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At long last, Freese's wait appears to be over

At long last, Freese's wait appears to be over

At long last, Freese's wait appears to be over
JUPITER, Fla. -- In the finite world of Spring Training in Florida, Fort Myers is the equivalent of Pluto or one of those planets (or former planet, in Pluto's case) discovered ever so often that never are formally named. Fort Myers is 200 miles from just about everywhere. And rare is the player who sees a trip there as anything other than a monumental pain.

How many dozens of pitching coaches have been bribed by a veteran? "Please, anything but Fort Myers. I'll buy you three dinners at The Palm. You can have my number or my third born. I'll pitch in Wrigley with the wind blowing out. I'll pitch in Philly when Howard and Utley are sizzling. But not Fort Myers ... Please."

Well, the Cardinals, who play their home games here in this burg that is three Albert Pujols home runs from the Atlantic shore, play the Twins on Monday afternoon. And the Twins are one of the two clubs who have their February and March mail sent to lovely Fort Myers.

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So come Monday, just about the time Matt, Meredith, Al and Anne are presenting the first smiles on their J. Fred mugs, the Cardinals will be boarding busses for a trip that will rival a wagon-train trek in terms of hours and comfort.

Chances are, the first man aboard, and the first to de-bus if and when the destination is met, will be a 27-year-old third baseman dressed in Cardinal Red 23 -- a possible name for a planet, don't ya think? -- and wearing a smile that reaches from one end of the Milky Way to the other.

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"Yeah, that might be me," David Freese said proudly Sunday afternoon, his anticipation all over his sleeve as well as his face. "I'd go to Mars if I had to."

Freese left the Cardinals' training camp facility Sunday anxious for his at-long-last moment, his chance to play third base in real competition. No more delays, no more obstacles, no more games without a 23 in the Cardinals' lineup, and -- God forbid -- no more injuries. Come heal or high ankle sprain.

He would have played Sunday in what became a wet, abridged and rather uneventful fray between the Cardinals and Marlins, won, 7-2, by the Fish in 7 1/2 innings. But a foul tip that attacked the big toe on his left foot Friday made that impossible; well, at least ill-advised. Freese acknowledged the same sore toe wouldn't have kept him seated if the Sunday game had been one of consequence and played in late October.

But as he left for an evening of restless sleep, all that stood between his toes and the batter's box in Fort Myers was time.

"I'll be on that bus. ... Definitely," he said. "Tell everybody. I'll be ready to go."

A foul tip, before that a 70-pound weight, and before that a surgeon's scalpel, repairing both ankles -- all of them had conspired to deny Freese his chance to be what the Cardinals still believe he will be -- a weapon. That is one of Tony La Russa's favorite nouns, not that the manager uses it frequently. But he used it last week when he discussed the potential of the right-handed hitter who started at third base on Opening Day 2010.

Freese played in 70 games before the ankle betrayed him. He had driven in 36 runs, scored 28, batted .296 and hit four home runs in 240 at-bats. The club made no move based on his unavailability because it believed he would return to play in August. But he injured the ankle again in his first game in his rehab assignment. And his season ended, and surgery in each ankle followed.

Now with his 28th birthday less two months away, he has merely 304 big league plate appearances. Now is the time, and there isn't that much of it remaining for him.

Freese understands. He's certain his legs are beneath him now.

"I'm good to go," he said. "Now it's a mind battle."

He talks about the ups and downs he has endured, and agrees when someone reverses the order.

"Yeah, the downs and ups," Freese said. "But it's good. I feel like a lot of people are rooting me."

He spent time in conversation last summer with Ryan Ludwick before the club traded Ludwick to the Padres.

"He was a prospect a few years ago and went through a lot too," Freese said.

He acknowledges it may be strange, maybe awkward Monday in Fort Myers. There may be a moment's hesitation before he does something that had come so naturally for so much of his life. They don't want him doing too much on the bases.

And Freese vows he won't, "As long as I get on base."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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