"They compared me with Pete Rose -- without the numbers," Freel said.
Now Freel gets his chance to show his hustle and build some numbers for the Royals. Obtained from the Chicago Cubs on Monday, he was dropped right into the lineup on Tuesday night against Detroit ace Justin Verlander.
"No fooling around," manager Trey Hillman said. "Welcome to the Royals, you get Mr. Verlander tonight. Go roam center field, we'll check your legs out right away. We'll throw him right into the fire."
Although second base was his primary position, Freel also has played third base and all three outfield positions. He has good speed, so Hillman decided to try him in center field where Mitch Maier has been the primary occupant since surgery knocked Coco Crisp out for the year.
Freel, who began this season with the Baltimore Orioles and then was traded to the Cubs, was in the ninth slot for his first game for the Royals.
"I've led off my whole career until this year, but when you go to a new team they've got their guy," Freel said. "Over at Chicago they've got [Alfonso] Soriano who loves to hit leadoff and Brian Roberts over there at Baltimore, that's what he's always done. So it's been a change."
For the two teams combined, his average this season was just .140 and he played only 23 games because of a head injury with the Orioles and a left hamstring injury with the Cubs.
"Everything's good. I'm a hundred percent and healthy," he said.
His career average is .269 in 576 games with an on-base percentage of .355. He's a right-handed hitter that, when he's on, hits to all fields.
"I'm not a guy who's going to hit you 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. I'm a guy who really cares about getting on base. My on-base percentage is the key for me," Freel said. "If I can get on base, I can do some things on the basepaths. But you can't steal first, you've got to get on there somehow -- whether it's taking a walk or getting a hit. And I take pitches with the best of them for the good of the team."
Freel has swiped 143 bases in 191 attempts, including 110 in a three-season span (2003-05) for the Reds.
"You've got to pick your time and know when to run and when not to run," he said. "I'm not a Jose Reyes or Joey Gathright kind of runner but a guy who's stolen 30 or 35 bases three years in a row, so I kind of know what I'm doing out there on the basepaths. I've just got to stay healthy."
Freel was surprised when, after arriving at Comerica Park on Tuesday, Hillman called him in for a meeting with the entire coaching staff. That was a first for Freel in his Major League travels.
"It shows how much they care about the players," he said.
Even before taking the field for his first game, Freel was in an upbeat mode about the Royals.
"We're not out of this thing by any means. I know where we're at in the standings, but I know we're not halfway through yet," he said. "We get some guys healthy and get the bats going -- this is baseball, anything can happen. Looking back at Tampa Bay, looking back at the Marlins, there's no reason why Kansas City can't do the same thing. I see a lot of good things over here."
Now the Royals will see what kind of things Freel can bring.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.