The most stunning upheaval of all, however, may be what has happened to Freese, the overnight celebrity who will impact how the Cardinals carry on without Pujols. "Selfishly, I'd love to play with Albert my whole career," Freese says. "Who wouldn't? But you turn the page and move on. Now there's a different kind of excitement with this team.
"I think about [the World Series] all the time. Obviously it's the greatest experience of my life professionally. People talk about how I might not be ready [for camp] because I might sit on it. No. It's gives me more drive because I want to do it again.... And I feel like winning two is not enough."
Freese turns 29 in April and still has yet to play a full season in the bigs. Until October he was known, if at all, for unfulfilled talent. He grew up a fan of former Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds while attracting college coaches and pro scouts to watch him play shortstop for Lafayette High in Wildwood, Mo., just 45 minutes from Busch Stadium. But before his senior season, Freese told them he was quitting baseball at the end of the year. He wanted to attend Missouri, but not with the full baseball ride the Tigers offered. His parents, Guy, a civil engineer, and Lynn, a retired teacher, would have to dip into a college savings fund.
"It was just me being a kid," Freese says. "I was tired of the game, tired of putting so much pressure on myself. It pushed me in the other direction. I just wanted to go to school and be a kid. I can tell you right now that if I listened to everybody else and kept playing, I don't think I'd be here. My parents were virtually the only two people on the planet who supported my decision."
Says Guy, who coached David as a youngster, "We really never questioned him. We said, 'We support you.' I know his mother always thought he would go back and play, but I didn't think he would."
Freese joined a fraternity and a flag football team, fended off another inquiry from the Missouri coach to play and came home to a summer job doing maintenance work—repairing cabinets, laying tile and the like—for the local school district. One day the job took him back to Lafayette, where a feeling suddenly came over him as he gazed upon the banners hanging in the school gym: He wanted to play again. "It might be a cheesy story ... but that was the moment that changed my life," he says. "I missed the camaraderie, the guys, everything that baseball is about."
Freese telephoned Tony Dattoli, the coach at St. Louis Community College--Meramec, and successfully petitioned for a roster spot. Says Dattoli, "From the first day of batting practice there was a different sound of the ball coming off his bat. I remember telling him, 'You're going to be my first major leaguer.'"
Freese tore up junior college ball and did likewise to Division I, one year later, when he transferred to South Alabama. The Padres drafted him in the ninth round in 2006 but traded him 18 months later—to his hometown Cardinals in exchange for Edmonds. Freese played so well in Triple A in '08 (.306, 26 home runs, 91 RBIs) that the Cardinals planned for him to be their starting third baseman in '09. One month before spring training, however, Freese's small SUV skidded on a patch of ice and crashed, heaving the floorboard up against his feet. The accident triggered three surgeries to his ankles and feet, limiting him to 87 major league games over the next two seasons. After the 2009 season he was arrested for DWI in suburban St. Louis with a blood alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit. He had been arrested previously for the same offense in '02, when he was underage (19).
Asked about the incidents, as well as a charge of obstructing a police officer while a minor leaguer in the Padres' system in 2007 (he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years probation), Freese says, "I wouldn't be here talking if I didn't think I have things in line on and off the field. I'm in a special place right now."
When Freese finally did seize the third base job in 2011, he was again derailed by injuries. He was knocked out of the lineup twice by pitches that hit him: one that broke his hand in May and another that concussed him in August. But 97 games was enough for Freese to establish himself as a run producer (55 RBIs and a .354 average with runners in scoring position) with a natural opposite-field power stroke. "David Freese," Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire said last year, "can be one of the best hitting third basemen in the league."