Freese trying to catch fire
PITTSBURGH – The fairy tale, the one where David Freese morphed from couch-sleeping role player to World Series MVP for his hometown team, is over.
Four-plus years removed from an unlikely run with St. Louis that brought the franchise its 12th championship, Freese finds himself trying to re-ignite his career in Pittsburgh. There the 33-year-old third baseman was on opening day, hitting third behind Andrew McCutchen and dinging Cardinals ace and good friend Adam Wainwright for a pair of hits while adding some typically responsible defense in a 4-1 victory.
A month ago Freese was an out-of-work free agent in Florida waiting for the phone to ring. On Sunday he donned a No. 23 black-and-gold jersey and spent three hours trying to stop the guys in red-and-white with the familiar “Cardinals” scrawl across the front, several of whom he remains close to after spending nearly a decade with the organization he grew up idolizing.
Yeah, it’s a little weird but then again, Freese isn’t complaining. The vibe he picked up the moment he walked into the Pirates clubhouse isn’t much different from the one he felt in St. Louis from 2009-13.
“The structure in itself is huge,” Freese said. “From the top all the way down, there’s a plan, there’s a purpose. Everybody is there to help, to teach, not just wear a uniform.”
And Freese is simply trying to fit in. He was randomly assigned No. 7 when he signed in the middle of spring training. When he realized the number belonged to former Pittsburgh manager Chuck Tanner, who led the “We Are Family” group to the 1979 World Series crown, he balked and asked for No. 23 instead.
“I explained out of respect didn’t feel comfortable wearing Tanner’s old number,” Freese said.
It’s that kind of selflessness that made Freese such a hit in St. Louis. So did an epic postseason in 2011 when he hit .397 with five homers and a major league-record 21 RBIs in 18 games. He was an All-Star in 2012 before getting traded to the Angels in November 2013. He was steady if not spectacular with the Angels, who let him go over the winter after he hit a career-low .257 in 2015.
Freese spent January working out in Florida with a group that included Wainwright. The Pirates, looking for help and an experienced infield bat, reached out, but the sides were “planets apart,” according to Hurdle. The gap narrowed over time and Freese signed a $3 million, one-year deal with a team that has shown an uncanny knack for turning reclamation projects into comeback stories, a plan whose graduates include A.J. Burnett, Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano among others.
“The street cred is out there,” Hurdle said.
Freese noticed. He watched firsthand as Pittsburgh embraced the team after two decades of mediocrity, noticing the buzz at PNC Park building a little bit each time the Cardinals rolled through from 2011-13. He arrives impressed but not surprised by the Pirates’ success and is more focused on fitting in than standing up and giving a lecture on what it takes to win it all.
“This is a real chill group, a great group,” Freese said. “It’s a group that has one thing in mind: enjoy themselves and win as many games as they can. This club knows what they’re doing.”
And the Pirates believe Freese does as well. Filling in at third while Jung Ho Kang recovers from a broken left leg, Freese made two important stops in the opener, including a tricky in-between hop in the sixth to preserve a 2-0 lead.
“He’s hungry, he’s got an edge,” Hurdle said.
A sense of humor, too. Freese joked he planned on winking at Wainwright when he stepped into the batter’s box on Sunday. They temporarily hit pause on their friendship when Freese hit a sharp single for his first hit as a Pirate.
“When he has history with our team like he does, it’s hard not to think about that kind of stuff going into the game and remembering his great moments here,” Wainwright said. “At gametime, you’ve got to start competing. I was out there, I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I did not throw him very many good pitches, that’s why he got a couple hits.”
Something the Pirates hope happens with regularity as they try to finally chase down the Cardinals after finishing runner-up in the NL Central each of the last three years. Freese is already taking grounders at first base to make himself more useful whenever Kang returns, eager to be a part of another pennant race.
“I’ve been privileged to be part of a core for six, seven seasons where you walk in and you’re expected to go to the playoffs,” he said. “That’s what I want to be a part of here.”