Stepping away helped Freese reach apex

Stepping away helped Freese reach apex

ST. LOUIS -- The itch resurfaced sometime during his freshman year at the University of Missouri, though David Freese didn't take it all that seriously at the time.

After so many years of having baseball dictate his social schedule -- or deplete it all together -- he was content to embrace life as a student. That meant attending classes and parties and sporting events as a fan. It meant shedding an identity that had been formed for him, when Freese was a standout infielder at Lafayette High School in the St. Louis suburb of Wildwood.

His stay at Mizzou was interrupted only by the summer, which brought Freese back home so he could make some money by working in the Rockwood school district maintenance department. He laid tiles, fixed cabinets and, to this day, remembers having a blast doing it.

Two weeks before returning to campus in Columbia, Mo., Freese made a visit back to his high school. He walked into the Lafayette gym. He took a reflective look around. That itch he'd been getting from time to time came back.

This time it stung.

"I said, 'What am I doing?'" Freese recalled. "Stepping away for a year ... kind of brought me back to the game and helped me realize how much I missed it.

"I called my mom and said, 'Let's go.'"

Nine years after a revelation rejuvenated his love for a sport that he had played since he was not much older than a toddler, Freese finds himself mobbed by cameras and ticket requests and the attention that comes when you help lead your hometown team to the World Series.

On a team flaunting regular All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, it was Freese who emerged as the National League Championship Series MVP in the Cardinals' series win over the Brewers. Freese had at least one hit in all six games, batting .595 with three homers and nine RBIs.

The postseason success isn't a shock on the local scene, where fans have followed Freese's journey since his days as a high school stud. Nor does it come as an unanticipated development to his teammates, with outfielder Lance Berkman going so far as to say, "I wouldn't be shocked if he won a league MVP at some point."

Rather the surprise in all of this is the disclosure Freese made on Tuesday, one day before he will take the field as the Cardinals' third baseman in Game 1 of the World Series.

It was that finding his way here, he said, meant first having to leave the sport behind.

Freese apparently kept the secret quite well.

Despite already making up his mind that he was going to quit baseball after his senior year of high school, Freese gave no indication of the impending decision. Not only were his coaches unaware, but Freese's play in the spring of 2001 suggested nothing short of full dedication to the sport.

Freese's .533 average his senior season still stands as a Lafayette record. He was widely considered the best shortstop in the state. A scholarship to Mizzou awaited him.

"Just a really, really sweet swing that David had," recalled Steve Miller, then the assistant coach at Lafayette. "The hands were real quiet, not a lot of movement. When he came up to the plate, he was always a tough out."

Miller, as everyone else did, found out Freese's plan to quit after the season ended. Even knowing the potential Freese was leaving behind, Miller opted not to intervene.

"A lot of kids will do that," said Miller, a longtime coach and athletic director. "They'll get burned out. They just have to go out on their own and once spring rolls around, spring fever hits. You say, 'This doesn't feel right.' They're the ones that have to change their mind. They're the ones that have to make the commitment."

Freese explains now that his reasoning lay in the negativity that he felt surrounded the game. Having been defined by the sport for so long, he just lost all desire to continue.

"It's pretty simple and kind of boring," Freese said, "but I just didn't want to play anymore."

After his epiphany the following summer, Freese began his journey back by placing a call to the head coach at Meramec Community College. He asked if there was a vacant roster spot. There was. After a stop there, Freese headed to South Alabama, where he put up impressive numbers during his senior year.

The Padres took Freese, then 23 years old, in the ninth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Six days later, Freese signed.

"David, just like [fellow Lafayette grad and Phillies first baseman] Ryan [Howard], was given an opportunity and took advantage of it," Miller said. "My goodness, with all the hardships he's gone through and the injuries, he's never given up."

Finding his way back to St. Louis, though, took both time and good fortune.

Freese played for a pair of Class A clubs in 2006 and joined the Padres' Class A advanced team in '07. The problem was that third basemen Chase Headley and Kevin Kouzmanoff blocked Freese from ascending higher. Freese actually spent a few weeks in October 2007 learning how to catch, in case that could expedite his path to San Diego.

A month later, Freese, sitting in a California Burger King, checked his voice mail. On it was someone claiming to be Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak.

"I didn't really believe it was him," Freese said. "I thought it was a buddy just playing a prank on me, so I didn't really call him back initially."

Other sources quickly corroborated Mozeliak's message, and Freese returned the call. When he did, Freese found out he was headed home as part of a one-for-one deal the Padres had swung to acquire Jim Edmonds.

Freese spent the '08 season in St. Louis' farm system. On Opening Day 2009, he was making his Major League debut less than 30 miles away from his childhood home.

"I got to the big leagues pretty quick and I think all the desire and dedication got me to that point," Freese said. "I knew I had to work hard. To be honest, if I was 20 years old and in the Minor Leagues, I don't know if I would have gotten to the big leagues that quick."

Sticking has been much more challenging, with injuries costing Freese significant playing time each of the last three years.

A left ankle injury and subsequent surgery limited Freese to 17 big league games in '09. A year later, right ankle surgery ended Freese's season after 70 games. He missed nearly two months recovering from a left hand fracture this year.

"There are a lot of guys who have talent. But to be successful in this league, you have to be tough," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "He's a very tough individual. He's had bad breaks with his ankle and his hand. This guy has got great insides, and it matches his talents. If he can stay healthy, he's going to be a star, year in, year out."

"He's special," added Berkman. "Whatever 'it' is, that guy's got it."

Freese has shown glimpses of that when he's been healthy, and he stepped up considerably during the Cardinals' late-season push into the postseason. He hit safely in eight of the team's last nine regular-season games and drove home five in a key 6-5 victory over the Mets on Sept. 21.

The contributions have only picked up in October. Freese has hit safely in 10 of the team's 11 postseason games and has four multi-RBI performances.

While unfair to consider this all a coming-out party, it certainly makes for a compelling coming-home story. And it's a story that never would have been here to tell had Freese once not walked away.

"The Cardinals are the talk of the school here and then comes David," Miller said. "It's just a neat story. Of all the trials and tribulations he's had, he's never given up. And look at where he's at now."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.