But for the want of one strike, the nanometer of measurements in the baseball universe, the Rangers would be opening spring training camp in two weeks under the halo of the first world championship in franchise history. That they are consigned to the infamy of near misses, right there with Robert F. Scott, Thomas Dewey, Alydar and the 1986 Red Sox, is due primarily to David Freese, the Cardinals' third baseman who tied Game 6 of the World Series with a triple and won it two innings later with a home run.
Talk about your extreme swings of history. If a historian, as Mencken defined one, is an unsuccessful novelist, what creative mind could have conjured this saga? Freese, largely unknown before October, woke up that day, as he did every home date of the postseason, on the drab olive sofa in the tiny spare room of a college buddy's St. Louis apartment—an arrangement born of both superstition and prodigious sleeping skills. Since the night of Oct. 27, Freese has yukked it up between Justin Bieber and Jay Leno on The Tonight Show, guested on Ellen, presented at the Country Music Association Awards, appeared on Access Hollywood Live (which dropped the 411 on Kelly Clarkson's being sweet on him), filmed a guest role on the ABC comedy Work It, received the key to the city of St. Louis, learned that his money is no good at eateries there, and, when the world champion Cardinals were honored at the White House last month, was told by the President, just after Barack Obama met with King Abdullah II of Jordan, "I imagine you're a big hit with the ladies now, huh?"
When it comes to iconic World Series home runs, Freese, who was raised in the suburbs of St. Louis as a Cardinals fan, is right there with Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk of the 1975 Red Sox and Kirby Puckett of the '91 Twins, the only other players to hit an extra-inning walk-off when facing elimination. When it comes to big names in the pantheon of sofas, Freese is right there with Davenport and Chesterfield.
"I can sleep anywhere," Freese said last month, atop the famous hunk of sagging upholstery, which cannot accommodate his prone 6'2'' frame unless he keeps his knees bent. "We get on the plane, I'm out before we take off and I'm still sleeping when we land. This was all about winning, so that's why I stayed put."
February 13, 2012
Says the sofa's owner, Dan Kriegshauser, a junior college teammate of Freese's, "He's a cool roommate. He bought us meals. Now he goes anywhere and gets a free meal. We can't go out to dinner more than once at the same place because he's too modest and doesn't want to take the free meals they give him over and over again."
"Everywhere I go," Freese says, "people tell me, 'Thank you!' They're thanking me. I still can't believe it."
CALL THE SOFA the Cardinals' hitting couch. Freese settled on Kriegshauser's sofa because shortly after he had moved into a new apartment of his own in September he realized he had forgotten to preorder cable television and would have to wait weeks for an installer. "I'm not going to stay there without any cable," he says, "so I shacked up here on this couch, [then] we clinched [the wild card] in Houston. I come home and he said, 'You're not going anywhere.' We kept winning, and I kept sleeping on the couch."
Says Kriegshauser, "Next thing you know, we have the NLCS and he's lying on my couch making a mess of the house and he's the eventual World Series MVP. Pretty crazy."
That word, crazy, fits perfectly one of the more outlandish career arcs of a World Series MVP. Suddenly Freese, who quit baseball at 18, is a cornerstone Cardinal, an important part of the franchise's future as well as the perpetual face of what Obama called "the greatest comeback team in the history of baseball."
With camps about to open in Florida and Arizona, the National League Central looks very different from last year. The Cardinals lost first baseman Albert Pujols (to the Angels via free agency), manager Tony La Russa (to retirement) and pitching coach Dave Duncan (to a leave of absence to care for his wife, who is fighting brain cancer). The Brewers lost first baseman Prince Fielder (to the Tigers via free agency) and could lose NL MVP Ryan Braun for 50 games (for a PED-related suspension). The Cubs have a new president (Theo Epstein), general manager (Jed Hoyer) and manager (Dale Sveum). The Reds have a new ace (righthander Mat Latos, acquired from the Padres) and closer (former Phillie Ryan Madson, signed as a free agent). The Astros have a new owner (Jim Crane) in the last year before they switch leagues. Only the Pirates made no major changes.
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."
Freese batted .397 in the postseason while setting records for most RBIs (21) and total bases (50) and tying the marks for hits (25) and doubles (eight). When he watched the World Series DVD—he was the main celebrity at its premier, of course—Freese noticed something about himself. "I was smiling the whole postseason," he says. "It's fun to play this game, and that's what I've got to keep remembering."
Freese had never faced Texas closer Neftali Feliz until the Cardinals were down to their last out in Game 6, down by two runs with two on. "Be me," Freese told himself as he walked to the plate. "Don't try to do too much. Try to keep the inning going. That's all I'm worried about."
Feliz threw two sliders, one for a ball and one for a strike, before unleashing a 98-mph fastball that Freese, late with his swing, fouled off. The Rangers had St. Louis down to its last strike (as Texas would again in the 10th, when it had a 9--8 lead). Only the '86 Red Sox had ever lost the World Series after being one strike away from winning it.
"I didn't realize it was that hard," Freese says of Feliz's heater. "He flat out blew it by me. 'Get ready earlier.' That's the first thing I told myself: 'It's probably coming again.' I was fortunate that he left it out, over, just about the same spot, I found the barrel...."
Freese drove the ball toward Texas rightfielder Nelson Cruz. "I took about four steps," Freese says, "and had the feeling I'm about to chuck my helmet because he's going to catch it." But Cruz was playing too shallow to protect against a ball over his head. The ball banged off the bottom of the wall and away from Cruz, allowing the game to be tied and Freese to reach third.
Two innings later Freese won the game with his walk-off, a blast to dead center leading off the bottom of the 11th against Mark Lowe. "Man, I was running in the clouds," Freese says. "I was looking around, and I told myself, Soak this in. Do not forget this moment. Obviously it's spotty, all the memories of that moment, but when I rounded second base I thought of my teammates, and I was like, This is going to be the best feeling in the world when I get to home plate."
This was why baseball called him back—the camaraderie and the competition. After the greatest night of his baseball life there was no other place to go, of course, but back to Kriegshauser's couch. Asked how he slept that night, Freese laughed and said, "I didn't. I came back trying to figure out what happened, and then [Kriegshauser] and some other knuckleheads show up. We just kind of hung out and relived it and had a good time. Next thing you know, it's the morning. I took off, went to my place for a little bit, caught about 45 minutes of sleep before Game 7. You're so jacked up for Game 7 of the World Series you don't need any sleep."
After Texas opened the game with two runs, Freese smashed a two-run double in the bottom of the first, the first of six unanswered runs as St. Louis won 6--2. One of the greatest months of postseason hitting was complete—as was the streak of spending a month on Kriegshauser's couch. "That night I finally stayed in my place," Freese says. "I think I owned my place for two months, and that I was the first night I stayed there, so it was good to be home. I slept well. I slept really well."
FREESE WAS TOLD BY THE PRESIDENT, JUST AFTER OBAMA MET WITH THE KING OF JORDAN, "I IMAGINE YOU'RE A BIG HIT WITH THE LADIES NOW, HUH?"