In the Hot Corner with Cardinals 3rd Baseman David Freese
The red-hot rookie shares his thoughts on the season, his struggles in getting to the majors and getting to play for his hometown.
St. Louis Cardinals rookie third baseman David Freese may not have 160-plus games under his belt in the big leagues, but he’s already one of the most buzzed-about Cardinals this season. Making a name for himself not only with the Redbirds, setting a franchise record for a rookie with six RBIs in one game during a series with the Braves in April and climbing from the eighth to fifth batting spot within four weeks of the season, David’s also attracting attention within the league, being named the National League Player of the Week in April.
And although he hasn’t experienced the pressure of postseason play or can share championship memories like that of the game’s seasoned stars, David Freese has quite a story. While it’s clear his talent and current stats put him on a path to a long, successful career, his beginning in baseball wasn’t as apparent. After years of playing and dreaming of one day playing for the Cardinals, Freese left the diamond just before graduating from Lafayette High School. Luckily for St. Louis, Freese greatly missed the game. After a short hiatus, he returned to the field. Five years later, the rookie, who had been drafted by the San Diego Padres in the ’06 amateur draft, was traded to the Cardinals in part of the deal that sent Jim Edmonds to San Diego prior to the 2008 season. For David Freese, coming to St. Louis was not just the chance to start his career; it was a long-awaited homecoming. I sat down with this promising young player to talk baseball, the 2010 season and his struggles in getting to the big leagues
ALIVE: What are your thoughts on the team and season so far?
David Freese: It’s going well. I think we have a strong lineup and I don’t think too many clubhouses can say this, but every guy in that clubhouse is part of the family. And to be honest, I’m just happy to be a part of that family. I feel truly lucky to be able to go out there and help the team win.
ALIVE: How has it been not only as a rookie, but a rookie starting in your hometown and dealing with extra attention from fans and the media?
DF: I struggled right out of the gate at the beginning of the season, I really had that tough inning in Milwaukee where I made a few errors and I can see why the media really jumped on it. Being a rookie puts you under a microscope more and everyone critiques you more easily. Scrutiny comes with the territory; it’s just something you’ve got to handle.
ALIVE: What about the rewards? Anything positive?
DF: It’s flattering to see all the support I get from not just friends and family, but also the fans. But the main thing you’ve got to worry about is producing—that’s your number-one priority. It’s great to drive in six runs as a rookie, but it’s the guys who got on base in front of me that really get the credit. One thing I’ve learned is that you just have to go out there the next day and do it all over again. It’s a clean slate. Whether it’s bad or good, each day, and game, is new. That’s hard to remember when you’re having a rough series, but if you’re mentally tough, you can focus.
ALIVE: Who has mentored and helped you on the current team?
DF: First and foremost, Skip Schumaker. From the first day I stepped into the organization, Skip and I became friends, and he’s played a huge role in helping me get where I am. Mark McGwire is the next name that pops into my head right away. His knowledge of the game alone is helping me, because he was a rookie once, and he understands the ups and downs. And baseball aside, Mac is just a great human being; I got the chance to get to know him during spring training and now that he’s back in the game, people get to see him not as a player, but more as a person. And it’s awesome having him around—we [the team] consider him one of the guys.
ALIVE: I know that having McGwire as the hitting coach has been a much talked about move for the Cardinals. How has he been helping your game, besides the obvious?
DF: Mac has helped me with the mental side—there’s a big difference between the minors and the majors. You’re facing the best pitching around and you have to have the mental toughness to get through the ups and downs.And that’s the one thing that he and Mike [Aldrete] work on with us. The whole coaching staff is really good at keeping you positive and that’s huge to have as support as a rookie.
ALIVE: When did you first start playing baseball?
DF: I started playing when I was about four. My dad was a little league coach, and we started playing catch on the side of our house growing up. He’s a big reason why I’m here today. I played throughout my childhood—I lived and breathed baseball. Then, during high school, just before my senior year, I started to get burnt out. Looking back I think I just took it for granted, but I remember that I just didn’t want to play anymore. The two people who really supported this decision were my parents; they were always there for me no matter what I decided. They wanted me to be happy. Sometimes I think deep down they wanted me to keep playing, but as parents they supported me.
ALIVE: So you finished high school and entered college at Mizzou in 2001. What were you going to do? Had you thought about a career?
DF: [laughing] No, not really. To be honest, growing up, you always dream of being a big leaguer if you play baseball. Nothing else really ever occurred to me. And after a year of not playing, I felt something was missing. I just had the itch to play again. So, just before I started my second year at Mizzou, I called the coach at St. Louis Community College at Meramec and asked to play for the Magic. It was then that I realized that baseball was going to be my life. And that if I got back into the game, I was going to go all the way.
ALIVE: Looking back, do you regret the decision to quit?
DF: No. I can honestly say that if I didn’t quit for that year, I don’t think I would be playing today. If I had done what everyone else had told me to do— to not quit—I think I would’ve been burnt out even more. That one year was good for me; it made me understand that baseball was a big part of me and I found the love for it again.
ALIVE: How did you go from joining the local community college team to getting to play for the St. Louis Cardinals?
DF: It’s been a wild ride. I took it one day at a time. When I started playing again, I knew I was a year behind. But what helped me was the overall competitive nature of the sport and the camaraderie with all the players and the coaches. It was hard work, but it was fun at the same time. I had to battle through some injuries [Freese broke both his wrists playing a friendly basketball game with friends in 2003] but I was able to play before the regular season ended. I got a scholarship to the University of South Alabama and played for one season there before getting drafted [by the San Diego Padres in the 9th round of the ’06 amateur draft]. I was already 23 years old by then, so as one of the oldest kids in the draft, that meant that I had to climb the ladder pretty quick. A year later, in December ’07, I got a call from Mo [Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak] saying congratulations, I was traded to the Cardinals and would be coming home—I thought he was kidding.
ALIVE: And after playing for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds for a season, you made your major league debut during the 2009 home opener against Pittsburgh, only then to be sent back down to Memphis shortly after. What was that like?
DF: I remember they announced my name and I’m sitting there thinking, “is this really happening?” And obviously you’re nervous and excited. My first at-bat, in a sense, I wanted to get it over with and at the same time I didn’t want it to end. When you get that taste of being in the big leagues, it’s pretty special, especially in your hometown and having all your friends and family there watching. But I didn’t end up playing a lot and was sent back down [to Memphis]. It was tough, getting that close and it set me back a little bit. But, I just kept chugging along.
ALIVE: I’ve heard that you have a Batman mask as a good luck charm? Spill!
DF: Back in ’08, I was doing okay in Memphis, transitioning to Triple A. I’ve always been a huge Batman fan and around that time, The Dark Knight was coming out and I was hyped up about it. So some friends and I went to see it before a game, and I went four for four that game. One of our outfielders showed up a few days later and put a Batman mask in my locker. I started joking around and would wear it before games, and that’s when my season took off. I’ve kept it ever since and it’s still in my locker right now.
ALIVE: Well, you may carry a good luck charm, but you are definitely a talented young player with much to look forward to. Fast forward five years or ten years. What’s next?
DF: Well, obviously I hope I’m still playing because I love this game. My main goal is to win a World Series championship. That would be an unbelievable experience. And also, I hope to one day have a family. I wouldn’t be where I am today without mine.
Check out the behind-the-scenes video of the David Freese cover shoot here: alivemag.com/AliveTV/sub_aliveTV_main.cfm
Photo credit: Photos by Tuan Lee; Art Direction by David Hsia; Styling by Jill Manoff