On the surface, Ryan Freel was just a utility man, perhaps a super utility man in today’s parlance, a versatile and fast player who helped a team in a complementary role. He never made an All-Star team, never earned an MVP vote, and never signed a big-money free agent contract. All of that is unquestionably true, but he managed to make an impact far greater than the tangible factors might indicate.
Based on what I’ve been reading from Reds fans, ever since we all learned that he had taken his own life, Freel was far more special than your average utility player. During his six seasons in Cincinnati, Freel left Reds fans with a series of images that captured his dynamism on the diamond. Reds fans came to love Freel, who was once dubbed a poor man’s Johnny Damon, because of his all-out hustle, his game-breaking speed, his ability to make diving catches, and his willingness to play about anywhere on the infield or in the outfield.
From 2003 to 2006, Freel made his mark with the Reds as a semi-regular player/utility man who hit .270-plus, drew plenty of walks, and stole 35-plus bases. Those are not the numbers of a star, but they are the numbers of a valuable player. He played five positions each of those prime seasons, giving his manager protection at second base, third base, left field, center field, and right field.
Freel didn’t complain about being a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none; he simply wanted to play. His love of playing was manifested in his all-out, hell-bent-for-leather style, his diving catches in the outfield, his sprawling stops on the infield, and his baserunning swagger. There isn’t a manager in the world who wouldn’t love to have a player like that.
Sadly, Freel’s constant hustle and maximum effort may have cost him his health. In 2007, he suffered head and neck injuries when he collided with teammate Norris Hopper. When asked about his condition at the time, Freel estimated that he had suffered nine or 10 concussions during his athletic career. Two years later, Freel was hit in the head with a pickoff attempt, putting him on the disabled list. Perhaps those injuries and concussions played a role in the decision he made on Saturday, when he took a gun to himself and ended his life at the too-young age of 36.
There may have been other factors at work, too. Freel was relatively new at being retired, having played his last major league games in 2010. For many players, the adjustment from baseball to another career, a life outside of the game, is extraordinarily difficult. Most eventually come to grips with the adjustment, but some do not.
There is also some evidence that Freel was a troubled individual during his playing days. He was twice charged with alcohol-related offenses, including a case of driving under the influence.
Freel becomes the third former major leaguer to commit suicide over the last two years. The others were Mike Flanagan, who had financial difficulties and apparently blamed himself for much of the Orioles’ struggles in the late 1990s and 2000s, and Hideki Irabu, who had serious problems with alcohol abuse.
Those deaths do not come close to matching the series of suicides we have seen in the National Football League, but perhaps they need to serve as reminders that baseball should look at the problem of suicides a little more closely, before this starts to reach the epidemic level of football. Baseball players are not immune to suicide or mental illness, both of which appear to be on the upswing in American society.
Freel accomplished a major goal by playing in the major leagues, becoming a fan favorite in the process. But he failed to achieve what most of us also have as a goal: a long life. Thirty-six years is simply not a long time on this earth. Freel had more to offer, if only he could have made the decision to carry on.
Perhaps more could have been done to prevent this tragedy. Or maybe not. The Major League Baseball Alumni Association and the Baseball Assistance Team do great work in helping retired players who have encountered difficult times, but sometimes they don’t see the warning signs because the player hides the gravity of his mental state. In other cases, like Leon Wagner, who ended up dying in an electrical shed in the streets of Los Angeles, the player turns down any offer of help.
All these organizations can do is keep trying. The key is a strong and supportive network of retired players. If former players can remain on the lookout for signs of trouble with their brethren, maybe they can help to bring in counseling and psychiatric treatment.
Those may be the only answers for baseball, before three suicides turn into a wave of tragedy.