Ryan Freel was born with Pete Rose-type baseball genes, minus the natural talent.
That’s what made Freel so popular with Cincinnati Reds fans, and it’s why the Reds once put together a Ryan Freel T-shirt giveaway with simulated dirt smudging the garment.
Freel never finished a game without dirt and grime on his uniform, to say nothing of his face and arms. And more often than not, the knees of his uniform pants were ripped.
He kept needle and thread in his locker to sew his own pants so as to not constantly bother the clubhouse personnel with his trivialities.
Like Rose, Freel would do anything to catch a ball and do anything to score a run or take an extra base. He was fearless at running into walls and once dove over the low railing down the right-field line in Dodger Stadium, landing in the lap of a woman sitting in the second row.
He caught the ball.
His aggressive style also lead to a long series of concussions, which he kept quiet as much as possible.
After he dove for a ball in center field, cracked his head against the wall and suffered a concussion, his father called me about his son’s concussion history and said, “He has had nine or 10 concussions, going back to his high school days.”
When I wrote the story, Freel was incensed at his estranged father for telling me and at me for writing it, “Because you might be cutting my career short and baseball is all I have. And my father has never been part of my life and it isn’t his business.”
Freel was 32 at the time. Before the next season, in December 2008, Freel was traded to the Baltimore Orioles for catcher Ramon Hernandez.
During the 2009 season, he played for the Orioles, the Chicago Cubs and the Kansas City Royals, never catching any kind of the magic or fan admiration he enjoyed in Cincinnati.
The Royals released him in August, and he signed a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers and spent the rest of 2009 in the minors. In November of that year, he was granted free agency and never found a job.
At age 33, Freel’s baseball career was over, although he helped out last spring with the Reds Fantasy Camp in Goodyear, Ariz., and in 2010 tried to make a comeback in an independent league, but quickly gave it up.
On Saturday, Freel’s life ended at the age of 36, apparently by his own hand, at his Jacksonville, Fla., home, leaving his wife, Christie, and three children.
While listed at 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds, Freel probably was closer to 5-8, but his body was stuffed with energy, all of which he left daily on a baseball field.
Off the field, he was a complex figure. There were days when he was everybody’s friend, a large smile creasing his face and a hearty hello for everybody. And there were days when he’d walk past his closest friend with a frown on his face and a comment for nobody.
He didn’t like it when he thought a teammate wasn’t hustling, wasn’t giving it his all. At the team’s annual end-of-season party in Milwaukee, he and teammate D’Angelo Jimenez engaged in a fist fight when Freel challenged him about his perceived lack of all-out hustle on the field.
Freel playfully revealed to me one day that he had an alter ego who was constantly with him, constantly on his shoulder and in his mind, a little guy he called Farney.
“He’s the guy who does all the good things I do, and he’s the guy who tells me the good things to do,” Freel told me after he revealed his alter ego’s presence.
After making one incredible catch in the 2006 season, Freel said, “Farney is a little guy who lives in my head and talks to me and I talk to him. That little midget in my head said, ‘That was a great catch,’ and I said, ‘Hey, Farney, I don’t know if that was you who really caught the ball, but that was pretty good if it was.’ ”
Freel later regretted revealing that story because it followed him everywhere and became part of his being, more so than his reckless style of play.
He was raised by his Cuban-born mother in Jacksonville. She worked 16 hours a day, teaching and cleaning houses. Freel always gave her credit for his hardscrabble style.
And he loved the Reds for giving him a chance that nobody else was going to give him.
He was drafted in the 10th round in 1995 by the Toronto Blue Jays, but he never was considered a real prospect. He languished in the minors for five years before finally playing nine games for the Jays in 2001.
He was a free agent after the 2001 season and signed by the Tampa Bay Rays, but he spent the entire 2002 season in the minors. Again he became a free agent, and the Reds signed him before the 2003 season.
For the next six seasons, he was a big part of the Reds, mostly batting leadoff while playing all three outfield spots, second base and third base.
“And if they want me to catch, I’ll do that too,” he once said.
His name came up in trade rumors several times his last couple of years with the Reds, and he always said, “I don’t care who the other team is, I don’t want to go. The Reds are the only team to ever give me a chance and they are the only team I want to play for.”
Nevertheless, after Freel hit .272 with 22 homers, 114 RBI and 140 stolen bases during his time with the Reds, they traded him to the Orioles for Hernandez after the 2008 season.
And today, the baseball world cries for Ryan Freel.