Freddie Freeman is running a little late, but he hurries to throw down breakfast in a back room, then walks back out and takes a seat in front of his locker.
“8:45,” he said, as he looks up at the clock, then back at me. It was the time he had scheduled an interview.
Have you always been this punctual?
“When I’m by myself. When I’m with my wife, not really,” he said, chuckling.
Do you have a strict routine?
“Yeah. When things don’t go right, I don’t feel right. I like to have everything specifically timed. How long it takes me to get ready. How long it takes me to get to the field. How long it takes if I detour to Starbucks. Everything is calculated. I started it three or four years ago when I started to get older. I used to fly by the wind, but I thought, ‘OK, it’s time to figure this thing out.’ Probably about the time I got engaged. I was like, ‘OK, I made this commitment. So let’s do everything else, too.’”
Most things, he will schedule. This rebuild was not one of them.
The Braves have missed the playoffs four consecutive seasons and have a cumulative record of 207-278 in the past three. It’s a spiral Freeman never saw coming when he signed an eight-year, $135 million extension in the winter of 2014.
He hit .307 with 28 homers and a .989 OPS and .346 with runners in scoring position last season, despite missing 45 games, most because of a fractured wrist. He has been the Braves’ best player for a while, but that doesn’t carry much cache when you play for one of baseball’s worst teams.
He said he can “start to see the light at the end of the tunnel” now. But there’s that old joke: The light at the end of the tunnel may be an oncoming train. The Braves have youth, but with youth comes unpredictability.
Freeman doesn’t regret signing the long extension. He would love to retire as a one-team player, like former teammate Chipper Jones. But these past few years haven’t been easy on him. He’s 28 years old and eight years into his career and he wants to win yesterday.
When asked about suddenly being one of the oldest players in the Braves’ spring training clubhouse filled with young players, even on the “veterans’ side” of the room, Freeman said: “I’ve felt old for a couple of years now. The last few years have been tough. This whole side of the locker room has been new guys. It’s been a rough four years, there’s no sugar-coating it.
“The last couple years, it hasn’t been fun coming to spring training, knowing that you’re just not going to be able to compete with the Nationals.”
Did he think it would take this long?
“No. I never projected we would even be in a rebuild. When I signed my deal we had just won the division. I think because I was so young, I didn’t know the difference. I was drafted by this team. They brought me up when I was 20 years old. They gave me every opportunity, and then they gave me an eight-year deal. They chose me when they traded everybody else. If they believed in me, I was going to believe in them. It’s not about yourself or the accolades. The only thing I want is that ring on my finger.”
The winter allowed Freeman to regain strength in his left wrist. Lasik surgery in October means he won’t have to wear contact lenses on windy game days, which often caused dry eyes and blurriness.
“I can wake up and see, which is the greatest thing ever,” he said when he arrived at Disney.
Freeman has never been a vocal leader. It’s not in his personality. But he does feel a sense of responsibility for the team’s success because of his stature and seniority.
“When I walk in now, I feel like all eyes are on me. I embrace that,” he said.
It’s why getting injured last season devastated him. “I couldn’t be with them,” he said. “I want to be here through this down part every step of the way so I can know how good it feels when we’re up.”
He’s tired of waiting. He’s also not buying into the notion that free agents will flock here, even if Liberty Media suddenly allows the Braves to spend money.
“It’s time to start winning,” Freeman said. “Everybody talks about how much money we have coming off the books next year. But you can (offer) somebody as much money as you want -- they’re still not going to come if they don’t have the opportunity to win. If you have a choice between the Atlanta Braves and they’re winning 70 games a year and somebody else is winning 85 and they have a chance to go to the playoffs, (free agents) are going there. That’s why this is one of the biggest years in franchise history.”
He said he has never thought about requesting a trade. He still believes better days are coming. He said, “It’s not unheard of that we can go from 72 wins to 85. The Braves have done that before. It was 27 years ago.”
He was alluding to the worst-to-first transition in 1991. The team jumped from 65 wins to 94. The 1990s forever changed how the franchise would be defined. It’s the most optimistic of reference points. But when you’re Freddie Freeman, you need to have that outlook.
“It’ll be a sweet feeling when we start winning,” he said.
Listen to the, “We Never Played The Game” podcast. Check out the podcast showpage at AJC,com/sports-we-never-played-the-game. Subscribe on iTunes or, Google play, Stitcher, TuneIn, or listen from the AJC sports podcasts page or the WSB Radio on-demand page.