Al Behrman/AP

Before and after Ryan Freel: How MLB stepped up to concussions

After Freel was the first MLB player diagnosed with CTE, head safety in baseball remains a health concern

Watching Ryan Freel play defense on a baseball field has been likened to “watching crash dummies in a seat belt test” and “bungee-jumping without the bungee.”

In Cincinnati, where he spent most of his eight seasons in the big leagues, Freel’s No. 6 jersey became synonymous to fans, teammates and opponents with playing the game the right way. That meant crashing into walls, sliding headfirst, jumping and diving to get to the ball, doing whatever was needed to make the play. The constant headaches, blurry vision and spotty memory were there, too. But that was baseball for Freel.

In January 2013, Freel’s number switched to VABT-13144. He was no longer described as a 5-foot-10, 185-pound utility man. Instead, the VA Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts, labeled his specimen type as “fixed brain fragments.”

Ryan Freel during Reds Media Day for the 2007 season.
Al Bello/Getty Images

By his own count, Freel had suffered at least nine or 10 concussions by the time he retired in 2010. The days of sadness, depression and anxiety that dotted the last two and a half years of his career became more common. But Freel needed baseball. The divorced father of three daughters began coaching Little League with the same energy he devoted to his play. That hobby, however, was only a distraction from the fact that he wasn’t playing anymore.

Alarmed by his spiraling condition and new obsession with guns, his mother Norma Vargas removed the weapons from his Jacksonville, Florida home in December 2012. The next day, Freel texted his mother, asking what happened to his rifles.

“I said, ‘Yes, I have ‘em,’” Vargas says. “And he said, ‘Yeah, but you missed one.’”

Vargas was worried when she didn't hear back from her son the next day. She rushed to his home with a friend of his. The friend told Vargas to stay in the car.

“She was the one that went in and found Ryan,” Freel’s mom says quietly, eyes to the ground. “So, that was Dec. 22nd.”

Dressed in all black, Freel, had stuck his one remaining shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He was 36.

A month later, what fragments were left of Freel’s brain arrived at the Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Brain Bank, run by the Sports Legacy Institute and the Boston University School of Medicine. For nearly a year, Dr. Ann McKee and her team worked on putting Freel’s brain back together like pieces to a puzzle.

What they found made history.

In December 2013, almost exactly a year after his suicide, they announced that Freel was the first Major League Baseball player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative disease caused by repeated concussions or other head injuries that plagues athletes in contact sports.

The brain scan of Ryan Freel's fragmented brain from the Sports Legacy Institute. The red areas mark areas of abnormal protein deposits, which indicated that Freel was dealing with Stage II CTE.
Credit: Sports Legacy Institute

A brain scan revealed clusters of abnormal protein deposits, meaning that Freel had been suffering from Stage II CTE. (Stage IV is the most severe.) The abnormalities were mild, but the very fact that they could find them at all was "unsettling," says McKee, co-director of BU's CTE Center.

"Even sports that seem as innocuous as baseball, sports you don’t necessarily associate with head injuries, are vulnerable to the same problems if the individuals have enough experience with head hits,” she says.

Head injuries in sports are a major health hazard, and as of a few years ago, a public relations nightmare, mostly affecting full-contact sports such as football, hockey and soccer. While Freel is the only MLB player to receive a CTE diagnosis, to date, 33 former NFL players have been diagnosed with the disease.

Compared to football, however, baseball's concussion issues are less serious. There were 152 cases of head trauma in the NFL just last season. In major college football, there were 192 publicly reported concussions last season, according to America Tonight's concussion map. Compare that with the 175 cases of concussions in the MLB, as noted in the Baseball Prospectus injury database and reported by Grantland, in the 12-year stretch from 2001 to 2013.

“That’s not a lot when we [look] at it, compared to other sports where that could be a busy weekend,” says Dr. Gary Green, MLB’s director of medical services who also heads up the league's concussion research committee.

Still, the numbers are going up. From 2011 through the end of this regular season, players have gone on the disabled list 61 times for concussions, according to MLB, with the number of head trauma instances increasing each year. This year, there were 19 players who went on the seven-day DL for concussions. (This specialized DL was created after MLB research found that baseball players recover from concussions in seven to eight days, and that teams might have been hesitant to place them on the standard 15-day DL, according to Green.) Players such as Brian McCann, Starling Marte and Denard Span were among those to go on the seven-day DL this season.

But compared to some other leagues, MLB has only a fraction of the head injuries. So it might be surprising to realize that the MLB has quietly become arguably the most progressive U.S. league in terms of preventing and treating them.

“I would say over the last five or six years, baseball’s been more and more concerned,” says Green, also the head athletics trainer for Pepperdine University. “Even though it’s a relatively rare event, how do we make sure that we’re state of the art in terms of evaluating and treating these injuries?”

Even sports that seem as innocuous as baseball, sports you don’t necessarily associate with head injuries, are vulnerable to the same problems if the individuals have enough experience with head hits.

