2013 was a breakout year for Freddie Freeman on the field, as he raised his OPS 101 points to almost .900 and made his first All-Star team. But even more fascinatingly, it was also the year he became the Braves’ — hell, the city of Atlanta’s — first breakout Internet sports star.
The defining Freddie Freeman moment of 2013 wasn’t a home run (he had 23) or an RBI (he had 109) but this bit of nationally televised viral self-marketing in the Philadelphia visitors’ dugout before the All-Star break:
And with that, Freddie declared himself the insurgent in an All-Star fan vote that had seemed preordained to go to Yasiel Puig, a 2013 breakout star of a different sort. Puig has been slagged by hacky sportswriters across the land for all kinds of #HotSportsTakes reasons that I find too lame to address, but there actually is an interesting difference between his approach to stardom and Freddie’s.
Puig represents the old model, the early-2000s relation of a star athlete to media and fans. His physical gifts and his on-field demeanor are such that ESPN finds him to be ratings gold and hypes him accordingly. But the Puig image, as with Bonds or A-Rod before him, is of a Greek god who brought his gifts and his faults down from Mt. Olympus for a while for our critique, and to there he will return.
Puig (and this is not a slam on him, as he is quite recently from Cuba and could not possibly be expected to understand the American media) is fundamentally unknowable, or at least unable to project the image of knowability, because his narrative is not a thing he’s opted to control. Freddie’s genius is in understanding the modern media world well enough that he can use it to shape his own destiny.
Freddie Freeman operates at a level of physical giftedness that, while not quite Puig’s top-of-the-charts measurables, is still orders of magnitude above what you or I could relate to. But baseball is still a job, and what we can relate to is goofing with your co-workers to pass the day. Witness Freddie’s Twitter exchange with the Mets’ Matt Harvey in which he deploys the same type of joke my brother specializes in.
This was shortly after the All-Star Game, as Freddie was hitting his stride as the Braves’ interactive star. Later in the season someone would make him a superhero cape, and Freddie wore it to batting practice. Baseball’s a months-long reality TV show, but Freddie Freeman is constantly breaking the fourth wall and having fun with the ability to do so.
Back to that All-Star vote: while MLB has made the “Final Vote” a part of the selection process since 2002, #VoteFreddie was the first campaign that actually felt organic and not like some 50-year-old executive’s idea for how to relate to younger fans. It even got a journeyman named Steve Delabar into the ASG on Freddie’s coattails. I don’t think that was just a Puig backlash; I think Freddie just intuitively understands how to relate to his fan base (right down to the use of “‘Merica,” which signals that he does not take the campaign overly seriously and that he probably likes funny stuff on the internet too).
In that sense, his best comparable isn’t Eddie Murray or Paul Goldschmidt or anyone with similar statistics on his baseball-reference page. Freddie’s comp is Jennifer Lawrence, who is everyone’s favorite movie star because she’s impossibly talented but acts in public like she just woke up one day and happened to find herself one of the world’s top actresses. In an age where .gifs and BuzzFeed are the new wave, but photo shoots and People magazine are your parents’ celebrity journalism, this attitude is exactly the way to set Millennial hearts aflutter. And what’s the logical endgame of Freddie’s hug game if not to be featured in a “25 Best Freddie Freeman Hugs” .gif collection someday? (There is already a tumblr on point.)
If there were to be a Freddie Freeman backlash, it would probably be similar in tone to the BuzzFeed backlash; the charge being that what look like spontaneous expressions of joy and good humor are really just calculated click-and-like-bait designed by and for people who know what 25-or-so-year-olds like. But I don’t think this is applicable to Freddie. I think he’s an All-Star level ballplayer who found a way to stay a step ahead of the hot takes mongerers by bypassing them and directly inviting his fans to have fun with him. I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with in 2014, both on the field and off it.