The coolest thing for the coolest Dodger last fall wasn’t the bright lights, big crowds or constant roars.
The coolest thing for David Freese was a single up the middle.
It did more than simply drive in two runs to give the Dodgers the lead in the sixth inning of the clinching Game 4 of the National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves.
It drove Freese through the roof. He stood on first base thrusting his arms out to his teammates. He basked in the chill.
It was a feeling he once tried to find with alcohol and pills, a feeling he has since learned can come only from making the kind of play that can change someone’s world.
“It was just a squibber up the middle and I’m like, ‘Ohhh, what’s coming over me?’’’ Freese says with a smile beneath his scraggly beard. “The coolest thing about this game is it can catch us in certain emotions. You can discover emotions that are hard to come by. We’re able to feel things most people can’t feel.’’
It is this feeling that Freese is chasing as he joins the Dodgers for this first full season here after a spectacular autumn filled with the sort of clutch hitting that has marked his 10-year career. He was so excited about rediscovering those chills after being traded here from the struggling Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 31, he boarded a 5 a.m. flight from Atlanta to ensure his appearance in the lineup hours later at Dodger Stadium, and he wasn’t disappointed.
“l get to town and I’m like, ‘Wow, all this stuff going on in the Dodger clubhouse, I love it,’’’ he says.
Thus energized, Freese batted .385 for the Dodgers in 19 regular-season games including hitting .400 in the postseason with two homers and six RBIs.
“My heartbeat got going again,’’ he says. “ I was like, this is baseball.’’
This is what the 35-year-old Freese is about, baseball, only baseball, and not the trappings that surround it.
He is the one Dodger who has been named the most valuable player in a World Series, yet don’t ask him about his Corvette prize.
“It’s sitting in Uncle Bob’s Storage in Austin with a dead battery,’’ he says.
He is the one Dodger who has had a Kirk Gibson-type World Series moment, saving the St. Louis Cardinals against the Texas Rangers in 2011 with a game-tying triple and game-winning homer while facing elimination in Game 6, leading to an eventual Cardinals championship. But, no, also don’t bother asking Freese about his ring.
“Would you believe me if I said I haven’t seen it since I got it?’’ he says.
The ring is in a security deposit box. The trophy is somewhere in his parents’ St. Louis home. He is the opposite of bling.
“I don’t care about any of that,’’ Freese says. “I just want to play ball, build some relationships, and go home.”
He’s in the right place, this coolest of Dodgers who will be a veteran cornerstone in a reshaped clubhouse that can benefit not only from his seasoned bat, but his hard-earned wisdom. Freese returned to the team on a one-year contract for one reason. Well, OK, two reasons.
“Of course, there’s the money, there’s a big difference between $4.5 million and nothing,’’ he says with a grin. “But basically, I’m good. I don’t think about what a championship would do for me, I think about what it would do for them.’’
He looks around the Camelback Ranch clubhouse on this late afternoon, glances at empty lockers used by those with so many empty Octobers, nods with hope.
“I came back here because I want to see them win, see this city win,’’ he says. “I spent all winter imagining how crazy it would be if that happened, the city would go nuts, that’s why I’m here.’’
He’s here to play first base and pinch-hit against left-handers. He’s also here to lend calm to winning clubhouses and perspective on nights of heartbreak, because he has experienced both.
“David has had successes and failures, and for him to be in our clubhouse, to be a stalwart and talk about the right things, that is very important to me, very important to us,’’ manager Dave Roberts said.
This is a former St. Louis high school star who eventually wound up on the hometown CardinaIs in the middle of one the greatest postseason moments in baseball history. After he hit that walk-off home run in Game 6, his jersey was literally torn from his body by celebrating teammates, but a bigger piece of him was ripped apart by the fame.
“It crushed me,’’ he says. “It tore me down.’’
He already was struggling with alcohol, having been arrested three times for DUI or public intoxication. The pressure of being the local kid who carried the local team to a championship sent him reeling.
“I should be dead,’’ he says. “When I drank, my life was in jeopardy. I drank, I chased, I drank for relief.”
When he was finally traded away from St. Louis – heading to the Angels in the winter of 2013 — everything began to change. He married Mairin O’Leary. They moved to Austin. They had a son, Kai.
Freese stopped drinking. He found a counselor who could help his depression. He started smiling again. He said he’s never smiled like this before.
”It’s like everything fell into place and enough was enough,’’ he says. “I don’t even have a need to drink anymore. Screw all that. I love being pill free. I love being free and happy, and being in a place where I can totally be myself.’’
Folks have noticed. Players gravitate toward him. The manager openly admires him.
“The word ‘professionalism’ gets thrown around way too often, because it encompasses a lot — gratitude, work ethic, accountability, a responsibility on and off the field,’’ Roberts says. “But David really lives it.’’
Freese also understands championships, and offers this piece of advice to those wondering how exactly their team can finally finish the job.
“To win in October, you need the right people to show up,’’ he says. “And then you need some more.’’
The Dodgers are hoping David Freese is the definition of “‘more.”