Freese shows versatility on, off field for Pirates
DUNEDIN, Fla. — David Freese can teach his teammates about tangible things, such as hitting clutch homers and playing multiple positions.
He can instruct them about the intangibles, such as what it takes to excel on the game’s biggest stage and how to deal with expectations of a hometown fan base.
And then there are the … um, other things Freese provides, such as playing air guitar at the batting cage and flashing dance moves in the dugout.
“That’s just what he does,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “There’s a leisure suit and a disco ball inside him somewhere. He’s a grown man who’s still got that kid inside him, and he’s having a blast.”
The Pirates expected to get more than high jinks when they signed Freese to a free-agent deal last year. He delivered in a big way, appearing in 141 games and batting .270 with a .764 OPS.
Freese played first and third base and also made two cameos at second base. He had a pair pinch-hit homers. With runners on base, he hit .290 with five home runs.
This season, Freese figures to get a lot of playing time at third until Jung Ho Kang’s legal woes are sorted out. He also can spell Josh Bell at first if the rookie gets mired in a tough stretch.
In the clubhouse, Freese is arguably even more valuable. He became a leader without ever having to raise his voice.
“He does it with presence, with confidence or with that look (because) he’s been there,” pitcher Gerrit Cole said. “He’s one of those special, dynamic individuals that you’re just kind of drawn to — one of the better teammates, if not the best, that I’ve played with.”
Freese, 33, graduated from high school in St. Louis and spent the first five years of his career with the Cardinals. In 2011, he hit a walk-off homer in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the World Series.
The Cardinals won the championship in seven games. Freese, who collected a record 21 RBIs that postseason, was named Series MVP.
After two lackluster seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Freese was still on the free-agent market midway through last March. The Pirates signed him for $3 million about three weeks before they broke spring training camp.
“When he came over, he didn’t know what to expect,” second baseman Josh Harrison said. “But it didn’t take long for us to tell that he was going to blend in, and he’s a good asset to have.”
Freese found he didn’t have to force his way into being accepted by his new teammates.
“It’s awesome to just wake up and be yourself,” Freese said. “That makes it easier.”
As he settled in, Freese told his agent to explore a contract extension. He inked a two-year, $11 million deal in late August.
“It all started with talking to me understanding this is the place I want to be,” Freese said. “The market changing for … I don’t want to say average big league players, but guys like me who are around that mark. Older guys are not going to find that kind of deals that were there a few years ago. I hope I can play out the full contract here and be productive.”
Cole, who realizes he is being asked to take on a more prominent role with the Pirates, gravitated toward Freese. So did Harrison, who goaded Freese to be more freewheeling during the team’s pregame dugout dance ritual.
“I know it’s in there. It’s just a matter of getting it out,” Harrison said. “He’s guy who’s going to do what he can to keep the squad loose. And when times get hard, he’s a ‘put-up-or-shut-up’ type guy, too.”
It didn’t take long for Freese to appreciate the Pirates good-time vibe.
“I love it,” Freese said. “These guys have been around each other for a long time, and that’s what happens when a group like this competes for so long together. They become brothers.”
Does Freese have a go-to dance move?
“I don’t have a go-to move,” Freese said with a stern look.
One locker away, Harrison laughed as he eavesdropped.
“That means he’s got a lot of them,” Harrison said.
Freese’s face remained stony. “I don’t know what it means, Josh, but it doesn’t mean I’ve got a lot of them.”
“He’s got lot of random moves … ” Harrison offered.
Finally, Freese dropped his facade and laughed.
“Yeah, I do,” Freese said with a grin. “And they’re all terrible.”
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.