You never knew what to make of Freel. Or Farney, for that matter. A grown man owning up to an imaginary friend? That's either colorful and quirky or, well, a little frightening. And ultimately, "colorful, quirky and a little frightening" is probably the best way to describe Ryan Freel's personality.
Freel was found dead Saturday in his Jacksonville, Fla., home, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, police told the Florida Times-Union. He was 36. And as is typically the case with suicide, the grief quickly gives way to the questions. And the questions force those of us who knew Freel to look back.
I covered the Reds in 2005 for MLB.com and, therefore, spent a lot of time around Freel. He was/is one of my favorite athletes I've dealt with in this business, for a number of reasons.
For one, Freel truly loved the sport he was paid to play, and we all know that this is not always a given. He compromised nothing in his effort or intensity in any game I saw him play. He took pride in being on the field and giving his all, much to the detriment of his battered body. And in that 2005 season, he was just beginning to see his utility role expanded into more of a consistent presence.
"I wish I could play 30 or 40 [games] in a row," he told me at that time. "I'm not looking for a day off. I don't want a day off."
An amateur psychologist would quickly suggest that the field of play was Freel's escape. Maybe there's something to that notion, maybe not. But Freel played the game with a reckless abandon -- head-first dives into the wall and warning track that, at the time, made you smile. Here in the aftermath of his death, however, the effects of his recklessness only open the door to another round of questions. Freel proved he would do anything to protect a lead in a baseball game, even if that meant damaging himself. How much damage did he do?
Freel once estimated that he had suffered "nine or 10" concussions in his career. And this was several years before his career ended.
The final factor that made Freel such a joy to cover: He was endearingly eccentric. The reporter-player relationship is often cordial and sometimes harmonious, but rarely does it reach the "bear hug" stage, as it so often did with Freel. You could hear his laugh a room away, and you knew he was always good for an honest and insightful quote.
While writing this piece, I was going through some old notes and stories from that '05 season, and what strikes me is the sheer number of times Freel is noted to have said or done something that demonstrates what a great teammate he was. There's mention of him encouraging Felipe Lopez when the two were both mired in a long slump at the plate ("This is the time when it's fun to play defense, right?"). There's a note about him telling a freshly promoted prospect there's "no pressure, so just come out swinging." There's a game story that mentions Freel sticking around to speak to reporters in an otherwise deserted clubhouse after a tough loss.
Freel's love of the game was infectious, and his love of his teammates was obvious. During his time with the Reds, he was especially generous in the community.
But there was another side to Freel, too. There were days when he was downright unapproachable, days where he'd sit alone at his locker for a long while, talking to no one, not even himself. And as my friend and fellow former Reds beat writer Marc Lancaster pointed out in his terrific remembrance on CBSsports.com, it was a consistent source of intrigue to see which Freel had shown up to work that day.
I don't know what led Freel to pull that trigger Saturday. It is easy for me to sit here and point to the concussions and the sullen days and see a pattern that could have followed him into retirement. I just know that in the brief period in which our paths crossed, I enjoyed getting to know Ryan Freel very much. And as such, I'll be thinking about him quite a bit this Christmas, and I'll be thinking about his family and praying they find peace.
Most of all, I'll be praying that those dealing with similar demons will find a better solution. It should never have to come to this.
Rest in peace, Ryan.