Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2021

Three Guys Worth Celebrating, On Franchises That Aren’t

The only thing left is the parade.  The longest season ended half an hour shy of midnight east coast time Tuesday when Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson corralled a grounder off the bat of Houston’s Yuli Gurriel.  Swanson’s first glance was to second for a force play, but when he saw teammate Ozzie Albies wasn’t covering the bag, he immediately turned and threw to first.  There Freddie Freeman was waiting, and when Atlanta’s longtime star caught the throw for the final out, he was already grinning.  The 7-0 shutout of the Astros sealed Atlanta’s four games to two World Series win, so on Friday fans will celebrate their baseball team’s first championship since 1995.  In what must be the first ever two-part victory parade, local faithful will be able to choose between joining the party along a lengthy stretch of Peachtree Street in the heart of the city, or eleven miles to the northwest along Cobb Parkway, near the team’s suburban stadium.

Pulling off a bifurcated parade on schedule will require good timing, but then no major league club had more exquisite timing this year than Atlanta.  The team struggled through the season’s first four months, losing several key players including its biggest star to injury, while also separating itself from an outfielder charged with domestic violence.  But with vital contributions from trade deadline pickups, Atlanta stormed down the stretch, going 33-18 from August 6th on, good enough to go from .500 to winning the weak NL East.  Once into the playoffs, Atlanta refused to be typecast by its modest regular season pedigree, besting two National League opponents with far better records through the first 162 games before soundly defeating the Astros, holding the team that led the majors in scoring to a total of only four runs in the four Atlanta victories, which included two shutouts.

Regardless of which franchise claimed the sport’s ultimate prize, for many fans without a personal attachment to either club this was a less than ideal Word Series.  L.A.-based sportswriter Molly Knight, who recently left The Athletic to start her own excellent Substack newsletter, headlined her piece on the pairing “The Chop versus the Cheaters.”  Kevin Blackstone, a frequent ESPN contributor, opined in the Washington Post that as bad as Houston was for abusing the sport while riding its 2017 cheating scheme to a title, Atlanta was worse, not just for its mocking caricature of Indigenous people, but also for abandoning the heavily black downtown neighborhood of Turner Field in favor of the white suburban location of Truist Park.

Yet for all the ample reasons a cheer for either club sticks in one’s throat, there were individuals on both teams with stories meriting the congratulations, or condolences, of fans. 

The broad smile that split Freeman’s face even as Swanson’s throw found his glove was born not just of joy but also relief, equal parts the happiness of someone who is by all accounts one of the nicest people wearing a big league uniform and the release of a franchise’s face finally achieving a long-sought goal, perhaps in his final game with Atlanta.  Freeman was drafted by Atlanta in the second round of the 2007 MLB Amateur Draft and made his big league debut in September of 2010.  By the start of the following season, he was the team’s regular first baseman, and he has locked down that corner of Atlanta’s infield since.  He’s a career .295 hitter with an OPS of .893 who has surpassed 20 home runs in all but two full, 162-game, seasons.

With five All-Star selections and the 2020 National League MVP Award, Freeman has been the most recognizable and popular member of the team through most of his time in Atlanta, certainly since the 2012 retirement of Chipper Jones and until the recent arrival of Ronald Acuna Jr.  That popularity extends to opponents, for he regularly greets those who arrive safely at his station warmly, congratulating them on getting a hit, and chatting them up while they’re in his vicinity.  Freeman says he goes out of his way to be positive both because he remembers how nervous he was when he started, and because, as he told an interviewer at the start of the postseason, “I know how hard it is to get a base hit in a major league baseball game.”  Freeman also knows the weight of being the face of the franchise.  In five previous seasons he led Atlanta to the playoffs, four times as a division winner, only to exit short of the World Series.  This season was his last before entering free agency, and while Freeman says he’d like to stay in Atlanta, how Atlanta’s front office will value its 32-year-old star is unknown.  His campaign mirrored the team’s, as Freeman struggled early, carrying a sub-.200 batting average through the season’s first six weeks.  But by the time he hit for the cycle for the second time in his career in mid-August, Atlanta was rolling and so was Freeman, his average up to .301.  Tuesday night, in his potential final at-bat for Atlanta, Freeman drilled a no-doubt homer to center field for the final run of this year’s World Series. 

While Freeman, final out in his glove, started the celebration of Atlanta’s players on the field, third base coach Ron Washington was equally exuberant in Minute Maid Park’s visitors’ dugout.  Washington has spent half a century in professional baseball, but it’s likely that the last ten of those years have seemed the longest.  That’s because as manager of the Texas Rangers from 2007 through 2014, he guided his team to back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011.  Both trips ended in defeat, but the second was especially painful.  Leading three games to two and 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th of Game 6, Texas was one strike away from a title, with two St. Louis runners on base and the Cardinals’ David Freese behind in the count against the Rangers’ Neftali Feliz.   But Freese hit the next pitch for a double that tied the score.  The Rangers again went up by two in the 10th, and St. Louis was again down to its final strike in the bottom of the frame.  But once again, that proved one strike too many for Texas.  The Cardinals tied the score again, won the game in the 11th, and went on to win Game 7.

Through that heartbreak and subsequent battles with personal demons, Washington has remained remarkably upbeat.  He’s viewed as a genius at coaching infield defense and has been highly regarded by his players wherever he’s been.  And now, after a decade of waiting, he finally has the title that was twice just one good pitch from being in his grasp.

Of course, not everyone gets to celebrate when the World Series ends.  While the party was just getting started for Freeman and Washington, Astros manager Dusty Baker quietly collected his things in the Houston dugout.  Like Washington, Baker has spent a lifetime in the Great Game, as a two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger and Gold Glove winning player, and as a highly respected manager of five different clubs.  But while he played for the 1981 champion Dodgers, no Baker-managed team has ever won a title, even though every one of his clubs has made the postseason and despite his 12th place rank on the career wins list and three Manager of the Year Awards.  Hired by Houston in 2020 to clean up the stench of the franchise’s cheating scandal, Baker managed the Astros to the ALCS in that shortened season, and this year to Game 6 of the Series.  But the ultimate prize remains elusive.

So yes, as hard as it may have been for fans without a rooting interest to rally behind either of the franchises in this year’s Series, there were plenty of compelling individual stories.  In addition, if one subscribes to the view that there is nothing truly new under the sun, Atlanta’s triumph is a welcome omen for the faithful of at least one franchise among the twenty-nine that are not about to stage a parade.  For if history will only be so kind as to repeat itself, the near future is especially bright for the Yankees.  After all, the last time Atlanta won a championship, the team from the Bronx took four of the next five.

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