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Ryan Freel Death Raises Concussion Issues


The death of former Major League player Ryan Freel by what was termed a self-inflicted gunshot wound Sunday reminds us that there is no such thing as a magic potion in life. No matter what we think goes in others’ heads is their secret, and no matter what advantages, wealth, or fame they achieve there is no panacea.

Freel, 36, lived the American boys’ dream. He became a professional athlete. He made a living as a big-league ballplayer. For most of us, those of us who never had the skills to aspire to such achievement in a favorite sport, he made it. Those of us of lesser talents wish we could be part of a pro sports team even for a game, a season, even a minute.

Most of us discover early that it’s not in the cards for us. Others come oh-so-close and don’t make the final cut. Their frustration must be greater than that of the vast majority of us who can only fantasize in the backyard about hitting that game-winning homer.

Freel was found dead in hisFloridahome and the local sheriff’s office is investigating, though there doesn’t seem to be any mystery about any other parties being involved in his death or any other reason for the cause besides the gun-shot wound. The ruling is going to be suicide.

Freel was born inFloridaand grew up inFlorida. He was 25 when he broke into the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001 and he retired after eight seasons in the majors in 2009. Most of his career, six seasons, was spent with the Cincinnati Reds.

Overall, Freel played in 594 games. He was an all-around utility player, getting into those games at a wide variety of positions. Freel was not a power hitter, but his lifetime average was .268 and he was a notable base-stealing threat for the Reds for a few years. In 2004, when he played a career-high 143 games, Freel stole 37 bases. He stole 36 the next season and 37 again in 2006. The guy could run.

The Reds community was particularly hard hit by the news of Freel’s passing. Current Cincinnati All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips tweeted his dismay over the circumstances of Freel’s death. “Really hurt by his passing!” Phillips wrote. “You never will be forgotten.”

The Cincinnati Reds organization issued a statement about Freel’s death, reading in part, “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.”

Freel’s last season was 2009, which was split among three teams. His final Major League appearances were for the Kansas City Royals. A number of Freel’s seasons near the end of his career were interrupted by injuries.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of the litany of injuries Freel suffered were a long list of concussions. He pleased fans by playing all out, but sometimes that all-out aspect of his play resulted in him crashing into outfield walls. He was also was once hit in the head by a pitch and had to be helped from the field. It was estimated that Freel incurred about 10 concussions during his playing days.

Recent medical studies, mostly focused on football players, have sounded ominous warnings about long-term damage suffered from repeated battering of the head and how those hits can lead to long-term damage. We don’t really know the situation with Freel, but it seems possible that his several concussions could have added up to problems in retirement. Those of us on the outside in these circumstances usually presume depression because we don’t image happy people killing themselves.

In retirement, Freel also had public difficulties with alcohol. He was arrested for driving drunk once and for disorderly conduct another time. This is only speculation, but it makes sense to wonder if all of this stuff is connected—concussions, alcohol abuse, probably depression.

Those are the kind of things we have been reading a lot about lately with regard to National Football League retirees—some of whom killed themselves and willed their brains to organizations performing medical research.

This backdrop has to make one wonder if Ryan Freel’s sad demise carries with it the same implications. Although he wasn’t a football player, perhaps Freel suffered from the same head injury post-concussive syndrome challenges because for a baseball player he had an inordinate number of head injuries.