it."
Says veteran reliever Luke Jackson: “I know he’s a free agent, but none of us can see Freddie ever wearing another uniform. I just can’t. He is the Braves. We don’t go anywhere without him.
"This is his team. We’ve got a lot of good players here, but everything revolves around him. You never want to let him down."
Freeman has been a metronome of consistency the past six seasons. He’s hitting .300 with 31 homers, 82 RBI and a league-leading 117 runs this year. He has 1,699 hits in his career, with the only players producing more hits since the franchise moved to Atlanta is Chipper Jones and Dale Murphy.
You think Freeman is critical to Atlanta’s offense?
He is hitting .344 with 20 homers and 54 RBI during Atlanta’s victories this season, and .249 with 11 homers and 28 RBI during their losses.
"He’s the best hitter I’ve faced," Scherzer said. "When I was in the NL East, I was constantly facing the best hitter in the league. It was healthy competition. It was like NASCAR, we traded paint, because we both went at each other so hard."
The only criticism of Freeman – if you can believe it – is that he plays too much. He has had only one day off all season, and has missed a grand total of five games the last four seasons. If there’s a game on the schedule, Freeman is playing.
Freeman simply can’t fathom how sitting out can possibly help the team. He gave up carbs and sugar, and recently learned from a kidney test that broccoli isn’t ideal for his body. His brother is his personal chef during the winter in Corona del Mar, California, making sure his body is ready for the rigors of a 162-game season.
"I hear some of that criticism that I should take more days off,’’ Freeman says, “but I don’t get it. It makes no sense. I don’t see how people can get mad because we’re playing so much. I’m a baseball player. My job is to play baseball.
"If there's a game that day, I'm playing. I don't understand coming to the yard and not playing. That's just who I am. What’s wrong with wanting to play every day? I’m a big believer in posting. You can’t put up numbers if you don't play, right. People talk about load management and how it’s beneficial to take days off. Well, I believe wholeheartedly that there are six tools and the sixth is going out there every day and posting."
There are those who try to convince him that RBI and runs scored are overrated and irrelevant in today’s game. It’s about exit velocities, and launch angles and BABIP, WRC, WOBA, and other analytic measures Freeman ignores. The last Freeman checked, whoever scored the most runs won the game, but then again, he’s old-school, where nothing really matters if you’re not winning games and helping your team to the postseason.
"I look at the scoreboard," Freeman says, “that’s how I know how I’m doing."
Freeman, who caught the tail end of Atlanta’s dynasty, and went through the rebuild, has seen it all in the organization. He played for Bobby Cox. He played alongside Chipper Jones. He accepted his MVP award from Hank Aaron. Now, Atlanta is vying for its fourth consecutive division title despite being without All-Star outfielders Ronald Acuna and Marcell Ozuna, starter Mike Siroka, catcher Travis d’Arnaud most of the season, with a constant turnstyle of new names and faces.
"To say it's rewarding and fulfilling is an understatement," Freeman says, "because this season has been the most challenging season in my career. It’s been such a crazy season. We’ve been down, but we’ve been able to come out of it, showing our character. It would have been so easy to give up, but we kept grinding.
"This group is as special as any I’ve ever been around, so if we can pull this off after everything we’ve gone though, when we could have easily been buried, it will mean the world to all of us.
"I’m so proud of what we’ve done, and if we earn a playoff spot after all of this, it might be a clubhouse celebration where I just sit in my locker and take a deep breath, and say, 'We did it. We really did it.' "
Winning in the only organization he knows, that he loves, and never, ever wants to leave.
"It doesn’t get any better than that," Freeman says, "does it?"
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Freddie Freeman, a pending free agent, leading Braves to postseason