David Freese, World Series hero, finds greater triumph in depression battle
The World Series ring sits just a couple of miles away, in a bank security deposit box, but David Freese hasn’t even seen it, let alone worn it, in five years.
The World Series MVP trophy is somewhere in his parents’ basement at their suburban St Louis home, still wrapped in a box, but he hasn’t bothered to look inside.
The shiny black Corvette, presented to him for his heroic performance in that 2011 Fall Classic, sits dusty with a dead battery in an Austin, Texas storage facility, with less than 1,000 miles on the odometer.
Freese, 33, now the Pittsburgh Pirates’ third baseman, simply shrugs, almost embarrassed he still is considered a hero in his hometown of St. Louis.
If only they knew.
Freese walks into an empty office in the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium, where he became a baseball legend the night of Oct. 27, 2011, pulls out a chair, plops down, and looks into your eyes.
This may be the happiest time of his life, a newlywed of seven months, but to fully understand his bliss, he needs to lead you into the depths of his soul.
He may forever be a hero in these parts, but during a time he should have been basking in glory, he instead was a tormented man who battled just to get out of bed.
He would wake up mornings, slam his eye lids shut, wishing he were dead.
“I was depressed. I was always depressed,’’ Freese tells USA TODAY Sports. “I never tried to do anything to myself, but I didn’t care about my life. I didn’t care what would happen to me. It was almost to a point that if this is my time, so be it?
“And there was definitely a lack of care about my well-being at certain times, for sure.’’
Freese says he has battled depression his entire life, a factor in his decision to relinquish a college scholarship after high school to Missouri. He instead just wanted to be like any other student, giving him plenty of time for partying and alcohol. There were three public drunken-driving incidents, including a December 2009 arrest in which his blood alcohol content was measured at .23, nearly three times the legal limit.
Those episodes barely scratch the surface. There was the Thanksgiving Day afternoon in 2012 when he crashed his Range Rover into a tree. The countless mornings he awoke and had no recollection of even getting into bed. The blackouts. The constant feeling of lethargy and fatigue.
“I’ve had moments like that since high school, to be honest,’’ Freese says. “It’s been 15-plus years of, 'I can’t believe I’m still here.’ ’’
And during all of those days and nights, too often he wished to be anybody else.
“You win the World Series in your hometown, and you become this guy in a city that loves Cardinal baseball,’’ Freese says, “and sometimes it’s the last guy you want to be.
“So you start building this façade, trying to be something I was not.
“And the whole time, I was scared to death what was going to happen to me after baseball.’’
Freese became iconic in this baseball-crazed city the night of Oct. 27, 2011. It was the night he rescued the Cardinals from defeat with a two-out, two-strike, two-run triple in the ninth inning of Game 6 of the World Series against the Texas Rangers, before delivering a walk-off home run in the 11th. One night later, they were World Series champions.
Photo flashback: Game 6 of the 2011 World Series
But while he certainly looked the part of a World Series hero, he was troubled.
“People had no idea what I was going through,’’ says Freese, who has undergone counseling most of his life to deal with depression and anxiety. “I don’t want to say, “Woe is me.’ I’m so grateful for being a part of that World Series team, but it does get lonely.
“You’re a single guy. You really don’t know who you are. And you have issues that are tough, and you don’t really know how to deal with it.
“I always wanted to change, to get over all of my issues, but it was so hard. You get stuck in the mud. You just don’t know where to go.’’
The Cardinals watched Freese’s life spiral, and tried to help. They talked to him. They provided counseling, concerned not only for his playing career, which was in decline, but his life.
“You could tell something was not right,’’ Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said. “I don’t know the bloody details what was going on, but I knew the path he was on was going to make life difficult for him to manage.
“I felt he was suffocating here.’’
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny got together with Freese one morning and informed that for his own well-being, as well as the club’s, he needed to leave. They cried together, hugged one another, and a week later on Nov. 22, 2013 - nearly a year to the day he crashed into that tree - he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels.
“I think it was the best thing that could have happened to him,’’ says Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter, one of Freese’s closest friends. “Being the hometown hero may seem great, but it’s usually not a fun thing. Someone is always asking for something. You constantly have people hanging around. That can be stressful, and really challenging.’’
Says Freese: “Who knows where I was headed, but as long as I was here, I had so many friends here, I wasn’t good at just saying no. I wanted to please people, make everyone happy, and that became impossible.
“It just worsened with my depression. There were days it was so bad I just didn’t want to get out of bed.’’
The timeline of Freese’s lifestyle change can be traced to the trade, but much more important, it was the meeting of an intern the previous week at his friend’s downtown media production studio. Her name was Mairin O’Leary.
