By BEN WALKER
NEW YORK (AP) — As opening day finally approached, Freddie Freeman had far bigger concerns than perfecting his swing and practicing his scoops.
Just being able to walk a few steps was hard enough.
“It wasn’t the way I wanted to start, with COVID,” the Atlanta Braves first baseman said. “I was able to beat it.”
And then some.
Freeman easily won the NL MVP award Thursday, topping off a trying year that saw him become so ill with COVID-19 he prayed “please don’t take me.”
Chicago White Sox slugger José Abreu earned the AL MVP, a reward for powering his team back into the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Freeman got 28 of the 30 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts got the other two firsts to finish second, and San Diego third baseman Manny Machado was third.
In a season affected from spring training to the World Series by the pandemic, perhaps it was fitting the final major award of the year went to someone infected by the coronavirus.
Three weeks before the delayed opening day in late July, Freeman’s body temperature spiked at 104.5 degrees and he lost his sense of taste and smell. At one point, he recalled earlier, he said a little prayer because “I wasn’t ready.”
“It impacted me pretty hard,” he said.
Freeman said it took him a couple weeks into the season to find his footing. He tried to conserve his energy, too — he skipped the daily routine of batting practice on the field and cut down how much he hopped off first base while holding on runners.
The 31-year-old Freeman soon found his stride, batting .341 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs while playing all 60 games. A powerful lefty batter with the ability to spray the ball all over the field, he led the majors with 23 doubles and 51 runs.
Boosted by the four-time All-Star, the Braves won the NL East for the third straight season and came within one win of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1999.
Freeman is the sixth different player in Braves franchise history to be the NL MVP. Chipper Jones most recently took the honor in 1999 — Freeman wears a tattered Braves T-shirt under his uniform that was passed down to him from Jones.
Two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy of the Braves announced Freeman’s win on MLB Network.
Betts was bidding to join Frank Robinson as the only players to win the MVP award in both leagues. The 28-year-old outfielder took the AL honor in 2018 while leading Boston to the World Series title.
Traded by the Red Sox to Los Angeles early this year, Betts hit .292 with 16 homers and 39 RBIs and was the catalyst in the Dodgers’ run to their first championship since 1988.
Machado hit .304 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs as San Diego made its first playoff appearance since 2006. Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. finished fourth in the voting and Washington outfielder Juan Soto was fifth.
Cleveland third baseman José Ramírez finished second in the AL MVP voting and Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu was third.
Abreu led the majors with 60 RBIs and 148 total bases, and topped the AL with 76 hits and a .617 slugging percentage. He played in all 60 games during the virus-shortened season as Chicago claimed a wild-card spot.
“Ultimate run producer,” Freeman praised.
Surrounded by family members, Abreu put his head down for a minute after hearing he’d won and teared up.
“That was a very special moment,” he said through a translator.
The 33-year-old Abreu batted .317 with 19 home runs, connecting six times in a three-game series against the Cubs in late August. That barrage of longballs at Wrigley Field was part of his 22-game hitting streak, the longest in the majors this year.
Abreu gave credit to manager Rick Renteria, who left the team after the season in what was described as a mutual decision. Recently hired Hall of Fame skipper Tony La Russa is now facing charges in a drunken driving arrest — Abreu said he was eager to play for La Russa.
“Keep pushing forward, keep moving forward,” Abreu said.
Abreu was the 2014 AL Rookie of the Year and is a three-time All-Star. He became the fourth different White Sox player to win the AL MVP, joining Frank Thomas (1993-94), Dick Allen (1972) and Nellie Fox (1959).
Abreu was the third Cuban-born player to be an MVP, along with Jose Canseco and Zoilo Versalles.
This was the first time since Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau in 2006 that a pair of first basemen won the MVPs.
Freeman got a $185,185 bonus and Abreu received $37,037 for winning in contract bonuses prorated because of the shortened season.
AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber of Cleveland was fourth and Angels outfielder Mike Trout was fifth. A three-time AL MVP, Trout had finished in the top four every season since he was AL Rookie of the Year in 2012.
This will be the first time in more than 75 years the MVP trophies don’t carry the name and likeness of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner.
In an Associated Press story in late June, former MVPs Barry Larkin, Terry Pendleton and Mike Schmidt said they favored pulling Landis’ name off future plaques because of concerns over his handling of Black players.
BBWAA members overwhelmingly voted in October to remove any mention of Landis from the MVP trophy and the award won’t be named for anyone this year. The organization will discuss in 2021 whether to name it for someone else, with former Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson and Robinson among those being mentioned as possibilities.
“It’s just time. It really is time for the name to be removed,” Freeman said.
Pendleton works for the Braves, and Freeman paid attention when his friend spoke out over the summer. Freeman said he thought Robinson’s name on the plaque would be proper.
Landis became commissioner in 1920 and no Blacks played in the majors through his reign that ended when he died in 1944. Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
Landis’ legacy is “always a complicated story” that includes “documented racism,” official MLB historian John Thorn has said.
In 1931, Landis gave the BBWAA control of picking and presenting the MVPs. During the 1944 World Series, the group decided to add Landis’ name to the plaque. His name had appeared on all MVP plaques since then and was featured more prominently than the actual winners of the Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award.