Tuesday, April 16, 2013

April 16- Cincinnati Reds

Getting older is kind of a drag. The body slows down, summer vacations are pretty much non-existent, you have to pay taxes and everything you thought was cool as a kid for some strange reason comes back into style 20 years down the road. One of the biggest reality checks for me took place over the last year as a member of the MLB Fan Cave. I touched on this issue before in my piece about the Australian World Baseball Classic hat on March 20 so I won’t get too lengthy with it. I am one of the few people who represents two of the four sides of Major League Baseball. By this I mean you have

1. The business end.

2. The players.

3. The fans.

4. The media.

You could possibly expand upon that, but I’m merely speaking in generalities. During my time in New York I represented the fan side (obviously) and the media side as a correspondent for my team, the game and for the fans. The fact that I graduated with two degrees in journalism from the University of Oregon also came in handy. Something always felt off about me being there and it wasn’t until this last December that the reality sunk in—most of the players in the game today are younger than I am.

With all the players and I met, interacted with and have gotten on friendly terms with, I’m older than every single one of them, with the exception of Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer George Brett. Now, let’s be honest, anyone who really knows me is well aware of the fact that my brain and attitude seemed to be permanently locked in the age range of 18-22, but my grizzly beard and graying of the hair would tell otherwise.  As a kid, professional baseball players, whether it be in the Majors or Minors, always looked and seemed much older than their swagger would lead you to believe. But even at that, they all seemed to personify what it meant to be a man in American lore; kind of like cowboys, cops or fighter pilots. All of those illusions went away when I was 16-years-old, the first year I took over as bat boy for the Bakersfield Blaze.

For the first few days all of the guys still had that sense of being elders, but it all got dashed away once they warmed up to me. And if you didn’t know, baseball players are probably some of the most immature people on the planet, but in a good way. I mean, they play a game for money for crying out loud. The average age on the team hovered around 21-years-old, so there really wasn’t much of an age gap between us. We all liked the same music, we all played the same video games before every home game and we all wanted to bang every chick with a great set of curves who walked by (just being honest). Those were the days.

The last decade or so has been especially strange from a baseball perspective. A lot of the legends from the old days passed away and I found myself seeing more and more faces from the Major League clubs getting sent down to the minors; guys like Bobby Kielty, Tony Torcato, Sean Burroughs, Jack Cust and Khalil Greene. These were all guys who had drafted right around the time when I graduated high school in 2001. All of them were killing it in AAA, but none of that really seemed to matter for various reasons of rosters being too tight, getting more at-bats in the Minors, etc. etc. One guy in particular blew me away every time he stepped on the diamond; a guy I never had the privilege of seeing play live: Ryan Freel.

I had originally picked this hat out back in February, but found myself struggling to find a player or event that I felt was important to talk about. This hat served as the team’s alternate hat in 1999, but then took over as the road cap from 2000 until the end of the 2006 season. Keeping that in mind I scrolled through photos, stats and videos in an attempt to write a story about a moment in which the hat was actually used. Oddly enough, it was a highlight video cut in Japan that helped trigger this, which you’ll see later in this post.

Ryan Freel was born in Jacksonville, Florida on March 8, 1976, just a year ahead of my oldest brother Matthew. He attended Tallahassee Community College where he was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 14th round of the 1994 amateur draft, but opted to keep playing college ball. He transferred to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee where he was then selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 1995 amateur draft. From 1995-1997 Freel jumped up from the intermediate-A St. Catherines Blue Jays to the advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays where he played along side Roy Halladay until the duo were moved up to the AA Knoxville Smokers. In 1998 Freel and Halladay both started in Knoxville, but both moved up to the AAA Syracuse Sky Chiefs by mid-season. On September 20th of that year Halladay got the call to the Majors; Freel would wait another three years before getting his shot. Freel had some shaky years in the Minors, barely hitting around .280 with only a few home runs here and there. Freel, as his former coaches would say, was all heart. He played every game as if it were his last; the kind of player that any team would love to have in the clubhouse. Unfortunately for Freel, that clubhouse was not the one in Toronto.

On April 4, 2001 Freel got the nod and made his Major League debut. Freel only served as a defensive replacement at second base in that game, and he only made an appearance in eight other games that season. At the end of the year he was granted free agency; the Tampa Bay Devil Rays signed him to a one-year deal at which he spent the entire season in AAA with the Durham Bulls. He hit .261 with eight home runs, 48 RBI and 37 stolen bases. On November 18, 2002 Freel signed with the Cincinnati Reds.

Freel tenure with the Reds started off with AAA Louisville Bats for the first 54 games of the season; however, his time back in Show was just around the corner. Freel would play in 43 games with the Reds that season under interim manager Dave Miley, whom he had built as solid report with in Louisville. He ended up hitting .285 with four home runs and 12 RBI. In 2004, Freel became a regular fixture in the Reds lineup.

4/16/2004- As I said above, I never saw Freel play live, but I did see him in a hell of a lot of games on TV. One game in particular took place nine years ago today at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs. In the bottom of the first inning the Reds were all ready up 2-0. With Todd Walker on first base after a lead-off single, Corey Patterson opted to bunt to push Walker to second base as Sammy Sosa and Moises Alou were both waiting on deck and in the hole. Reds pitcher Aaron Harang threw a hard fastball at which Patterson fouled off toward the Cubs dugout. What he, and no one else watching the game expected was an up-and-coming 28-year-old third baseman to leap out and make the catch. Watch it here, but fast forward to the 8:33 mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsSO5cTN7Do
 Freel didn’t care about is body. In his mind, and according to the Reds clubhouse manager, it was almost an insult if his jersey wasn't covered in dirt and grass stains before the game ended. Freel became and instant fan-favorite as he channeled the raw hustle and grit like that of a young Pete Rose.

