For a few hours Thursday, before they opened the 2022 season as defending World Series champions against the Cincinnati Reds, the Atlanta Braves celebrated.
The players walked through the village outside Truist Park so fans could show them love, resembling a college football team’s march through campus to the gridiron.
A highlight video outlining their improbable title run was shown on the videoboard as the World Series trophy, the franchise’s first since 1995, sat on a table in the infield.
Paratroopers glided onto the outfield to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” A red banner overlooking right field was revealed. Hall of Famer Chipper Jones threw on a jersey and threw out the first pitch. The crowd exploded during introductions — even offering former Dodger and nemesis Kenley Jansen a rousing ovation.
But an absence hung over the festivities. The local icon who caught the final out of that championship, and immediately snuck the ball into his back pocket, wasn’t there. The only glimpse of Freddie Freeman came via footage from last season.
Freeman became a franchise cornerstone and fan favorite over the previous 11 years. He endured lean years, stomached October heartbreak, and starred on the path to that elusive championship. But he and the Braves went their separate ways last month. The Braves acquired Atlanta native Matt Olson from the Oakland Athletics. Freeman signed with the Dodgers and returned home to Southern California.
The sequence, played out over a 72-hour span, was shocking. Freeman was expected to finish his career in Atlanta. On Thursday, Freeman was in the past.
“Me and Freddie are obviously great friends. Hopefully, he'll come to my wedding this offseason,” Braves shortstop Dansby Swanson cracked before the Braves’ 6-3 loss. “But I think this is the reality of sports. The business of sports happens and you have teammates come and go.”
A day earlier, the Braves’ brightest star wasn’t as amiable.
In an Instagram Live interview conducted in Spanish with Dominican journalist Yancen Pujols, Braves outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. said he and Freeman clashed during their four seasons together.
“Me? Nothing,” Acuña said when asked what he will miss most about Freeman.
Acuña, 24, said the two players didn’t talk much. He called Freeman “a tremendous baseball player, a superstar,” but said he wouldn’t greet Freeman with anything more than a handshake.
He relayed a story from his rookie season in 2018 when Braves veterans called him into the manager’s office and wiped the eye black off his face because they didn’t like it. Freeman was presumably one of the veterans.
“When you come up as a rookie, there’s always somebody who wants to stick it to you,” Acuña said. “You come with your swagger from the minor leagues. You do your eye black . . . your sunglasses, your hat a little crooked. A lot of people look at it as wrong and I don’t look at it as wrong because it’s part of the game. So, a lot of veterans stuck it to me, when I came up in 2018, a lot of them stuck it to me.”
Acuña said he didn’t speak up because he was in his first year. The Venezuela native, 21 at the time, was named National League rookie of the year after hitting 26 home runs with a .917 OPS. An All-Star in 2019 and 2021, Acuña tore his anterior cruciate ligament last July and watched the Braves win the World Series without him. Acuña isn’t expected to return to the Braves lineup until next month.
On Thursday, before the Braves took the field without him, he claimed the media blew his comments out of proportion.
“I didn't say anything bad,” Acuña said in Spanish. “I didn't, at any moment, disrespect him. Like I said, the only thing I said was what happened in 2018. It’s something in the past. …The press exaggerated it.”
But Acuña’s comments were enough to draw a response from Freeman on Thursday. Speaking on MLB Network from Dodger Stadium, Freeman explained that the “eye-black situation” was a result of the Braves’ organizational rules established before he arrived in 2010. He said he was one of the veterans tasked to enforcing the rules. To him, it wasn’t anything personal.
“Obviously, I heard everything that was said,” Freeman said. “But I’m going to miss Ronald, [his son] Charlie is going to miss Ronald, my family is going to miss Ronald. That’s my side of it. I love Ronald Acuña and I can’t wait for him to get healthy and get on the field. I think he’s great for the game of baseball.”
Freeman later hopped on a flight with his new team to Denver where the Dodgers will begin their season Friday against the Colorado Rockies. His goal is to dethrone the champions he helped create with the team he helped eliminate in the National League Championship Series less than six months ago.
Meanwhile, the Braves seek to become the first club to win back-to-back titles since the 2000 New York Yankees. Before the pursuit consumes them, they’ll savor their accomplishment from October a little longer. The ring ceremony is Saturday. Freeman will wait for his jewelry until he returns to Georgia as the foe in June.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.