LOS ANGELES -- One thing, more than any other, took Freddie Freeman by surprise during his first series from Dodger Stadium: the amount of times his new fans chanted his name, after more than a decade of hostility when he played for the visiting Atlanta Braves.
"They're chanting every time I go up to bat," Freeman said with a laugh, "like I gotta do something special every time."
Those chants came again in the bottom of the first inning on Monday afternoon, when Freeman strolled to the batter's box to face his former team to begin what promised to be an emotional series. This time, Freeman lived up to their expectations, lining the second pitch he saw into the gap in left-center field and over the fence for his first home run as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a storybook moment for a man who, until recently, never thought he'd play for any team other than the Braves.
Welcome to LA where the players play. pic.twitter.com/pps1QUGXFZ— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) April 19, 2022
Later, after the Dodgers had completed a 7-4 victory, Freeman did his best to shoot down the home run's significance. There was "no poetic justice," he said. Only happiness in reuniting with an organization he openly still adores.
"I know there's storylines," Freeman said, "and everyone wants to run and say this and that, but the only storyline today was I was just happy to see my friends again."
About a half-hour earlier, Freeman was on the field alongside his wife and three children to receive the Silver Slugger Award he won last season. Also by his side were Braves manager Brian Snitker and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, both of whom were instrumental in Freeman's development as one of the best hitters in the sport.
Moments later, a video tribute played for Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers' celebrated former closer, who was greeted by Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, third baseman Justin Turner and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman with framed mementos from his first career save in the summer of 2010.
Monday's series opener between the Dodgers and Braves presented a rare, emotionally charged pairing of two franchise icons who coincidentally -- and, in both instances, shockingly -- signed free-agent contracts to join each other's former team last month.
Jansen, the converted catcher who saved 350 regular-season games in a dozen years with the Dodgers, got lost on his way to the visiting clubhouse early in the afternoon and admitted that "the adrenaline is definitely up" for his return to L.A. Freeman, a 12-time All-Star and one-time MVP who won the World Series in the last of his 12 years with the Braves, said his emotions were "all over the place."
"Obviously, there's just a lot of emotion going on right now," Freeman said in front of a hoard of media members in the Dodgers dugout less than four hours before the first pitch, "but a lot of good emotion."
The first person Freeman saw when he stepped off the elevator was Braves head athletic trainer George Poulis, who proceeded to snap his photo.
"Oh, geez, I'm not ready," Freeman told him.
Later, Freeman visited the Braves clubhouse and passed around hugs. He met privately in Snitker's office. Then he saw the Braves' general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, who traded for Freeman's replacement, Matt Olson, while Freeman remained a free agent. Freeman greeted Anthopoulos as "world champion." The two got emotional as they spoke in the first-base dugout, so Freeman decided to move the rest of the conversation inside so that cameras wouldn't catch them.
Anthopoulos nearly broke down when he addressed reporters the day after acquiring Olson from the Oakland Athletics. Freeman -- clearly hurt and admittedly surprised -- angrily dismissed Anthopoulos' tears during his introductory news conference with the Dodgers. But the two spoke over FaceTime for three hours about a week later.
"That was the closure I needed," Freeman said. "Now, it's just happiness in seeing him and friendship, because we spent so much time together over the last four years trying to win a World Series, and to be able to accomplish that -- it was just good to see him."
Jansen, who won his ring with the Dodgers during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, signed a one-year, $16 million contract with the Braves on March 18, two days after Freeman agreed to terms on a six-year, $162 million deal with the Dodgers. Freeman's deal complicated matters for Jansen. It put the Dodgers too close to the third tier of the luxury tax threshold, prompting the need to shed salary in order to fit Jansen's contract. The Braves, the team Jansen grew up rooting for in Curacao, came with an offer and needed a quick answer. Jansen took it.
The emotions of joining another team hit him shortly thereafter, during phone conversations with Turner and Clayton Kershaw.
"Growing up in baseball, playing for one team is like leaving your parents to go to college or whatever you want to call it," Jansen said. "It was exciting to see what the future held, being on a new team, and also it was very emotional."
Freeman guessed that he had already distributed 25 hugs and shed tears four times when he addressed the media at around 3:30 p.m. local time. It was his first time seeing them all since they took part in a parade nearly six months ago. The Braves' manager of video operations, Rob Smith, was wearing his World Series ring, and Freeman playfully told him to take it off. Freeman won't get his until late June, when the Dodgers play the Braves on the road and he returns to Truist Park for what promises to be another emotional series.
"It's been a lot," Freeman said. "Every day, emotions are going in and out. I didn't know what to expect coming into today and how the emotions were gonna play, but when I saw everybody, it was just pure happiness. It really was. Just seeing all the guys and staff members. Just giving hugs and saying, 'I miss you.'"