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Back in the game, Cardinals' Freese has hometown team eyeing a title

Among the many advantages to being a native of the St. Louis area who happens to play for the Cardinals, a significant one is that during the offseason, when virtually all your teammates escape the Missouri winters for places that are gentler in climate and tax code, 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 -- would hit with Albert Pujols five times per week at the Balls n' Strikes facility in suburban Ballwin. While Freese, 28, was duly impressed with his up-close, one-on-one time with the game's greatest slugger -- "Every swing that he took, I could learn something," Freese says -- the gap between the teammates' views of one another wasn't nearly as broad as it could be, considering one has 445 regular season home runs to his credit and the other 15. "If David's healthy, he's a guy that's going to have a great year," Pujols says of his long-held impression of Freese. "He's a guy that can hit 25, 30 home runs, drive in 100 runs, hit .330. I think he is showing it right now, in these high stakes."

Through 11 postseason games, Freese -- who was named the MVP of the NLCS, and would have been on the short list for NLDS MVP if that award existed -- is batting .425 with four home runs and 14 RBIs and has a 1.315 OPS. Those contributions haven't surprised 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," says Berkman.

"This man is a winning player," says Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa. "The healthier he is, the more he will help us win."

A statement, it must be said, that can apply virtually any major leaguer, save those stout, below-average types who fool their managers into giving them playing time. In any event, Freese has for three years been unluckier in health than most. He was to have entered 2009 as the Cardinals' starting rookie third baseman, the heir to Troy Glaus, but in January of that year his Montero Sport skidded off an icy road when he was on the way to a charity event 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, two years that included reconstructive surgery on his right foot, two procedures to remove bone spurs from his left ankle and a total of 87 major league games played, in which his .299 average, five home runs and 43 RBI's were tantalizing, but nothing more.

Freese thought he had all of that behind him this season -- he hit .365 during April -- but then, on May 1, Braves reliever Scott Linebrink hit him on the left hand with a 93-mile-per-hour fastball, breaking it and requiring the implanting of a metal plate and five screws that will make Freese dread airport security lines for the rest of his days. That last bit of misfortune might have tested the resolves of many 28-year-olds who were still considered prospects, but Freese says his never wavered. He had already experienced an extended period away from baseball -- from playing it, and even from rehabbing in order to play it -- in his life and he had found that it did not at all suit him.

Freese was a first-team All-State player at Wildwood's Lafayette High, where he was four years behind current Phillies slugger Ryan Howard, but as graduation approached he 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 that supported that decision."

His parents -- Guy, a civil engineer, and Lynn, a retired seventh grade Language Arts teacher -- 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 was standing near the cyclone fence. I told everyone, don't worry, he'll be back."

A few weeks before he 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 techie, you know how these kids are today," says Lynn -- Freese asked his parents to sit down with him. "He said, we need to talk, don't say anything until I'm done," Lynn recalls.

Freese 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 Meramec Community College. (He would later transfer again, to the University of South Alabama). "He said, 'There's no way I can sit in a cubicle for the rest of my life,'" says Lynn. Similar thoughts ran through Freese's mind in the moments and days after Linebrink's ball had shattered his hand, as he worked to return from an injury that was projected to keep him out until August, if not the entire season. He returned by late June. "That year that I wasn't playing baseball?" Freese says. "That gives me drive."

* * *

On the wall just inside the main door of the press box at Busch Stadium hangs a framed photograph depicting one of the happier moments in the Cardinals' history. The photo is not some yellowed relic, but big and colorful and glossy, as it was taken only five years ago, and depicting the team celebrating in the clubhouse downstairs its most recent World Series title, each player pointing an index finger toward the ceiling. While many of the faces are recognizable -- there's Scott Speizio, with his goofy, red-dyed goatee; there's Jim Edmonds, in the center of it all -- the disconcerting thing is how many of them no longer remain, from a photo that looks as if it could have been taken yesterday.

Five years is a long time in baseball. The only Cardinals in the photo who still regularly tread the clubhouse's carpet are Pujols (his face is obscured in the shot by the upraised arm of reliever Brad Thompson), Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker and Adam Wainwright, the currently injured ace who was that team's closer. That sort of turnover suggests how difficult a task it is for a team with a payroll that does not rank among the game's highest to have success year after year, and also speaks to the fine work of John Mozeliak, the Cardinals' G.M. who has the franchise back in the World Series just five years later.

Mozeliak, 42, assumed his current position a year and three days after the Cardinals celebrated their most recent championship, and in short order began building for the future. One of his first orders of business was to trade the 37-year-old Edmonds to the Padres for a prospect named David Freese, who had two Junes before been drafted by San Diego in the ninth round.

"It was a Friday night, and I'd been emailing with him, asking him, what do you want for Christmas?" Lynn Freese remembers. "I think he wanted an iPhone. I said, you better hurry up and tell me, they're going to get sold out. I'm up in my spare bedroom, grading papers." Then the phone rang.

"Are you sitting down?" David asked his mother.

"Yeah, what's up?" Lynn replied.

"I'm coming home," David said.

He wasn't, quite yet. Freese spent most of 2008 and much of 2009, when he wasn't injured, with Triple-A Memphis. But he would get there eventually, and he would come, in many ways, to embody the Mozeliak-led transition from the Cardinals of 2006 to those of 2011.

"I think the way you look at it is, when you have a solid core, then the next piece of the puzzle is making sure you have the right compliments," Mozeliak says. "That first off-season, we moved Edmonds and we moved Scott Rolen. What we wanted to make sure was that we had something in our pipeline that could eventually play third base for us, and that was David. The thing I think is most interesting about him is his evolution from the trade to where we are today. He had the car accident, he had the injuries with his ankles. He's really marshaled through that and persevered, and it says so much about him."

"Freese, I thought he was probably the most underrated hitter in the league, maybe, but I've never seen him swing like this before," said Brewers starter Zack Greinke, who only retired Freese twice in six plate appearances in the NLCS, including surrendering a three-run homer in Game 1.

That Freese enters the World Series swinging like this for his hometown team has at least one downside. "I can't go to the store without being recognized, unless I can go at eight in the morning," says Lynn.

Not bad, as drawbacks go. "This is what every kid dreams of," Freese says. "I get to do it in my hometown. Sometimes I find myself just looking at the crowds. Being in the playoffs as a Cardinal is all I think about. There's times I lose sleep about it."

And so the boy who quit baseball because he thought he should do other things is now four wins from accomplishing what he really wanted all along.

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