For someone who amounted to part-timer, Ryan Freel gave a lot of joy to baseball fans. He exhibited a colorful, sometimes bizarre personality and demonstrated an acrobatic, sometimes reckless style of play that took a toll on his career. He was fun to watch and write about. But he also was troubled. And now we are left to wonder why he took his own life.
Freel was found dead at his home in Jacksonville, Fla. on Saturday afternoon, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police confirmed via the Florida Times-Union. Freel was 36 years old, leaving a wife, Christie, along with three daughters, notes C. Trent Rosecrans of CBS Eye on Baseball.
First Coast News of Jacksonville reported his death first.
Freel played in parts of eight major league seasons, seeing action in 594 games — 544 with the Cincinnati Reds — and four other teams, from 2001-2009. He batted .268/.354/.369 with 143 stolen bases and 22 home runs. He logged most of his innings in the outfield, particularly center, but was known for having enough versatility to play third base and second.
He also was known for going all out. He dived into the grass, the dirt and the stands chasing after balls. He would crash into fences. He would collide with teammates. And all of the violence against his body caused him significant harm. Freel said in 2007 after a particularly brutal collision with teammate Norris Hopper that he had "probably nine or 10" concussions in his life, but he couldn't remember for certain.
Update: Eye on Baseball asked Marc Lancaster of the Washington Times, who covered Freel in Cincy, to write up a memoir. It gives us a few keen insights into Freel, but it also leaves us with more questions about him.
"The Reds family is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Ryan Freel. His teammates and our fans loved him for how hard he played the game, and he loved giving back to the community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."
Freel was a funny guy, too. Ha-ha, and peculiar.
In 2010 when Freel announced his retirement, Kevin Kaduk of the Stew lauded him for his unique contributions to baseball. They included the revelation that he:
Claimed to have an imaginary friend named "Farney" who lived inside his head. "Everybody thinks I talk to myself, so I tell 'em I'm talking to Farney,'" Freel told the Dayton Daily News in 2006.
Freel also was arrested twice for alcohol-related offenses.
We celebrated Freel for being a free spirit, and for sacrificing his body on the baseball field to make plays. But in light of his death, we're reminded of how little we know of what goes on in people's heads.
Back in May, former NFL great Junior Seau was found dead at his home under similar circumstances, and the health problems or deaths of other athletes who suffered brain trauma have come under close scrutiny in recent years. Perhaps concussions were a contributing factor in Freel's death. Such information, no matter how it turns out, will be useful. Whether it will comfort Freel's family, which must be agonizing right now, is another matter.