(Eds: Adds details. With AP Photos.)By R.B. FALLSTROMAP Sports Writer
The offseason has been a whirlwind for suddenly famous St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese. After rocketing to stardom as the NL championship series and World Series MVP, the team’s No. 6 hitter got the red carpet treatment all over.
There was a late-night sitdown with David Letterman, an appearance on the Country Music Awards and countless interviews. He savored them all.
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The biggest honor was getting recognized at the Texas-Missouri football game not long after the Cardinals finished off the Texas Rangers.
”Seeing the highlights on the Jumbotron, that crowd on its feet for two minutes or however long it was, that was incredible,” Freese said Thursday, a big grin on his face. ”That was an amazing feeling.”
Another highlight was visiting his alma mater, Lafayette High School, in St. Louis County.
”I had a great time in L.A. and all that,” Freese said, ”but the stuff that really hits home is stuff that’s closer to home.”
Around Thanksgiving, he decided that baseball would always come first. The celebrity appearances didn’t halt completely, but Freese had his priorities straight. He arrived at spring training a few days early, ready to work on an encore for a magical October that probably can’t be topped.
”It would have been a shame to not have taken advantage of the things that he was able to do and see, because some people never, ever, experience that in their lifetime. Most don’t,” manager Mike Matheny said. ”He had that timeframe and then it ended and he got pretty diligent. If you look at him, he looks in as good a shape as I’ve ever seen him.”
Freese hit five homers and drove in 21 runs in the postseason, becoming the sixth player to be named MVP of a league championship series and World Series in the same season. Rather than worry about heightened expectations, he’ll concentrate on just doing his part.
When he began lifting weights with teammates Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter in St. Louis, ”it was go time, it was 2012.”
That’s the way it’s got to be.
He has only two years of major league experience, so he’s yet to really cash in, and because of injuries has yet to play 100 games in a season. Last spring, a pair of gimpy ankles made him one of the team’s question marks. And it’s been only two years and a few months since a December 2009 DUI arrest prompted a lifestyle change — no drinking.
”I would hope to think I would stay grounded otherwise, but yeah, you go through things that help you understand that opportunities can be taken away from you at any moment,” Freese said. ”You prepare accordingly, keep the best people around you and just try to do your best.”
Batting coach Mark McGwire can identify with Freese in more ways than one. He was the home run king in 1998 after outlasting Sammy Sosa in a duel that rolled right past Roger Maris’ mark, and he was knocked down several pegs by baseball’s steroids scandal.
McGwire didn’t let it hold him back forever, and is entering his third season with St. Louis. He said he doesn’t believe success will go to Freese’s head.
”He’s so tough mentally and what he’s gone through in life has made him even tougher,” McGwire said. ”He’s an older younger player, if you want to call it that, and very mature for what he’s gone through. The growing pains are good. Nobody’s life is perfect and you become smarter and more aware by going through these things.”
Freese was giving back on Thursday, spending about 20 minutes signing autographs near one of the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium and leaving fans beaming.
”He was talking to people about the Corvette he won, what color he chose,” said Glenn Cordes of Ferguson, Mo., who’s vacationing in Florida for the month. ”I think he signed for anybody who came up, and I think he talked to them all.”
Going forward, he’ll be going for more big hits from down in the lineup and probably batting behind three well-established power threats in Holliday, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran.
”I haven’t come through every time. Nobody does,” Freese said. ”I know what I can do, I know my potential and so do the Cardinals, and hopefully I reach that. We’ve got some pretty big dogs in this lineup and I just want to do my part.”