Freddie Freeman spent much of the summer of 2009 in Pearl as a Mississippi Brave. (Photo courtesy Mississippi Braves)

My gut reaction to the Atlanta Braves deciding not to sign Freddie Freeman? Here goes: The bean counters — heartless, ungrateful SOBs that they are — win again. I can’t believe Freeman, a Braves company man since before he played in Pearl at age 19 in 2009, will finish his career in somebody else’s uniform.

In case you can’t tell, I did not like the news one bit. I have followed Freeman’s career with particular interest since he came through Trustmark Park — a tall, skinny kid with a goofy grin, still developing his man strength.

Freeman was called up to Atlanta at the end of the very next season and has played all of his 11 full Major League seasons for the Braves. He has hit .295 with 271 home runs and 941 runs batted in. He has been clutch. He also has played an immaculate first base. He has been one of baseball’s really good guys, really good teammates — the face of his franchise since Chipper Jones retired.

Rick Cleveland

And now he’s gone, probably to the Los Angeles Dodgers. We will see. The end was signaled Monday when the Braves announced a trade that will bring Matt Olson, formerly the first baseman for the Oakland A’s, to Atlanta. Olson is a fine young player who hits for power, plays exceptionally well at first base and, at 27, is five years younger and a whole lot cheaper than Freeman.

The Braves traded four outstanding prospects for Olson. Mississippi Braves fans are extremely familiar with centerfielder Christian Pache and catcher Shea Langeliers, who have played recent seasons in Pearl. M-Braves fans would have become familiar with young pitchers Ryan Cusick and Joey Estes, who figured to be through Pearl over the next couple seasons.

Back to Olson: He hit .271 with 39 homers last season. He is an Atlanta native, from all accounts another good guy and teammate. There’s only one problem with Olson: He’s not Freddie Freeman, and he can’t help that.

Freddie Freeman’s first home run as a Mississippi Brave in 2009

Video courtesy Mississippi Braves

So here’s my reaction to Monday’s news after much Monday cussing and fussing and then sleeping on it: I still don’t like it, but the more I look at it, the more I understand it from Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos’s perspective. Apparently Freeman wanted a six-year contract, and Anthopoulos was only willing to go five, knowing that precious few sluggers remain as productive into their late 30s.

Anthopoulos, it should be noted, earned his keep and then some for the Braves last year after injuries had decimated the ball club and the Braves seemed dead in the water. The GM’s mid-season acquisitions of Joc Pederson, Adam Duvall and Jorge Soler and Eddie Rosario resurrected the team en route to a World Series championship.

Granted, manager Brian Snitker, another former M-Brave, was terrific. So was Freeman. So was a replenished bullpen. But the Braves would not have come close had it not been for Anthopoulos’s brilliant maneuvering. You ask me, Anthopoulos earned at least some benefit on of the doubt on his decision-making. And he believes the Braves short-term and long-term future look better with the younger Olson at first base and with the club not having nearly $200 million tied up in Freeman over the next six seasons.

From all accounts, Anthopoulos was emotional when he announced and discussed the trade. He said it was as hard to pull the Freeman trigger as anything he has ever done.

Freddie Freeman didn’t have to shave often as a 19-year-old Mississippi Brave in 2009. (Photo courtesy of Mississippi Braves).

Bottom line: This is baseball in 2022. And it has been this way for years. Braves fans should know this all too well. Remember, Hank Aaron retired a Milwaukee Brewer, not an Atlanta Brave. Greg Maddux played his last seven seasons with the Chicago Cubs, not the Braves. Tom Glavine spent most of his declining years with the Mets, not the Braves. John Smoltz played for two different teams after the Braves let him go. Those are all Hall of Famers we’re talking about. Freeman surely will be, too.

Olson? Time will tell.

Where Freeman and the Braves are concerned, it’s a two-way street. Freeman could have taken the Braves’ reported offer five-year deal for $135 million and retired there. Or the Braves could have done what they always did with Chipper Jones, which was sign him to a lucrative extension before he ever got into the final year of his contract.

Frankly, I wish the latter had happened. It did not. That’s baseball, 21st century style.

Today, I prefer to think back to the summer of 2009 when Freeman and his then-best pal, Jason Heyward, spent most of a season in Pearl. Heyward was the more prized prospect of the two. He was more physically advanced, more a grown man than Freeman. The ball sounded different coming off Heyward’s bat. I remember telling Phillip Wellman, then the M-Braves’ manager, I thought Heyward was going to be a Hall of Famer. Wellman responded with something like this: “Don’t sleep on Freddie Freeman. When all is said and done, he very well could be the guy people remember most.”

Here we are nearly 13 years later. Heyward has hit .259 with 158 homers. Again, Freeman has hit .295 with 271 dingers. No contest there.

We won’t know for at least three or four years whether the Braves made the right move Monday. Those of us who have watched them closely over the last 11 years know only this: An era has ended. And we will have nothing but positive memories of Freddie Freeman as a Brave, both in Atlanta and way back when in Pearl.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.