Commentary

Down to his last strike

David Freese overcame his own indifference, injuries and three brushes with the law

Updated: December 16, 2011, 10:23 AM ET
By Molly Knight | ESPN The Magazine

David FreeseBryce Duffy for ESPN The MagazineFreese calls the Eat-Rite Diner a St. Louis institution. Now he is too.

This story appears in the Dec. 26 "Year in Sports" issue of ESPN The Magazine.

AT 1 A.M. ON A FROSTBITTEN THANKSGIVING MORNING in St. Louis, David Freese waits on a downtown sidewalk while an autograph seeker runs back to her car to look for a Sharpie. Freese and several friends have just left a bar that was half-empty when they arrived an hour earlier but swelled to capacity when patrons began texting their friends that the local boy from Lafayette High-turned-World Series MVP was there. As he sat on a corner bar stool in jeans and a button-down sipping ice water through a straw, the room closed in on him.Suddenly he was the center of it, surrounded by fans, many of them tipsy, edging closer for a photograph, a handshake or a chance to tell him the story of where they were when he hit the triple and then the homer that saved the Cardinals' season. "It's crazy. A couple of months ago, no one knew who he was," said Freese's close friend Mark Sanders as he watched the scene unfold.

It's barely a month since Freese's historic postseason carried the Cards to their 11th championship, so his buddies are still getting used to the idea that he belongs to St. Louis -- now and probably forever. When baseball historians look back on 2011, they will unearth a season defined by unbelievable comebacks from teams down to their last strikes. If they look closer, they will discover that the unlikely hero in the middle of this narrative of resilience had been rehearsing his role since he first faced the idea of becoming an adult. "For so many reasons, I shouldn't have been there," said the 28-year-old third baseman in an interview at Busch Stadium earlier that day. "I shouldn't even be in this game."

On the surface, Freese is referring to his three alcohol-related arrests in the past nine years, but really he's talking about the battle he's fought with a part of himself for much longer. It's the private struggle that makes it impossible for him to take any of his newfound fame for granted. Amid a whirlwind of media demands, including a Tonight Show visit and presenting at the CMA Awards, he takes the time on his walk to the clubhouse to greet every stadium worker he passes by name. He insists he still has a hard time believing a reporter would fly 2,000 miles to talk to him. He says he doesn't want this article to focus on his past mistakes, but during the course of an hourlong conversation, he can't stop himself from circling back to them. The wounds are too fresh to ignore, and it's impossible for him to fully describe what it feels like to be on top of the world without putting it in the context of how dramatically his life has turned around.

Without saying so directly, he cautions not to tell his story so it feels easy to wrap up. Starting with baseball itself. He admits he hasn't always loved it and at times fell back on it simply because it was enforced structure. Always a Cardinals fan, he soured on playing the game as a teenager and quit after his senior year, turning down a scholarship to play at the University of Missouri and instead opting to enroll as a regular student. He pledged Sigma Alpha Epsilon and, like many red-blooded 18-year-olds, developed a fondness for partying. "My GPA was just brutal, and I was headed down the wrong road," Freese says. "Baseball was in the rearview mirror."

So he left Mizzou after a year, moved home with his folks and asked the coach at St. Louis Community College-Meramec for a spot. Just as he was getting back on track in the fall of 2002, he was hit with his first DUI. "It was pretty awful, because things hadn't really changed," says Freese. But he clung to the game. Sanders, who also played baseball, met Freese and was blown away by his instincts. At a summer-ball game, they faced a pitcher with a filthy slider, and after two at-bats, Sanders had struck out twice, badly fooled. Freese was 2-for-2 with two doubles. "So I asked him: 'Is this guy tipping his pitches? How are you doing this?'" says Sanders. "And he tells me he's been listening to the way the catcher's gear squeaks to figure out if he's setting up inside or outside." Sanders followed his lead and in his next at-bat roped a double.

After two years at Meramec, Freese left home for South Alabama and played well enough to be named Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in 2006. The Padres selected him in the ninth round, just before the Cardinals could take him. "They picked our pockets," says former Cards exec Jeff Luhnow, who was recently hired as the Astros' GM. "He was always a guy we liked, so we kept a close eye on him." When the Padres called the Cardinals about centerfielder Jim Edmonds a year and a half later, St. Louis asked for Freese. A deal was reached, and Cards GM John Mozeliak called Freese to inform him he'd be coming home. "I was sitting in a Burger King and screened the call because I didn't recognize the number," Freese says. "When I heard the message, I thought it was a buddy playing a joke on me."

He eventually called back, spent most of the next two seasons with the Cardinals' Triple-A Memphis team and went into 2010 projected as the Cardinals' third baseman. Then, during the off-season, he was hit with his second DUI. (A public intoxication charge two years earlier had been dropped.)

[+] EnlargeDavid Freese
Jeff Curry/US PresswireDavid Freese twice saved the Cardinals' season in Game 6 and will forever be a St. Louis legend.

