LOS ANGELES — There is a moment coming in his life after he bids goodbye to playing baseball that David Freese already can see as clear as any highlight he contributed to Cardinals history.
It’s summer. He’s back in his hometown of St. Louis. Maybe a crowd has gathered around him, maybe not. Freese’s son, Kai, is sitting beside him and leaning in as his father explains why he wanted to share this favorite place with him, why this was something he dreamed of doing together after retiring — a Cardinals’ game.
“I can’t wait for him to ask me questions about the game,” Freese said. “There are not many things that he’s going to ask me that I can answer. It’s mostly going to be, ‘Go ask your mother.’ I can’t wait to talk to him about stuff that I’ve been through or that I know, and yeah baseball is one of them. He’ll turn around and go, ‘Who is playing first?’ Well, that’s Paul Goldschmidt. That’s going to be sweet. You know who played there before him? Let me talk to you about Albert Pujols.”
In the home dugout at Dodger Stadium last week, Freese looked out to the field as he described this future he saw. He expects to return from a hamstring injury in September and play a part in Los Angeles’ quest for a third consecutive National League pennant and a first World Series title in a generation.
At 36, he has not officially said he will retire, but all indications are this October will be the last October of a career defined by Octobers.
After a trade from Pittsburgh to LA, Freese hit .417 in the 2018 World Series and slugged .773 in the playoffs, impressive enough to earn a one-year offer to return. His postseason reputation and their postseason aspirations were a fit. Freese is nearly eight years removed from his iconic game — a game-tying triple and game-winning home run for his boyhood team in Game 6 of the World Series — and six years removed from the trade that sent him away, for his own good.
With a decade in the majors, one World Series MVP award, two prominent car accidents and four foot surgeries to look back on, Freese greets possible retirement a far different man than he left St. Louis. He’s given up alcohol. He’s picked up the guitar. He’s moved to Austin, Texas. He fell in love and married Mairin O'Leary (now Freese), and their son, Kai, is almost 2.
During a 45-minute interview with the Post-Dispatch, St. Louis’ favorite son touched on it all. Edited for space and clarity, here is a conversation with the National League’s Mr. October, in the autumn of his career. He begins at the end, with unprompted praise for LA.
FREESE: Best team I’ve ever been on.
GOOLD: Why do you say that?
FREESE: I think it always starts with the talent. That’s going to show up. When you look at (president of baseball operations) Andrew Friedman, everybody underneath him, all the way down to the 25th man on the roster — which might be me — the intelligence is off the charts. What we focus on, in regards to winning the game that day. What we choose not to focus on, that’s so crucial. . . . Man, these guys around here just do an unbelievable job at preparing individuals (for) what they need to do to be successful. I think that’s the point. They take everybody individually. They attack you, they attack your mind, attack your game. And they try to make it grow.
Everything makes sense here. The reasons for why we do things on a daily basis is crucial. It’s about the players. Love that. It doesn’t exhaust you. Each player gets what they need and it’s proactive. This organization is also just ahead of most teams from an R&D (research and development) perspective it seems, rookie ball on up. . . . The underlying thing here is everybody wants it. It reminds me of when I was in St. Louis. The accountability. That’s the same as it was here. People ask me, ‘What’s the similarity?’ The daily accountability of ‘Let’s go kick some ass.’ That shows up here every day.
GOOLD: How much of that was why you wanted to come back here?
FREESE: Yeah, I was done. If I didn’t get traded to LA, I was getting ready to retire based on how I felt.
GOOLD: Physically, or mentally?
FREESE: Both. I think I showed up in September and October and they got to know me, and I got to know these guys. And it just fit. It got to a position where, ‘Yeah let’s do it.’ Physically, everybody remembers the wreck that I got into in 2012, and nobody really remembers the wreck I got into in 2009, where it pretty much almost ended my career and my life. I blew my feet out. I’ve had to battle that every day. And I’m over it. I’m very intrigued by how my mind is going to be when 80 percent of it isn’t worried . . .
GOOLD: About baseball?
FREESE: Baseball. I’m always on it. I don’t like that about myself. I’ve always tried to clear it and separate. But I think that’s who I’ve had to be to keep it going.
GOOLD: What’s LA David Freese like vs. St. Louis David Freese?
FREESE: I think my smile is more genuine now. I have more energy. I obviously have a family. I have a come a long way, which a lot of people do from age 25 to 35. I see the light at the end of the tunnel, so maybe my perspective is charging in a different direction. I’m still the same guy I’ve always been. I’m just better at being who I want to be.
GOOLD: Do you revisit that 2011 postseason much? We see it all the time.
FREESE: I creep on it every time I go into Busch.
GOOLD: Isn’t that a reservoir of confidence for you to draw on, those moments?
