By Tim Brown
March 12. 2016
BRADENTON, Fla. – Early Saturday morning the orangey light was only just rising on her tollbooth ahead of the Skyway Bridge when the nice woman, counting out change for $5, asked where I was headed.
“Tryin’ to get a lot done today,” I said. “How ‘bout you?”
From her little glass box, the rest of the world passing this way and that, she smiled.
“I can’t be doin’ no more than I already am,” she said. “Nuh-uh I can’t.”
Her warm chuckle may as well have finished, sometimes it’s best just to wait for the world to come to you. Sometimes there’s no choice in it. And there’s no use in griping about it either.
“Drive safe,” she sang.
I got to thinking about that when, not an hour later, David Freese had officially become a Pittsburgh Pirate, some 158 days since he’d belonged to any team. After hundreds of free agents had gone this way and that, and jobs for which he was qualified had been filled, and what remained was a full-time gig for maybe a few weeks and then who knows after that.
Freese is 32 years old and is more than adequate as a corner infielder. He is a World Series hero, though, he granted, from what seems, “forever ago.” He is a terrific guy to have around, a quality gaining favor again in light of the revelation not all numbers are the same.
So, yeah, with at least some residue of his prime remaining and his sport being more flush than it’s ever been, Freese stood in the middle of that thoroughfare. And rose the shade on his glass box. And waited. And watched the world go by.
“It’s been interesting to say the least, but I stayed patient,” he said. “I came into the offseason kinda looking around at the jobs, you know, and I was like, ‘Man, this could get interesting.’ So, I was prepared that if something didn’t happen fairly quick, I could be around for a little bit. There weren’t too many openings to be an everyday guy. A couple trades were made. Cleveland was an example, where they always wanted [Juan] Uribe. After that it was, ‘Here we go.’ I stayed patient.”
It’s not as though Freese was forced to contemplate his career’s mortality. Nothing quite that dramatic. But, you get your time, you have your moments and make your money, and then one morning you look up and you’re six weeks from your 33rd birthday (while the game is getting younger) and camps are full and maybe nobody’s going to miss you all that much.
Freese believed there was a chance he’d re-sign with the Los Angeles Angels right up until Dec. 10, when the Angels traded for Yunel Escobar. So began the slog that he tried not to make much of. He spent a good part of January in Jupiter, Florida where he labored with Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter for a job that was out there somewhere. He returned to his home in St. Louis in February. Pitchers and catchers reported in Florida and Arizona. Position players followed. Baseball’s middle class was taking a hit. Ian Desmond leaked into Texas Rangers camp. Games began. And still …
“You’re in the opportunity you’re presented with,” Freese said. “I think if you can play, you can play and you’re going to find a job. The parameters of what you agree to is up to you. You can sit here and take minor-league deals and go to work. But you view yourself a certain way. The game’s definitely getting younger. Me personally, that felt like that this offseason. You sit back and, ‘Wow, this game got young.’ And I get it. I understand, they’re pushing prospects.
“But what can you do? The game’s changing and you have to deal with it. You have to be good enough to push guys out of a position if teams want you or find a position that fits.”
For $3 million, less than half that he made in Anaheim last year, he’ll open the season as the Pirates’ third baseman. Sometime early in the season, perhaps in the first few weeks, Jung Ho Kang will return healthy from knee surgery and then Freese is likely to be an occasional third baseman, an occasional first baseman (a position he’s logged all of 21 big-league innings) and an occasional pinch-hitter.
“I learned playing for Tony [La Russa] that I don’t have the lineup cards,” he recalled. “There were days where I would go in there and say, ‘Why am I not playing?’ He was like, ‘You want my office?’ And I’d think, ‘That didn’t go very well.’”
And Freese couldn’t keep the smile off his face.
He has a new first baseman’s mitt that has seen a few ground balls and otherwise “Has got some rubber bands around it,” which is to say it is not entirely broken in. He’s been running and throwing and hitting, because it was time for that sort of thing even if it wasn’t exactly his time yet. And finally he’s thrilled that it came to Pittsburgh, a terrific baseball town that fills its ballpark and has been a win or two or three from being really special the past few Octobers.
“I had a real good winter in a lot of ways, just as a person and getting ready as a ballplayer,” he said. “You just always try to progress as a man. Sometimes I make it hard on myself. I have in my career and my life. But, things are good. I’m not good on trying to control stuff that you can’t control. So God said, ‘Here you go, we’ll give you this.’ It was a tough situation to handle.”
In the end, he said, “It challenges your heart. Sitting around while guys are out playing. I don’t watch the [MLB] Network too much, but I watched it probably more this winter than I ever have. Just seeing games and seeing guys on the field, it makes you appreciate the game a lot more. Every winter – I think the offseason is good for athletes to reflect and see where you’re at.”
He reported his heart was good. There’s no real choice in that, of course. He couldn’t have been doin’ more than he already was. He has a new mitt.