AMONG THE MANY ADVANTAGES TO BEING A RESIDENT of the St. Louis area who happens to play for the Cardinals, a significant one is that during the off-season, when virtually all of your teammates escape the Missouri winters for places that are gentler in climate, you have little cause to do anything but stick around town and train with the only other Cardinals hitter who has long called the city his full-time home.
So two winters ago, while the snow blew outside, David Freese—who grew up in Wildwood, Mo., 45 minutes west of Busch Stadium—hit baseballs with Albert Pujols five times a week at a facility called Balls-n-Strikes, in suburban Ballwin. While Freese, now 28, was duly impressed with his up-close, one-on-one time with the game's best hitter—"Every swing that he took, I could learn something," Freese says—the gap between the teammates' views of each other isn't nearly as broad as it could be, considering that one has hit 445 regular-season home runs and the other 15. Pujols expressed his long-held appreciation of Freese during the Cardinals' raucous clubhouse celebration after they had defeated the Brewers to win the 2011 National League Championship Series. "If David's healthy, he's a guy who's going to have a great year," Pujols said. "He's a guy who can hit 25--30 home runs, drive in 100 runs, hit .330. I think he is showing it right now, in these high stakes."
As Pujols heaped his praise, elsewhere in the clubhouse Cardinals players were anointing Freese—with champagne, which they poured on his head as they chanted, "M-V-P! M-V-P!" Freese won that award for the NLCS after batting .545 with three home runs and nine RBIs. He would have been on the short list for Division Series MVP if that award existed, as he had driven in a team-high five runs in five games against the Phillies. He did win MVP of the World Series, after knocking in seven runs—including three game-savers in Game 6—and batting .348. His 2011 postseason also included a 13-game hitting streak, and his play did not surprise his teammates. "We all think he'll be one of the premier third basemen in the league for the next few years, for sure, and he's demonstrating that to a national audience now," said outfielder Lance Berkman during the NLCS.
"This guy is a winning player," says Tony La Russa, the Cardinals' manager. "The healthier he is, the more he will help us win."
That's the rub. For three years Freese has been unlucky in health. He was to have entered 2009 as the Cardinals' rookie starting third baseman, but in January of that year his SUV skidded off an icy road when he was on the way to a charity fund-raiser hosted by former major league reliever Brian Boehringer. "Floorboard came up and kind of banged my feet," Freese says. That accident seems to have precipitated two years of trouble below his shins, a period that included reconstructive surgery on his right ankle, two surgeries (to remove bone spurs and scar tissue) on his left ankle and a total of just 87 major league games played. His .299 average, five home runs and 43 RBIs were tantalizing, but nothing more.
Freese had all of that behind him this season, batting .375 during April. Then, on May 1, Braves reliever Scott Linebrink hit him on the left hand with a 93-mile-per-hour sinker, breaking the hand and requiring the implanting of a metal plate and five screws. That last bit of misfortune might have tested the resolve of many 28-year-olds who were still considered prospects, but Freese says his never wavered. He already had experienced an extended period away from baseball—from playing it, and even from rehabbing in order to play it—and he had found that being away from the game did not suit him at all.
Freese was a first-team all-state player at Wildwood's Lafayette High, where he was three years behind current Phillies slugger Ryan Howard. But as graduation approached Freese decided that he simply didn't want to play baseball anymore. "I just kind of hung 'em up," he says. "Everybody was like, 'What are you doing?' But I was just burned out. I just wanted to be a student, be a kid, go to Mizzou, join a fraternity, that kind of route. My parents were the only people who supported that decision."
His parents—Lynn, a retired seventh-grade language arts teacher with frosted blonde hair, and Guy, a civil engineer with the same pale-blue eyes as his son—accepted it, but didn't think it would last. "I remember going to what was supposed to be his very last baseball game," says Lynn. "I told everyone, Don't worry, he'll be back."
A few weeks before Freese was to return to Missouri for his sophomore year, after a freshman year during which he started to pursue an engineering degree—"He's kind of a techie; you know how these kids are today," says Lynn—Freese asked his parents to sit down with him. He told them that he had decided to play baseball again, even if it meant that he would have to leave his fraternity brothers at Missouri for St. Louis Community College. (He would later transfer again, to South Alabama.) "He said, 'There's no way I can sit in a cubicle for the rest of my life,'" says Lynn.
Nine years later similar thoughts ran through Freese's mind in the moments and days after Linebrink's pitch shattered his hand, as he worked to get healthy. The injury was projected to keep him out until August. He was back by late June. "That year that I wasn't playing baseball?" Freese says. "That gives me drive."