She now is Mairin Freese, his wife.
They were married last September at a Pittsburgh coffee shop. There was no ceremony. Just a document to sign. They celebrated by having crepes for breakfast. The real celebration was in January in front of 250 friends and family at a St. Louis restaurant.
“I always wanted to change,’’ Freese says, “but it was so hard, right up until I met Mairin. I don’t know if we met at the right time or not, but it was a blessing. She’s just tough. I need that. And I want that.
“She challenges the hell out of me, and I love it.’’
Mairin Freese, who graduated from Missouri with a biology degree, was having her own issues, too, dealing with the recent death of her father. On their first dinner date in downtown St. Louis, just two blocks from where Freese lived, Mairin told him what she wanted out of life. She wasn’t in the party scene. She wanted to start a career as an artist. And she was interested only in a genuine, candid, honest relationship that could lead to a potential future together.
Oh, and as far as baseball, she wasn’t a fan. She had only attended three Cardinals games in her life. And no, Game 6 of the 2011 World Series wasn’t one of them.
“I won’t lie,’’ Freese says, “that was important to me. I think one of the first questions I asked her was, “How many Cardinals games have you been to.’ You’re definitely guarded as an athlete.
“I mean, she’s just the coolest chick I ever met.’’
Together, they met Fleet Rand, a licensed clinical social worker in Chesterfield, Mo., whose specialty is working with those with depression and anxiety issues, as well as drug and alcohol struggles.
“I’ve walked through some doors in my life,’’ Freese says, “but with him, we clicked from Day 1. He was a guy who’s been through a lot of rough times as well, and have done thing I’ve done. He wasn’t like the other counselors. It wasn’t a guy telling me who I needed to be, or what I needed to do, but a guy getting to know me.’’
It was OK to go home after a lousy game, and not sulk about it over some booze.
He flushed alcohol out of his system. He found a counselor that soothed his pain. He found the love of his life.
“I can say I’m happier now than I’ve ever been in my life,’’ says Freese, who did not enter a formal alcohol rehabilitation program. “Before, I used to let baseball define me. Being the World Series MVP, that’s just part of my story. It’s not who I am.
“Now that I have Mairin in my life, things have changed. I have perspective in my life. It’s not to say that baseball becomes less important, but it just doesn’t flood your brain as much.
“I know I had the alcohol issues in the past, but you come to realize it’s a lot deeper than that. It's depression and anxiety issues. I had to attack the way I was thinking. I re-trained my brain by being around Mairin and getting help. The foggy feeling I always had is now lifted.
“It’s brought more energy to my life, to my career, everything.’’
Freese picked up hobbies he would have never dared try. They traveled to New Zealand one year and Thailand another. He started collecting records. He learned to play the piano.
He even sings, although Mairin concedes it can still be a little rough on the ears.
“He’s definitely more clear-minded about his own emotions,’’ Mairin says. “He processes those, and gets ready for those task ahead. He just has a deeper knowledge of himself, with the understanding what motivates him.
“The more that he has explained to me, the setting he’s working in, and the amount of pressure he deals with, you can certainly understand why this happened.’’
Freese spent two years with the Angels, hitting .258 and averaging 12 homers and 55 RBI a season, when he became a free agent after the 2015 season. He sat around for six months until mid-March waiting for a job. Yet, instead of panicking, he was thrilled.
For the first time in his life, he realized just how much he loved the game.
The Pirates signed him to a one-year contract, and after Freese impressed everyone in the organization with his performance and leadership skills, converted it into a two-year, $11 million extension. Manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington now call Freese one of their team leaders, who uses his own experience to counsel young players.
Freese may have a body about to turn 34, but he’s playing with a rejuvenated heart. He enters the Pirates’ game Friday against the New York Yankees hitting .326 with a .453 on-base percentage and .575 slugging percentage.
“When you see him now, he’s got a total different perspective,’’ Carpenter says. “You can see it in his mindset. It looks like he has a clear focus when he plays.
“Really, he’s as good now as I’ve ever seen him.’’
Freese truly believes the best is yet to come. He’s talking about life, not baseball.
“I used to be so afraid what would happen to me after baseball,’’ Freese says. “I was getting older, watching other people, and it was like, “Man, all of these people have their lives together. People were passing me by.’
“That’s all changed. I’m confident that when I retire I’m going to be a loving, great husband. Hopefully a kick-ass father. And a guy who doesn’t booze.
“‘Things are just so different now.’’
From the very moment he awakes.
“Now, it’s so different,’’ Freese says, “I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning. You wake up, and you’re ready to face the world.
“To be honest, I never knew I could be so happy.’’