Ryan Freel was frequently described as fearless throughout his career playing major league baseball for the Cincinati Reds, Kansas City Royals, Chicago Cubs, and Baltimore Orioles. He wasn’t afraid to dive for balls or crash into walls and other players. He quickly became a fan favorite during his five years playing with the Reds, but his style of play came at a high cost. Freel estimated he had sustained 10 concussions during his career, but his family suggests the number could very well be higher.
Behind the scenes, Freel also battled depression and substance abuse. His injuries forced him to retire from the sport early in 2010. Sadly, one year ago, Freel killed himself with a shotgun at the age of 36.
Today, Freel has earned a new distinction. He has become the first Major League Baseball player to be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative brain disease associated with repeated brain damage. Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine released the results of autopsy tests on his brain tissue earlier this morning.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a permanent condition which can cause anxiety, depression, memory problems, behavior problems, and in some cases motor disturbances such as balance difficulties. Despite major advances, it can only be diagnosed post-mortem in autopsy tests.
As Stephanie Smith and Dan Moriarty from CNN reported, testing of the brain found that Freel had a moderate form of the condition referred to as Stage 2 CTE, generally associated with erratic behavior and memory loss. The worst form of the disease, Stage 4, has been linked to severe dementia, aggression, and paranoia.
The diagnose only confirmed what Freel’s family already suspected, according to a statement from his stepfather Clark Vargas on Sunday.
“It provides some solace that there is a reason now for Ryan having done what he did,” Vargas said. “Knowing that he’s been suffering for 11 years and that CTE is a progressive disease, it gives explanation (for) some of the irrational things that he may have done. You know, he had a reason.”
The disease has been at the center of the NFL’s concussion issues in recent years. There have been many accusations that the professional football league purposefully attempted to discredit or hide evidence of the condition appearing in autopsies of former players. High profile names in professional football have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE, such as Mike Webster and Junior Seau.
Much of the coverage of concussions and their possible connection to long term brain damage has ignored baseball because it is not known to be a high-contact sport. However, this season 18 players have been put on the disabled list. Norma Vargas, Freel’s mother, told CNN, “I think people don’t realize that baseball players get hurt as much as they do.”
In a statement released Sunday evening, Major League Baseball said it has been working with experts “to remain proactive on concussions and head injuries.”
The league continued, “Major League Baseball’s thoughts remain with Ryan Freel’s family, friends and all those he touched throughout his life. Ryan played baseball with love and passion and made a lasting impression on and off the field. We recently met in person with Ryan’s mother and stepfather and expressed to them our feelings about Ryan and discussed MLB’s efforts to provide a safe environment for our players.”
It is notable that the league has already announced several rule changes in response to the rising number of concussion diagnoses, like a ban on home plate collisions that will likely begin in 2014, and increased coverage in educational programs.