Opinion by Ryan Finley: Freel's father finding peace in faith, science

2013-12-22T00:00:00Z Opinion by Ryan Finley: Freel's father finding peace in faith, scienceRyan Finley Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Parishioners will file into

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church at 9 a.m. today to pray for the repose of Ryan Freel’s soul.

Later, they’ll discuss his brain.

The former major-league outfielder committed suicide a year ago today following a downward physical and mental spiral. Freel’s 36-year-old brain was donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy with hopes that doctors might confirm what his family long suspected: that a career spent bowling over catchers and running into walls hastened his decline.

Last week, they were proved right. Doctors said Freel’s brain showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalophathy (CTE), the same kind of damage that’s been found, over and over, in ex-football players. Freel is the first baseball player to receive the diagnosis.

Freel’s father, Tucsonan Patrick Freel Sr., said this week that he was torn by the news. While he’s happy for a scientific explanation, he’s baffled that somebody — somewhere — didn’t do something to stop his son.

“Yes, I believe concussions had to do with it,” said Freel, whose son, Patrick Jr., lives here and works at Raytheon. “First base coaches and third base coaches are hit in the chest and die instantly. Ryan was crashing into walls, colliding into people at home plate. Going over the bannisters and into the audience and into the outfield walls and all those sorts of things. It was an impact on his brain: Why didn’t someone speak up and say, ‘Ryan, your body can’t take much more of this!’ ”

Not that Ryan would have listened anyway.

“Ryan was trying to prove something,” his father said. “And he did — he proved you can’t do it. That’s why nobody else does it.”

During his eight-year career with the Blue Jays, Reds, Orioles, Cubs and Royals, Freel made his money — and the SportsCenter reels — by playing with abandon. He stole 143 career bases, often sliding headfirst. He was hit by 43 pitches, 12 times during a breakout 2004 season with the Reds.

And he suffered at least 10 documented concussions. Patrick Freel Sr. puts the number at 15.

Patrick, a Tucson resident since 2006, managed Ryan’s fan mail and attended as many games as he could. But his son’s fame and money — Ryan made $11.5 million during his career — coupled with a new shift in priorities led to an eventual drift between father and son.

A year ago last week, Ryan contacted his dad for the last time. He apologized for cutting Patrick out of his life; the two talked about their holiday plans. The Freel family’s Tucson contingent was flying to Florida for Christmas, in part to see Ryan and his three young daughters.

That never happened.

“Ryan texted his brother and said, ‘I’ve talked to God and Jesus, and they’re OK with what I’m going to do,’ ” Patrick Sr. said.

Then Ryan went to dinner, texted his mom, unearthed a shotgun and killed himself.

“I wasn’t there for my son. That’s what kills me,” he said. “There was really no reason for him to do that. He was a giver and not a taker. That’s what I don’t understand. He had so much going for him. No, I can’t reconcile why he did that. He was such a beloved person.”

Faced with unspeakable grief, Patrick has chosen to focus on the positive and remember the good.

During the course of a two-hour conversation Friday, he remained very much the proud papa, name-dropping everybody from Mel Ott and Hank Aaron to Ken Griffey Jr., Brandon Phillips and Dusty Baker while telling baseball stories. Patrick is raising money for the Ryan Freel Award, given through the Cincinnati Reds charities to kids who embody his heart, hustle and spirit. Putney’s Sports Bar, 6090 N. Oracle Road, will hold “Ryan Freel Day” sometime in early 2014 to help with the cause.

One of Freel’s old Reds jerseys hangs in the bar.

Patrick has immersed himself in charity work and church. He volunteers with the Knights of Columbus, is taking classes in criminal justice and networks like crazy.

Because of it, he said, “there’ll probably have to be reserved seating” at today’s memorial mass.

Say a prayer for the Freels today. For a son who was reckless on the field and off and could see no way out. For a father and brother still trying to find peace.

And for the scientists who may save lives because Ryan Freel sacrificed his.

Contact sports editor Ryan Finley at rfinley@azstarnet.com or 573-4312. On Twitter @ryan_finley

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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