When asked for details about the road he was on, Freese declines to answer. He makes it clear that he was embarrassed and distraught about the incident, enough so that he did something behind the scenes to flip the script. He credits Matt Holliday. After the DUI, the Cardinals outfielder told Freese, who is single and prefers living alone, to stick by him, that he wasn't going to let him screw up his gift. Last off-season, the two were always together, hitting, lifting and hanging out at Holliday's house. They talked about life, relationships, busting your ass and putting the bad behind you. "That was the greatest thing, because I had a role model to learn from daily," says Freese, who isn't drinking now. "He's a big brother to me -- a great teammate, person, everything. He's a big reason I'm still in this game." Holliday says he took Freese under his wing mostly because he liked him. "He'd had some adversity, sure, but he's a good person and a low-key, humble guy people are drawn to," Holliday says. "He's matured and recognizes what's important."

Throughout his ordeals, there was never any doubt that Freese could hit a baseball hard. He is tall (6'2") and slender for a third baseman, with a quick bat and decent pop. In 604 career at-bats, he's hitting a solid .298/.354/.429 with 15 HRs and 98 RBIs. But freak injuries have kept him off the field for roughly half of his three big league seasons. In 2009, he had left-ankle surgery. In 2010, when a rehab assignment took him to Double-A, he was rounding third base and blew out his right ankle so badly that he needed reconstructive surgery that took eight months to heal. Doctors cleared him for spring training in February but told him they wished his wheel had up to two more months to recover. No worries: A fastball to the hand on May 1 caused him to miss that much. "Breaking my hand actually allowed me to play through the postseason," says Freese. "My ankles got to recover. Funny how things work out."

You'll have to excuse the pitchers from the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers for not laughing after Freese torched them with a .397/.465/.794 line with five home runs while setting or tying playoff records with 21 RBIs, 50 total bases and 25 hits. After going 1-for-9 with six strikeouts vs. Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels> in the first three National League division series games, Freese experienced a Game 4 brain click that changed history. In his first at-bat, he was late on a Roy Oswalt off-speed pitch and knew he didn't have a chance in hell of catching up to his fastball. Watching video in the Busch clubhouse, Freese realized the issue was that he wasn't planting his front foot quickly enough. "From that moment, everything took off," he says. Next at-bat, he doubled to give the Cardinals the lead in the pivotal game. In the sixth, he hit a homer to seal it.

Two hits to help knock out the Phillies would have been enough to elevate Freese to pinup status in baseball-obsessed St. Louis, but he wasn't done. Game 6 of the World Series will be replayed for as long as people search for poetry in sports, but it sure started out ugly. The error-prone Cardinals committed three blunders in the first five innings, including a lazy popup that Freese took off his cap. After the incidents and injuries, a baseball to the noggin during the biggest game of his life seemed appropriate. "When that ball bounced off my head, the front page is flashing through my head saying: Hometown Kid Blows It," recalls Freese.

When the bottom of the ninth began with the Cardinals down two and Neftali Feliz on the mound, it looked as if all that was left was the defeathering. With two on and one out, Freese watched from the on-deck circle as Allen Craig struck out looking. "I'm walking up to the plate going, Geez, what an awesome spot to be in, never having faced Feliz in my life, and that guy is just nasty," Freese says. The flame-throwing righty started Freese off with two sliders. "I'm thinking, This is not fun," he says. Freese swung through the third pitch, a fastball that allowed him to adjust his timing. Down 1 and 2, he looked for a fastball middle away and got it. Rightfielder Nelson Cruz was playing in. Off the bat Freese heard the home crowd erupt, but he was running so hard he didn't see the play. When they erupted again, he knew it had fallen. He hit third base on his knees. "I knew where my family was sitting, so I looked up and saw my mom losing her mind," Freese says.

What happened next was bonkers. Leading off the 11th, Freese told himself to just get on. He worked the count to 3 and 0 against Mark Lowe but realized there was no way he'd get the green light. The next pitch was a ball the umpire called a strike, which kept Freese in the batter's box, albeit peeved. He took a good cut on 3 and 1 but missed. Down to his last strike, again, Freese remembered Lowe had struck out teammate Lance Berkman on a devastating changeup earlier in the series. He hadn't seen it yet, so he geared up for it. "People ask if I was trying to hit a home run, but every time in my life I've tried to do that, I've grounded out to third," says Freese. "I was just trying to put the ball in play." He did, sort of. It landed over the centerfield fence. The Cardinals took the Series the next night, and Freese's life changed again.

Now children approach him nervously for his signature in sandwich shops. Cubs fans confess they find him awesome and then swear him to secrecy. Free pizza comes his way. At a recent boxing event benefiting local firefighters and police officers at the Scottrade Center, a bodyguard and velvet VIP rope weren't enough to keep the masses around him from creating a fire hazard.

It would be easy for Freese's ego to spin off this planet after the October he just had, but all the muck he's waded through doesn't allow that. His redemption story would have had book publishers and motivational-speaker agents lined up, but he wants that stuff kept private, locked up, far from where it could hurt him again. He won't be anyone's poster boy. He wants to be the guy in the cold waiting for a fan to return so he can sign, the guy to count on to battle back with two strikes.

Molly Knight is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.