The morning after two swings made him a household name and an October legend, Cardinals third baseman David Freese received a series of direct messages on Twitter from a new fan.
The long note came in 140-character bursts of congratulations, each attached to a picture of the author’s familiar, glaring, tattooed face.
Life as he knew it had clearly changed if Mike Tyson suddenly was in it.
The weeks and months that followed Freese’s game-tying triple and game-winning home run in Game 6 of the World Series would continue to bend toward surreal.
There was the Game 7 win against Texas and championship parade through downtown St. Louis. An appearance on “The Tonight Show” came next and a visit to “Ellen,” where he was handed a pair of underwear with his name and No. 23 ironed-on. He made a cameo appearance on a sitcom, did a photo shoot for GQ, and presented a winner at the Country Music Awards.
Sometimes his World Series MVP trophy came along, and during the whirlwind of fame he had a few free moments to think: What if Nelson Cruz had caught the ball that went for the triple?
“I think that winter is something that I thought about a lot, as quickly as everything escalated around the city, and I would sit down and wonder what if Nelson was playing a little deeper,” Freese said. “But he wasn’t. This was all cool. And it all starts with being a Cardinal. The foundation about how amazing this is is playing for my hometown team.”
The night that took this St. Louis-area native national still clings to him like a name tag, follows him like a shadow.
With the Rangers back at Busch Stadium this weekend for the first time since that World Series, Freese spent time Friday discussing his ninth-inning triple over Cruz’s outstretched glove and connecting that performance to the player he is now. But he had to fit the interview in around a visit to a hospital and scheduled autograph appearances.
A 20-game hitting streak helped raise his average to .276 after a sluggish start, but he referred to his stats as “somewhat lacking” so far. He called this season “more fun” than any in the past, but acknowledged the cold business that greets him at its end. Signed to a one-year deal worth $3.15-million and arbitration eligible again this winter, Freese is surrounded by younger players who could offer the Cardinals a cost-effective alternative at his position.
From that night forward, Freese is familiar with how his every action — crashing his car into a tree around Thanksgiving, for example — is news.
“At times it’s overwhelming,” Freese said. “I had a blast doing everything nationally. But in my opinion this is one of the biggest little cities in the country. What goes around gets around. Being somebody who grew up with a mom who was a teacher and living in the St. Louis-area for 25 years, it sure feels like in some way you’re connected to almost everybody. On the flip side, that allows people to believe they’re connected to me.
“Especially in a city where everywhere I go they want to talk Cardinals baseball,” Freese continued. “I’m open arms with it. But as much as I twist and turn about winning and helping this organization, I constantly have to keep reminding myself that baseball and my success — or my failures — does not define me as a person.”
End of the line looming?
A face of the franchise, Freese is also in many ways the nexus of the current Cardinals. He is a star forged out of a championship, the measure of the organization. He’s a Lafayette High grad and grew up cheering for the team. He came to the club from San Diego in exchange for Jim Edmonds, one of the heroes of the previous era, and he was in general manager John Mozeliak’s first trade. Now with Matt Carpenter, a third baseman by trade, starring at second base and prospect Kolten Wong rising to play second in the near future, Freese is in the vice of progress. As the Cardinals look to utilize the game’s top farm system, higher-priced players can be replaced.
“I see it,” Freese nodded. “I understand with our farm system there are a lot of options out there and directions the Cardinals can go.”
His play can help determine that.
Freese missed the first week of the season because of a back injury he suffered during spring training, and when he returned to the lineup his timing was off and so was his perspective. He acknowledged that he tried to “play catchup” in his first at-bats. At the end of April, his batting average dropped to .163. It had inched up to .209 and then on May 17 he sparked a 20-game hitting streak with a grand slam. Twice this season, manager Mike Matheny has given him a break because his body language appeared “frustrated.” That happened last week when he grounded into three double plays in one game against the Cubs.
“I’m extremely hard on myself,” he said, “maybe more so because I’m a Cardinal.”
Conversations with teammate Carlos Beltran that started last season have helped guide Freese through the rougher stretches because he’s learned to focus “on the process, not results.”
“You have to understand the type of player you are,” Freese said. “You can expand your expectations. But if you raise them so high that they are borderline unreachable, you’re going to go backward. Some years your average might be high, balls might fall in. Some years you’re going to have more RBIs. But if you’re a .280 hitter you can’t expect to hit .350.
“I’m a gap guy who grinds at-bats and drives in runs and crosses the plate and plays good defense,” he concluded. “Do all that and every now and then some cool things happen.”
Cool things like a Game 6.
Down to his team’s final strike, Freese drilled a pitch to the opposite field and off the wall to tie the game with a triple. He won it with an 11th-inning homer, then doubled to spark the Cardinals in Game 7. Stardom followed.
The MVP trophy is in a box in his closet still waiting for an appropriate place to be displayed. He gave the Corvette he won to his dad. He now exchanges Twitter direct messages with Tyson, and he’s become friends with “Mad Men” star and St. Louis native Jon Hamm. They text each other and caught a Blues game together this past winter. He has put distance between himself and some off-field mistakes, and he has turned to teammates to help grow spiritually, he said.
He said in the past two years he has been “trying to mature into a man,” and he knows he’s done so with everyone watching.
His place in Cardinals’ history is forever. His role in the Cardinals’ future is more fluid.
“I think that’s the way it should be,” Freese said. “I think about being a Cardinal tenfold more often than making the money. This is special to me, this jersey. … But I’m a one-year, arb guy. At the end of the year it’s up to the Cardinals whether they offer me a contract. That’s how this goes. That’s how I view it. I think it’s not worth losing sleep over wondering if I’m going to be a Cardinal the rest of my career. I have only so much control, if any.
“But it has been a hell of a ride so far.”