Opinion of Kingman's Performance

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ryan Freel Tragedy: Something MLB Must Look At

Ryan Freel in action at Dodger Stadium (photo by Kirby Lee/USA Today)

On July 27, 2005 I sat down and watched Reds second baseman Ryan Freel almost singlehandedly defeat the Dodgers 7-6.  It was a 3 for 4 night for the leadoff man and he stole 5 bases off hapless Dodger catcher Jayson Phillips.  I remember thinking that I wished that the Dodgers had a player that hustled and was a gritty as Freel.  He made a diving catch going into the stands that would lead most highlight reels these days.

Listed as 5’10” and 185 lbs. in baseball-reference.com, very few believe that he was that large in stature.  Pete Rose raved about Freel saying that he reminded him of himself.  Many Reds fans are now coming forward to express how much they loved watching him play.   It is with great sadness that we now read of Freel’s death at age 36,  of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He left a wife and three young daughters.

As time passes, we find out more of the demons Freel had been facing.  He endured an injury plagued career and based on the performance cited above, that doesn’t surprise me.  Ryan played the game all out, always giving a 100% effort with almost a reckless abandon.  He is reported to have suffered ten on-field concussions due to those efforts.  In Baltimore, it is written today that the last image of him on a baseball diamond was a half conscious Freel being assisted off the field at Fenway Park in April, 2009.  He had been hit in the head with an errant pick-off throw.  That was the end of the baseball injuries on the major League level for Freel, that one resulting in a trip to the D.L., then the minors and eventually out of baseball.

By age 34 Ryan was meandering in the Independent Leagues, trying unsuccessfully to work his way back to the majors.  After the Reds traded him to Baltimore before the 2009 season, Freel’s career fell of the map due to injuries.  Head trauma is what did him in, both in baseball and in life.  

Cincinnati Enquirer file photo

I’m not sure if we’ll ever know the full story of what happened to Ryan Freel, but his death is a concern and something that should be looked at with concern.  Is the head trauma that he suffered on the baseball diamond a direct impact that caused his death?  How many concussions did he suffer?  Could anything have been done to help him in his moment of despair?  In this year where the suicide of Junior Seau is still fresh in our minds, I’m hoping that something can be done to prevent this from happening again.  

As I researched this article, I came across the a USA Today Article that addressed the problem of concussions in baseball, and found it tragic that the center of the story discussed Ryan Freel.  Author Jorge L. Ortiz wrote the following (bold face added) :

"Within a three-week stretch, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Freel sustained a concussion that forced him onto the disabled list and Los Angeles Angels first baseman Casey Kotchman suffered one that sent him to the hospital.
Neither plays the position most susceptible to head injuries.
Their cases highlight that concussions are not merely the purview of football and hockey, or even of catchers, who are most vulnerable in baseball. In response, clubs have made strides in how to manage these injuries, even in the last few months.
Freel, knocked unconscious in an outfield collision with Norris Hopper on May 28, was cleared Friday to do light workouts. However, he won't be allowed to play again until he's free of symptoms — at rest and during exertion — and his results come out normal in the ImPACT test, a tool more than half the MLB clubs have acquired this season to help determine when concussed players can return to play.
In the recent past those decisions were made based on less scientific data, possibly to a player's detriment.
"It's getting out there as a real medical problem, whereas years ago it was treated as, 'Oh, the guy's got a little bell-ringer headache. Give him a week's rest and then go back,' " says Dr. John Brannan, a head and spine specialist in Cincinnati who is treating Freel. " 'With a second one, give him three weeks and go back. Third one, oh, he's done for the season.'
"These were all very old-school recommendations on how you treat these things."
Concussions — traumatic injuries to the brain that result in chemical changes — are far more common in contact sports."

Speaking of the contact sports, the NFL has taken precautions against head injury.  Trainers are pulling players out of games and ensuring that they heal up completely before returning to that game that is extremely susceptible to head hits.  Though baseball isn’t close to the consistent  head trauma injuries that football experiences, the problem exists.  Recent studies that show an inordinate amount of football players suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease have researchers admitting that Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) is brought on my frequent head trauma.  

Those studies, exposed by Bernie Goldberg on HBO’s Real Sports in 2010, identified that Lou Gehrig himself is said to have suffered what his staff documented as six serious head injuries in his playing career, one so severe that his head was so swollen that he had to wear babe Ruth’s hat because his cap size wouldn’t fit over his head.  The fact that Gehrig didn’t sit out and properly heal is said to have directly resulted in the disease that now carries his name.  Now we see a rash of suicides that are coming from professional athletes that are known to have suffered a number of head injuries.  

Freel steals second base against the Dodgers, 2008 (file photo/Cincinnati Enquirer)

Ryan Freel suffered from memory impairment, headaches and head/neck injuries during his major league career.  He also is reported to have attention deficit disorder and successfully beaten an alcohol abuse problem earlier in his career.  We don’t know what  Ryan was feeling in his last days and what set things in motion for him to take his life, but those who played with him found him to be as loving a friend as he was a fierce competitor on the field.  

Red’s beat writer John Fay reports that there was a side to Freel that many didn’t see.  Aside from the fun-loving, joking and vibrant Ryan, he had a sullen side.  “We used to joke that his mood depended on the medication.  Those gags don’t seem so funny now,” says Fay.  Fay hints that he believes that the head injuries caused Freel to be more subdued.  Fay's article LINKED HERE

Redszone.com has initiated a fundraiser in the memory of Ryan Freel.  Asking for donations to the American Society for Suicide Prevention (Cincinnati Branch).  LINKED HERE

My hope is that MLB takes a closer look at the Ryan Freel situation and takes action with regard to head trauma and proper player recovery, to avoid this in the future.  There is no easy solution to this problem, but it needs to be addressed.  The USA Today article from 2007 shows that MLB teams looked at this problem in the short term, but now that we are seeing long term effects, there needs to be more done.  

In 2007, Freel was quoted in the Ortiz USA Today article that dizziness had weakened him and he had suffered from nausea for days after the injury, but that he wasn't going to let up.  He played the game one way, and that was all out.  His words haunt us today now that we know he is dead, five years later by his own hand.:

"I'm still going to be aggressive.  I'm sure I'll think about it, but as far as getting out there, I don't feel any fear of something like this happening again."

So sad.  My condolences to the Freel family who’s Holiday season was shattered by tragedy.

Ryan Paul Freel, 1976-2012 
(Cincinnati Enquirer file photo)

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