FREESE: I go back and watch the times I’ve gone on some runs for sure. I stay away from that homer (World Series Game 6, the winner) for whatever reason.
GOOLD: Can you still remember what that felt like?
FREESE: Oh, yeah. I think about it all the time. More than I’ll admit. I just love how I think about it differently than I used to.
GOOLD: Draw that line for me. How did you think about it before?
FREESE: It was heavy. Now it’s a bright spot in my life. I’ve always been grateful and thankful for all of it, but everything that came with it took me out of loving those moments. I’ve turned it around.
GOOLD: Would you like to coach?
FREESE: My ego thinks I’d be a very good coach. I think I would be a really good manager. I don’t know if I could talk to you twice a day, though.
GOOLD: Whoa, that’s a good line.
FREESE: That’s a joke.
GOOLD: I’m putting it in.
FREESE: Make sure you say, ‘It’s a joke.’ My ego thinks I have a lot to offer. Maybe for an organization at some point. The development of kids is enticing. So the amateur thing might get me more than professionally. We’ll see. If the Cardinals need me to run to Round Rock (Texas) and watch somebody . . .
GOOLD: When you look back on the trade, do you think it was inevitable?
FREESE: Yeah, I think two things were inevitable. Getting traded and never getting a multi-year deal from St. Louis because of my feet. I think that was a crushing thing for me. Especially after 2011, 2012, and 2013.
I had a rough year (in) ’13. But in the back of my mind (I was) assuming that this was all going to come to end when no one else really understood that. I know my chronic (injury) going on. So did the Cardinals. I was seeing ahead of where I probably should have been, and should have taken it as it was coming. And really embrace it and enjoy it more, instead of understanding what’s probably coming.
I wanted the storybook ending. I wanted 10 years in St. Louis. Hell yeah. That just was never going to happen.
GOOLD: In your time with baseball you’ve had the game sometimes taken from you, once you gave it away. It’s been a tumultuous relationship.
FREESE: I love the climb. In the scariest way, I love falling and climbing back up. That’s what I’ve learned through the years. That is what fires me. That is what gets the blood flowing. That’s dangerous. But it’s effective. It’s helped me. It now helps me.
GOOLD: What’s going to fill that if you don’t have the game?
FREESE: That’s a tough question. I think a very important challenge is still growing. With Kai, it’s growing with a 2-year-old. That is an important challenge that I’m going to take very seriously — a priority in my life. Grow as a family. Get better at the guitar. Maybe coach. . . . Man, we’re going to be in St. Louis a lot. I can’t wait to go to St. Louis and not have baseball in my mind from an expectations and pressure standpoint.
GOOLD: And yet one of the first things you say you want to do is go to a baseball game. How is fatherhood?
FREESE: I don’t even know what word to use. I’m just ready for it. Seeing Kai in the morning — sometimes he’ll jump in and wake me up because his mom lets me sleep. I’ll have to make up for that soon. It’s great. It’s just great. Besides being in the batter’s box or playing first or third, it’s probably the only time I’m in the present moment. Or playing the guitar. I’ve had trouble with that. That’s what so cool. I’m there — I’m there when I’m with my kid.
GOOLD: Have you introduced him to baseball?
FREESE: He’s got a tee in the kitchen. He doesn’t know what side of the dish — what cutter he wants to handle yet. He’ll smack the ball and clap.
GOOLD: What do you want your role to be on this Dodgers team?
FREESE: I want to be a reason why we win. Simple. First and foremost. I’m so at ease here. I walk in and I’m just myself — how I talk, what I talk about, how I go about my business. I think if I retired last year I would have a different feeling about the game. Which I am so thankful for. That is so important. Pitt was tough. But some great things have happened in my life, and being here is up there.
GOOLD: You’ve brought up a few times this idea of a “storybook ending,” and you never could step foot in St. Louis again and still forever be a part of Cardinals history, so isn’t that where it fits? That ending still could happen.
FREESE: Selfishly, the St. Louis stuff is good enough. It really is. Man, it’s so stupid to grow up in that market, to not get drafted by them, to end up becoming a Cardinal, and doing that, nothing better. I do think there is more for me to give to the game coming up — when I’m done. I will be around. Hopefully, there’s still a lot of time to help people and be a part of stuff and do things now with a clearer mind than I had years ago when I was just trying to get through stuff, just trying to shake hands and smile and say the right things. I want my last however many days — I want to be me.
The baseball thing is always going to be in my life. The Cardinals are always going to be with me. You’re going to see me at charity events. You’re going to see me at Busch Stadium. . . . I’m so thankful for it. It’s taught me a lot. As hard as I’ve made it for myself sometimes, it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. It can change you.