Freel on the Reds reminded me a lot of Brian Urlacher in the early years of his career with the Chicago Bears. No matter what play the offense is trying to run, Urlacher would always be in the picture. Between 2004 and 2006 Freel hit .265 with a total of 15 home runs and 64 RBI. He was not a great hitter by any means, but he was decent and he could steal bases to the tune of an average of 36 per season during that stretch. What he lacked in offensive production he certainly made up for with his defensive prowess. Freel made numerous highlight reels in the five years that he played in Cincinnati; however, with all of those amazing plays came a lot of missed games. Not necessarily on the DL either. Before the start of the 2007 season, the Reds signed Freel to a two-year $7 million extension.

Freel suffered a tremendous amount of head trauma throughout his career, and even before he joined the league. In an interview he gave with MLB.com, Freel casually mentioned that he had sustained somewhere around “nine or 10” concussions. The most sever of which came on May 28, 2007 when he collided with teammate Norris Hopper at the warning track as the two were trying to run down a fly ball in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Freel was knocked unconscious 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."'

He was transported by ambulance to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was reported to be coherent with feeling in his extremities. He began working out on June 15, about 2 weeks after the collision and was briefly sent to Louisville for rehabilitation. Freel began getting random headaches and pains in his head, which delayed his return for another 2 weeks. On July 3, 2007, 1 month and 5 days after the accident, Freel returned to play for the Cincinnati Reds and was healthy until being placed on the 15-day DL with torn cartilage in his right knee on August 7.

On December 9, 2008, Freel was traded along with two minor leaguers including Justin Turner to the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Ramón Hernández. In 2009 with the Orioles, he was hit by a pickoff throw in the head while on 2nd base. He was put on the Disabled List after the injury. On May 8, 2009, Freel was traded once again, this time to the Cubs for outfielder Joey Gathright and cash considerations. On July 2, 2009, Freel was designated for assignment to create roster space for the newly acquired Jeff Baker. On July 6, 2009, Freel was dealt accompanied by cash considerations to the Kansas City Royals for a player to be named later. On August 5, 2009, Freel was designated for assignment by the Royals. He was released on August 13, 2009. On August 28, 2009 Freel signed a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers. He was released 2 days later. He retired on May 17, 2010. Post-retirement, Freel was a youth baseball coach with Big League Development.

Freel, according to the media and teammates, was a bit of a mixed bag. There was a good Freel and a bad Freel. Even before his collision with Hopper people noticed it. He had an imaginary friend named Farney who he openly talked about with anyone. He said this during a post-game interview in 2006:

"He's a little guy who lives in my head who talks to me and I talk to him," said Freel, acting as if he finally crashed into too many walls, ran into too many catchers and dived into too many dugouts. "That little midget in my head said, 'That was a great catch, Ryan,' I said, 'Hey, Farney, I don't know if that was you who really caught that ball, but that was pretty good if it was.' Everybody thinks I talk to myself, so I tell 'em I'm talking to Farney.' "

He also had issues with drinking back in 2005, having been arrested twice for driving under the influence. He ended up paying a fine for the first incident, and the second was later dropped. The drinking then arose again in January of 2012 when Freel was arrested at a pool hall in Tampa, Florida for disorderly intoxication.

Freel had gone off the radar, so to speak. By that I mean he vanished from the public eye, focusing more on himself in a world without playing baseball professionally. He “backed away” from the youth developmental baseball gig he was a part of and sunk into a deep depression. I had stepped out for a quick cigarette break at work when I scrolled through the news and saw Freel's name pop up.

On December 22, 2012 Freel’s body was found at approximately 4 PM. He had stuck a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 36. While the amount of trauma Freel’s body has taken may seem like an indicator, there is still no conclusive evidence to prove what he did was caused by his concussions, but it’s hard not to speculate. Two days after, both major athlete brain banks—the Garrett Webster-fronted Brain Injury Research Institute and Chris Nowinski's Sports Legacy Institute reached out to Freel's family to hopefully find an answer to this question.

It’s hard to imagine that someone so young, so talented and so beloved by friends and family alike would walk down that path. Over the last few years it’s felt almost like a common place to hear about an athlete who decided to take their own life. In most cases it’s been a former NFL star whose brains took a similar, if not more intense beating than Freel’s did. But then again, another MLB star from my youth, New York Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu, hung himself in 2011.
The innocence of the game is slightly lost upon me these days. While I still do my best to hold on to child-like wonder when I go to the ball park, at some point the reality sets in that the “game” aspect of baseball quickly goes away once a player hits the professional level. It’s no wonder these guys seem so much older than they are. With the amount of stress and punishment the body gets taxed on in an effort to make a huge payday, these kids age more rapidly than the rest of us. I don’t think the average fan really appreciates nor understands that aspect of the player too often.

I will always love the game, but more important, I will always respect the athletes who display their talents for 162 games a season. It’s a damn shame that Freel too the route he did. There are too many “what ifs” that present themselves, and perhaps all it could have taken was for one extra person to really listen and observe what was going on. All anyone can do is learn and move on, and hope that another tragedy like this can be prevented.

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