Freel had always been a quirky guy. He had an imaginary friend named Farney who he claimed lived inside his head with whom he openly had conversations, on the field and off. But that was harmless.
I don’t think anyone truly understood the depths of his troubles. His pain. His depression. No one thought that things had gotten so bad that the 36 year old was ready to kill himself; willing to shoot himself with a shotgun and leave behind his wife and three daughters.
Yesterday we learned that Freel’s family was informed that he in fact had been suffering from stage II chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). After his death, Freel became the first baseball player to have his brain studied by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Ecephalopathy. After the study, he became the first player diagnosed with the disease.
For those unfamiliar with CTE, it’s a progressive, degenerative brain disease that develops in individuals with a history of multiple concussions and other forms of head injuries. It has been increasingly associated with longtime former football players, but as Freel’s case clearly demonstrates, it’s an issue that affects athletes across the board in sports. Right now, there probably remain more questions about CTE than answers, but researchers are beginning to believe it has directly led to the development of dementia and depression in former players, many of whom, like Freel, ultimately committing suicide.
It’s a sad bit of punctuation to Freel’s story, and stirred up some fond memories I still have about the guy as a player.
Freel was a Cincinnati Red from 2003-2008, and during his tenure in the Queen City he reminded us Reds fans more of Pete Rose than any other player since Charlie Hustle himself.
Freel was never going to be an All-Star. He was never going to break records or make headlines. The man spent his entire career just trying to establish himself as worthy of a chance to be an every day starter. He never made it. He never amounted to much more than journeyman utilityman.
But he played the game with that full-throttled, reckless abandon that that is impossible not to appreciate. He was fearless on the field. An all-out, head-first daredevil running into walls, diving into stands, crashing into other players – anything to make a play. Like this one.
And this one.
And this one.
I spent a long time this afternoon searching for Freel highlights. Ninety-nine percent of those search results led to stories about the man’s death and about CTE. Sadly, with all that’s happened over the past year, the internet is almost completely devoid of Ryan Freel the baseball player.
But once I got over that frustration, I realized that I don’t need video to remember. Freel was a grinder. He was never blessed with supreme baseball talent. He just outworked everyone that was ahead of him until he had bulldogged his way into the Major Leagues and into his manager’s lineup. If a game came and went and Freel’s jersey wasn’t dirty, it was only because he was injured or sick or had been given the day off.
And some people are already using this new CTE twist to the Ryan Freel tragedy to grandstand about MLB’s desire to ban collisions at home plate. That’s a shame because it ignores the fact that the brain injury epidemic in sports goes well beyond the reach of a single type of play. Freel was the definition of utility player. He literally played every non-pitching position at some point during his career except for one. Catcher. Yet he suffered at least nine different concussions during his career. And those are just the ones that have been documented. The ones we know about.
He suffered his last documented one in 2009 while diving back into second base.
Head injuries are not just a football issue. Just ask Freel’s family. Ask Justin Morneau. He almost lost his career due to one suffered in 2010 when he took a knee to the head while sliding into second. Ask any player at any level in any sport who has ever taken some kind of a shot to the head, whether inflicted by ball, turf, fence or fellow player.
Freel is the first MLB player to be diagnosed with CTE. He probably won’t be the last, but hopefully his example can help prevent unnecessary nexts.