The Cardinals' new world order
With David Freese leading the charge, Pujols-less St. Louis begins title defense
St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese has grown accustomed to the idea that life is different now -- that he's going to have a hard time eating dessert in a local restaurant without some overheated Redbird rooter shoving a pen in his face and handing him a napkin to sign. That's the new reality for a native-son-turned-postseason-hero in a baseball-crazed environment.
But the fallout from Freese's October coming-out party also extends to some unexpected regions of the country. Let's start with Atlanta, where Chipper Jones sounds ready to either file adoption papers or run for chairman of the Fulton County Chapter of the David Freese Fan Club.
"He's my young guy that I have a man-crush on right now," Jones says, laughing. "I thought he was on the verge of superstardom for a couple of years, but some fluke injuries prevented him from really emerging as an elite third baseman. He finally had a healthy, productive season last year, and he was probably swinging it the best at the end when his team needed it the most. That's what studs are made out of."
Three weeks shy of his 29th birthday, Freese is a modest and reluctant star in the making. But he takes special pride in Jones' endorsement because it comes from one of his baseball role models. Freese has asked for a signed jersey from only one major leaguer, and that player wears No. 10 and plays third base for the Braves.
"To hear somebody compliment you is flattering," Freese says. "To hear Chipper Jones say it is special. Whenever I see him, I'll definitely thank him for that. He's lost his mind, but that's pretty cool."
As the Cardinals begin defense of their World championship on Wednesday night in Miami, Freese is part of a new world order in St. Louis. Chris Carpenter is out with a neck injury, but Adam Wainwright has returned from Tommy John surgery and is ready to reclaim his place among the game's elite starters. New manager Mike Matheny, the quintessential strong, silent type, was a bold choice to succeed Tony La Russa. And for the first time since 2000, the Cardinals must find a way to score runs without the comforting presence of Albert Pujols in the middle of the batting order.
That means an increased reliance on Freese and outfielder Allen Craig, who is out until May because of knee surgery. The two young hitters need to embrace their roles as more than complementary players to Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman in this post-Albert universe.
"I personally think Craig and Freese could hit 3-4 for a lot of teams in the big leagues," Berkman says. "It's hard to find young guys that are as calm in big situations, that trust their ability and know how to bear down and concentrate like they do. It's usually something you have to learn. Both of those guys were kind of born with it.
"I've been fortunate to play with a lot of guys who are special players, and they all have an 'it' factor. You can't necessarily put your finger on it, but you sure can identify it when you're around them. You say, 'That guy is special.' And David is. He's a bona fide star now."
If a player is determined to prove his mettle, there's no better time than October, when the scrutiny increases, the stakes are monumental and reputations are forged. If Freese could slow his heart rate and keep his wits about him with so much on the line, how can anything faze him now?
In hindsight, it's absurd to think that Freese's .545 average against Milwaukee in the NLCS was merely an appetizer. With St. Louis a strike away from elimination in the World Series, Freese delivered a game-tying triple against Neftali Feliz in the ninth inning of Game 6. In his next plate appearance, he homered off Mark Lowe to give the Cardinals a 10-9 victory in what some observers have called the greatest game in Series history. The following night, Freese's two-run first-inning double sent the Cardinals on their way to a 6-2 victory in the clincher.
He's shown so much to bust through those walls. What [David Freese] did in October is just a small glimpse of what he's going to do for the rest of his career.” -- Cards' hitting coach Mark McGwire
In the final accounting, Freese hit .397 with a .794 slugging percentage in the postseason. He won a 2012 Corvette as World Series MVP, and earned the everlasting gratitude of Cardinals fans. Five months later, he reflects on his magical run as if it were an out-of-body experience.
"I think you learn a lot about yourself when you step in front of Philly fans, Milwaukee fans and Ranger fans," Freese says. "You have to learn to embrace it and understand that the game isn't going to run away from you. You have to attack the game, and confidence is a huge part of baseball or anything in life. It doesn't matter if you're in an office or on an athletic field."
