JUPITER, Fla. – David Freese has returned to earth after his heavenly 2011 postseason and otherworldly aftermath: the appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Ellen," presenting a Country Music Award with Erin Andrews, having a Six Flags ride named after him, being handed the keys to the city of St. Louis.
At ground level is the down-and-dirty fact that he has never played a full major-league season, that not since 2008 in the minors has he been free from injury for a sustained period.
Freese was MVP of the 2011 World Series and the National League Championship Series, and he revels in it still. Why shouldn't he? Every player dreams of leading his team to a title and performing heroically on the biggest stage. Yet he also knows he has a lot to prove. He's done what nobody else has, but every regular on every team has done something he hasn't.
Yes, David Freese has returned to earth, even if he's spending spring in a town named after a planet 390,682,810 miles away. That Corvette he got for being World Series MVP? His dad is driving it around suburban St. Louis.
"I know who I am and what I'm capable of," he said. "I understand what happened in October – you get hot and your expectations might rise – but what the Cardinals expect out of me is to go out there and be me."
A hometown St. Louis kid, he was a late bloomer who nearly quit baseball before his pro career started. Then he had two DUI arrests before 2010. And he's been injured three years in a row.
Those thoughts occupy his few idle moments. They drive him. Freese arrives at the Cardinals' spring-training facility shortly after dawn each day and hits the weight room. He works on his range at third base with infield coach Jose Oquendo. Batting practice is next. Then a ballgame.
Repeat the next day and the next.
"I understand there are ups and downs in life and baseball is not always going to be there," he said. "But the people you surround yourself with – your family and friends – that's what really helps you stay grounded. I'm trying to keep it simple and go out there and do a job. Baseball is my job."
Reporting to work every day for a full season is priority one. Freese will be 29 by the end of April, yet his career stats add up to one full season. In 604 at-bats spread over the past three years, he has 15 home runs, 30 doubles, 98 runs batted in, a .298 batting average and .763 OPS.
Stuffing those same numbers into 2012 is the idea. Ankle injuries in 2009 and 2010 curtailed his progress, and a broken hand confined him to 99 games last season. Then came the stunning postseason.
[ Related: Can Cards overcome losses of Pujols and La Russa? ]
The Cardinals upset the Philadelphia Phillies, beat the Milwaukee Brewers and knocked off the Texas Rangers in a seven-game World Series made epic in large part because of Freese. Who can forget, with the Cardinals facing elimination, his game-tying triple with two out and two strikes in the bottom of the ninth of Game 6. And his winning home run two innings later?
His postseason was as bursting as his regular seasons had been barren: In 18 games, he batted .397 with a .454 on-base percentage and .794 slugging percentage. He hit five home runs, eight doubles and drove in 21 runs.
"That's career production in the playoffs for a lot of guys," said teammate and close friend Matt Holliday. "It was unbelievable to watch that unfold."
Examine Freese's face during his World Series at-bats. It exuded absolute confidence. It was as if he channeled Albert Pujols, Stan Musial and Rogers Hornsby, the greatest Cardinals hitters ever.
Can a measure of that self-assurance spill over into 2012?
"That's what you strive for, to have that focus and have that drive day in and day out," Freese said. "I know we are all human and there are different levels of it over the course of six months, but you look at guys like Albert and other elite players. What separates them is their focus, at-bat after at-bat, pitch after pitch."
If the Cardinals hadn't made the postseason – if the Atlanta Braves hadn't collapsed down the stretch, handing the wild-card berth to St. Louis – Freese's spring would be vastly different. He might be fighting for a job instead of fighting off unending requests for appearances.
Upstart third baseman Matt Carpenter is having a sensational spring, but there is zero talk of him unseating Freese. Instead, Carpenter might get some playing time at first base. Freese is an average third baseman whose ankle problems sometimes made him a defensive liability.
"There's still work to do there," Oquendo said. "Getting a jump on balls side to side. The more he plays, the better his legs will feel. We still have to be careful because he has major ankle issues. We have to make sure he is 100 percent."
It'd be unfair to expect Freese to be a major cog in the Cardinals' offense. Holliday, Lance Berkman and newcomer Carlos Beltran have played in a combined 4,700 big-league games. Freese still hasn't even hit arbitration and will be paid $508,000 this season. Holliday, Berkman and Beltran have made close to $300 million.
Yet Freese's delicious postseason created outsized expectations. It's like he was served dessert before the meal. Now the glamour is gone and it's time to grind.
"Being available for every game is a big goal of mine," he said. "There are going to be times during the season when you won't be available, but I take pride in being an everyday guy."
David Freese became an overnight star. And, yeah, he's currently in Jupiter. But he's found his way back to earth. And the well-grounded folks in St. Louis will come to appreciate it.
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