Ryan Freel was "tough." In baseball parlance, that means hustling on every pitch, giving up your body to make the play. These types of players are celebrated, of course. In August 2006, the Cincinnati Enquirer paid tribute to just the latest example of Freel's toughness, a diving catch on the warning track of a long Albert Pujols fly ball. "A full-scale belly-flop, face-plant, are-you-serious? head bang," the paper described it—and got on with the meat of the story, the trouble the Reds' clubhouse manager had keeping Freel's jersey clean and white.
It's a lighthearted piece, broken up by one exchange with Freel, still in pain from making the catch two days before.
"I feel like I just got in a skateboard accident," he said.
"You ever get in any skateboard accidents?" someone wondered.
"Yeah. I had a concussion."
"No, I've had plenty of concussions. Just one skateboarding."
Freel didn't go on the disabled list—he didn't even miss a game.
Two days after Ryan Freel, 36, stuck a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, both major athlete brain banks—the Garrett Webster-fronted Brain Injury Research Institute and Chris Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute—have reached out to Freel's family. They'd like to study his brain, see if Freel—who sustained, by his count, "nine or 10" concussions in his life—suffered from the same neurological degeneration found in scores of dead former football players. Whatever they discover, it wouldn't be too much to say that concussions ended Freel's career.
Freel played his sport well when he could play it hard—a super-utility guy without much power but with an above-average walk rate who stole at least 36 bases in each of the three seasons he played more than 100 games. He could play second, third, and everywhere in the outfield, and played each with regularity and abandon, until he couldn't.
In May 2007, he collided with fellow outfielder Norris Hopper at full-speed. Freel was unconcious before he hit the ground.
"I think it knocked him out, because he hit the ground pretty hard, but he was limp," [said Hopper]. "I went over and got real close to his ear and screamed, ‘Freel, Freel,' about four times. He opened his eyes slowly, and I said, ‘Just lay there. They're coming."'
Paul Daugherty, the Enquirer writer who had offered the paean to Freel's dirty uniform, again tackled his style of play—still admiringly, but this time tinged with concern.
Watching Freel play defense is like watching crash dummies in a seat belt test. It's more fun than Rosie and The Donald in a steel cage on pay-per-view. It's bungee-jumping without the bungee. Baseball and the circus, one low price! It's fun.
Also, scary as hell.
Freel went on the disabled list. His teammates couldn't get in touch with him—Hopper said he wasn't picking up the phone, and even manager Jerry Narron was in the dark. He was never officially diagnosed with a concussion, though—the team sent him to a head and spine specialist, and a neurologist, and the official word was "head and neck contusions," as a CT scan showed up normal.
Freel knew a concussion when he felt it though, and wasn't shy about sharing.
"I know it is a concussion because I've had a lot of them and I know what a concussion is," he said when he addressed the media two weeks later. "I was knocked out, and every time I've had a concussion I was knocked out."
Freel said he'd never had a concussion like that.
"I'm nervous," Freel said before Friday's game, his first chat with the media since the mishap. "I've never gone through this. I want to know what's going on. I don't feel comfortable as to where I stand about getting back."
"I'm still getting headaches," Freel said. "I can't read a whole bunch. Remembering stuff is still not where I need to be."
Freel said that he struggled to get through some recent tests. One was on an exercise bike, and he had to stop when the headaches became overwhelming.
"The first five days, I didn't even get out of bed," he said. "I had pretty bad headaches and nausea and dizziness. I tried driving a couple of times before maybe I was supposed to. I had some pretty bad headaches by driving, a lot of discomfort and pressure."
Freel would miss 24 games before returning, and he wouldn't play close to a full season again: 75 games in 2007, just 48 in 2008. Before the 2009 season he was traded to Baltimore, where he promptly suffered another concussion. On April 20, he was diving back into second base when he was struck on the side of the head by an errant pickoff throw. He was taken to the hospital and placed on the disabled list.
He expressed dismay with how the Orioles had treated his rehab—he claimed his post-concussion Impact Test was administered in a busy room, with people coming in and out—and he was soon traded to the Cubs. He played only 14 games in Chicago, and brief stints with Kansas City and Texas followed. By 2010, he was out of baseball.
No one is saying yet that Freel's head injuries played any direct role in his suicide—nor should they be. Details are scarce, and you can find other red flags in Freel's past unrelated to concussions. He was at one time a heavy drinker with an imaginary friend; like many former athletes he found himself "bored" and "disturbed" when he wasn't able to play baseball. The problem with concussion determinism, as Slate's Dan Engber has pointed out, is that it tends to overlook all the many overlapping agonies of being a professional athlete—agonies both mental and physical, feeding off one another. It would be wrong, and at the very least premature, to point to the concussions as the cause of Freel's suicide; it would be callous not to see them as one in a collection of often destructive miseries that come with playing a sport at the warning track of one's capabilities.