Freese had shown an intriguing array of tools since the Padres chose him out of South Alabama in the ninth round of the 2006 draft, but he didn't exactly quicken pulses around the game. Before St. Louis acquired him in a trade for Jim Edmonds in December 2007, Freese ranked 28th on Baseball America's list of San Diego's top 30 prospects. He was two spots ahead of noted draft bust Matt Bush on the list.
Even today, visions of grandeur for Freese are clouded by caveats. He's a below-average defensive third baseman, in part because of ankle problems that limit his range. Durability also remains a concern; he has a .783 OPS in 604 big league at-bats and he has yet to play 100 games in a season.
But it's hard to discount that "it" factor. St. Louis bench coach Mike Aldrete, formerly the assistant hitting coach to Mark McGwire, watched Freese down the stretch last year and saw an otherworldly sense of calm. It would be an understatement to say Freese was "locked in" during the playoffs and World Series.
"Watch any of the postseason tapes, and he was focused," Aldrete says. "I could tell from his cage work, which was hours before each game. I really liked the look on his face, his demeanor and his aura. I told him at the time, 'The best at that is Albert, and you've got it right now."'
Aldrete hit .263 for seven teams over 10 seasons, so he knows how difficult it is to attain a Pujols-caliber focus at the plate for such an extended period. Even batting champions and perennial All-Stars find the quest daunting.
"I had it for like three pitches one time," Aldrete jokes, "but I wasn't playing that day."
The magnitude of Freese's achievement -- and the Cardinals' achievement -- dawned on him when the World Series parade traveled down Market Street in St. Louis and he saw all those parking garages crammed to capacity. Day after day during the offseason, Freese accepted well-wishes from local fans who were predisposed to cheer for the kid from Lafayette High School in suburban Wildwood, Mo.
The parade was just a warm-up to a chaotic winter. In November, Freese was summoned from the stands during a Missouri-Texas football game and waved to an adoring crowd. He received a key to the city of St. Louis, attended the Country Music Awards, got a GQ fashion makeover and did interviews with Jay Leno, Ellen DeGeneres, Mike & Mike and "Access Hollywood Live." He talked to everyone but the ladies from "The View."
Nonstop adulation can make a man's head swell. But when Freese needs a lesson in perspective, he has plenty of handy reference points in his life and baseball career. The reviews weren't so glowing when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2009 or when he dropped a weight and broke his toe a year later. Last April, Freese suffered another dispiriting setback when Atlanta reliever Scott Linebrink broke Freese's hand with a fastball.
Freese has learned to live with the ups and downs by embracing his Christian faith and becoming more discerning about his circle of friends in recent years. He owes a huge debt of gratitude to Holliday, who looks out for him the way an older brother would.
"You have to stay grounded, and it starts with the people you surround yourself with," Freese says. "I've had my moments where I didn't really surround myself with the right people. I think everybody knows that."
As a born hitter, Freese has an abiding respect for his craft. He can routinely be found behind the cage watching Holliday, Berkman or Carlos Beltran and taking mental notes while they take their hacks. Freese has always been gifted with quick hands and a natural, all-fields approach. But he'll have to adjust when pitchers pound him inside with hard stuff and challenge him to pull the ball this season.
He is not a big advocate of video, unless his swing is completely out of whack. During the inevitable rough patches, he relies more on intuition, feel and an inner toughness forged during a time when he was nobody's darling. Slumps and hard knocks have taught him that the batter's box can be a lonely place on occasion.
"He's shown so much to bust through those walls," McGwire says. "I remember sitting down and talking to him and saying, 'There are reasons why certain things happen to you in life. Somewhere down the line it's going to pay off.' Then the World Series came and I told him, 'Dude, this is what's happened.' What he did in October is just a small glimpse of what he's going to do for the rest of his career."
When Freese reflects on the events of October, it's not the triple off Feliz or the home run trot against Lowe that give him a nice, warm feeling inside. It's the sense of belonging that comes with knowing he's in the right place. Another season has arrived, and he yearns to relive the experience.
"I see all the highlights," Freese says, "and I see everybody celebrating. Grown men running around like little kids. That's what this game is all about."