NEW YORK — As opening day of Major League Baseball's coronavirus-altered 2020 season finally approached in late July, 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 National League MVP award Thursday, topping off a trying year in which he was so ill with COVID-19 during the preseason that he prayed "please don't take me."
Chicago White Sox slugger José Abreu earned the American League 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. Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts got the other two firsts to finish second, and San Diego Padres 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 start, 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.
Freeman, who turned 31 on Sept. 12, soon found his stride, batting .341 with 13 home runs and 53 RBIs while playing all 60 games. A powerful left-handed 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 Division 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 player in 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 the third baseman, his former teammate who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.
Two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy, another former Braves star, announced Freeman's win on MLB Network.
Betts was bidding to join Frank Robinson, the only player to win the MVP award in both leagues. The 28-year-old outfielder took the AL honor in 2018 while leading the Boston Red Sox to the World Series title. Traded 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, with Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto fifth.
In the AL voting, Cleveland Indians third baseman José Ramírez finished second, and New York Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu was third.
Abreu led the majors with 60 RBIs and 148 total bases, and he topped the AL with 76 hits and a .617 slugging percentage. He played in all 60 games during the virus-shortened season as Chicago earned a wild-card spot in the expanded playoffs.
"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 crosstown 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. Abreu said he was eager to play for recently hired Hall of Fame skipper Tony La Russa, who is now facing charges in a drunken driving arrest.
"Keep pushing forward, keep moving forward," Abreu said.
Abreu was voted the AL's top rookie in 2014 and is a three-time All-Star. He became the fourth White Sox player to win the AL MVP, joining Frank Thomas (1993-94), Dick Allen (1972) and Nellie Fox (1959). Abreu is the third Cuban-born player to be an MVP, along with Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics (1988) and Zoilo Versalles of the Minnesota Twins (1965).
This is the first time since Ryan Howard for the Philadelphia Phillies and Justin Morneau for the Twins in 2006 that a pair of first basemen won the MVPs.
Freeman received $185,185 from the Braves and Abreu $37,037 from the White Sox for winning in contract bonuses that were prorated because of the shortened season.
AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber of Cleveland was fourth and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was fifth. A three-time AL MVP, Trout had finished in the top four of voting for the award every season since he was the top rookie 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, MLB's first commissioner.
In an Associated Press story in late June, former MVPs Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, Terry Pendleton of the Braves and Mike Schmidt of the Phillies said they favored pulling Landis' name off future plaques because of concerns regarding his handling of Black players.
BBWAA members overwhelmingly voted in October to remove any mention of Landis from the MVP trophy, and the award wasn't named for anyone this year. The organization will discuss in 2021 whether to name it for someone else, with Robinson and former Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson among those mentioned as possibilities.
"It's just time. It really is time for the name to be removed," Freeman said.
Pendleton still 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 with the Brooklyn Dodgers 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.