COMMENTARY| During his prime with the Cincinnati Reds, Ryan Freel personified leaving it all out on the field. Whether it was reckless abandon or just the will of an overachieving player to do everything within his power to succeed, Freel may have reminded many in Reds Country of their favorite native son Pete Rose with the way he gave everything he had on the field all of the time.
For three seasons between 2004 and 2006, Freel flourished with the Reds and was a model of consistency in more ways than just hustle. He batted between .271 and .277 in all three seasons as a regular player and stole either 36 or 37 bases during each of those seasons as the team's primary leadoff hitter. His versatility as a center fielder and infield utility player added to his value as a player, which the Reds rewarded with a two-year, $7-million contract extension for the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Unfortunately for Freel, his career unwound rapidly after his all-too brief success. It was a sad day in Reds Country when Freel headlined the trade that sent him and two minor leaguers to the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Ramon Hernandez. By the end of the 2009 season after that trade, Freel had played with three big league teams and would never play in the majors again. Freel retired in 2010 at the age of 34 -- way too early for a player who clearly loved the game the way he did. Freel either did not have or take the opportunity to resume his baseball career following severe concussion issues the way Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins or Brian Roberts of the Orioles did.
On the other hand, the argument could be made that Freel didn't retire early enough because injuries -- particularly concussions -- may have not only derailed his career but also shortened his life. Freel did remain involved with baseball after he retired by forming the Big League Development baseball league in his North Florida hometown. He also remained involved with the Reds after his retirement and was expected to be a part of the Reds' "Baseball Heaven" fantasy baseball camp earlier this year, where he would have joined a legion of Reds legends.
With a future still bright despite an early end to his playing days, Freel committed suicide on December 22, 2012. The role that all of his concussions had in the ultimate act of suicide led Freel's parents to donate his brain tissue for study by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Hopefully some good will emerge from the tragedy of Freel's death, and his legacy does continue in North Florida, where a memorial to Freel was recently dedicated at a youth baseball park. Freel's part in Reds history will also persevere, and he has taken his rightful place among all of the Reds who have played for the storied franchise, which is currently commemorating Reds players past and present with an exhibit of Reds player signatures in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame & Museum.
Robb Hoff has worked as a freelance researcher for ESPN's production and news departments for the past five years. You can read his articles about the 2012 Reds season here.
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