Dr. Ann McKee

Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy

Now, with MLB’s postseason underway, the league is wrapping up a landmark year in concussion safety – from eliminating home plate collisions to developing the first model of protective headgear for players. So far, the headgear has only been worn by Alex Torres, a relief pitcher for the San Diego Padres, who was initially mocked for deciding to use the oversized hat. Some legends of the game, like Pete Rose, have criticized the changes, contending that the essence of the game is at risk. In baseball’s post-Freel CTE era, there remains uncertainty about whether the culture of the sport – built on toughing it out in games every day – will change not just for the players trying to stay on or make it to MLB rosters but also for the next generation of athletes aspiring to be the next Derek Jeter or Mike Trout.

“It is very important to us that the word be gotten out to the youngsters, the 6-year-olds, and tell them what the consequence of this is,” says Clark Vargas, Freel’s stepfather.

'No, I don't black out'

So why did MLB develop arguably the strongest concussion policy among all the major U.S. sports leagues?

Historians might point to former catcher Mike Matheny, who retired in 2007 after as many as 25 concussions, as the tipping point for MLB. But it was Stan Conte, Matheny's trainer at the time with the San Francisco Giants, who started to do something about it.

“To watch [Matheny] not recover, to know that we had to stop his career to prevent him from having long-term problems,” says Conte, now the vice president of medical services for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “Those are the kinds of things that stick with you much longer than if something drastic happened on the field.”

Mike Matheny, left, then with the San Francisco Giants, dives over the railing to catch a ball. Matheny, now the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, believes he suffered about 25 concussions while playing catcher.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP

After that experience with Matheny, Conte developed on his own what would later become accepted by some medical staffs across the league: an injury surveillance system. In a survey of more than 260 catchers in the majors and minors, Conte found that while a majority of the catchers surveyed found the hockey style masks more protective, most catchers still preferred to wear the traditional mask with the batting helmet, believing it was better suited to take foul tips to the face. Conte discovered that the hockey-style masks better protected against backswings, another occupational hazard.

Toughing it out is central to sports culture, particularly in baseball, where its pros get some of the most lucrative contracts in the U.S. But that hasn’t stopped more players who’ve suffered numerous concussions from recognizing the long-term consequences that go along with head trauma. Corey Koskie, a former third baseman, believes he’s suffered as many as 10 concussions dating back to his days playing junior hockey in Canada. In 2006, a backward fall while catching a pop fly brought about a severe bout of post-concussion syndrome that ultimately forced him to retire in 2009. Jason Kendall, a former catcher who retired due to shoulder problems but still suffered at least seven concussions in the first 10 years of his career, wanted a life after baseball

Stan Conte, right, speaks with America Tonight's Michael Okwu about concussions in baseball.
Timothy Bella/America Tonight

For trainers such as Conte, changing the culture of shrugging off the knocks is a daunting challenge. He remembers Matheny talking with another catcher about the foul tips he used to take, and mentioning how he would black out for a second each time.

“And he looked at the other catcher and said, ‘Right?’" says Conte from a seat inside an empty Dodger Stadium. "That guy goes, ‘No, I don’t black out.’ He really believed that was part of the routine.”

Going balls to the wall

At Norma and Clark Vargas' home on Jacksonville's rural west side, the living room is scattered with framed photos of their son on the diamond and with his daughters. Freel is gone, but the family makes sure he and his story aren't forgotten. 

Freel was living his childhood dream. A 10th-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1995 draft, Freel spent six seasons jumping, diving and crashing in the minor leagues. He was the embodiment of utility, playing almost every position on the field. What Freel lacked in size, he made up for in heart and hustle. He was always willing to put himself at risk, and it was this mindset to play with absolute reckless abandon that fans remember most. And in April 2001, he got his big break.

"I know other players who were much better athletes than Ryan, but they didn't work as hard as Ryan," Norma Vargas says. "He was the first one at the field, probably the last one to leave. I was very proud."

Playing in MLB was Ryan Freel's dream growing up in Jacksonville, Florida.
Courtesy: Norma and Clark Vargas

But giving his all would exact a price. His mother told Freel that he couldn’t continue to play the way he did. She saw how often he injured himself, wondering aloud how long he could keep going at that rate.

“He said, ‘This is the only way I know how to play,’” she says. “Those were his exact words. ‘Mom, this is the only way I know how to play.’”

His hustle also won him the respect and admiration of his teammates, including Jason LaRue. The former catcher, who had a stint with Freel in Cincinnati from 2003 to 2006, gives a slight laugh remembering how he played.

“He was balls to the wall from the word, ‘Go,’” says LaRue, who had nearly 20 concussions dating back to his days playing Texas high school football. “He sacrificed his body trying to make catches, running, stealing, whatever. He played the game the right way. He was balls to the wall every single inning, every single pitch. Look at the old highlight reels. He dove into the stands, dove right into the wall…”

Then, LaRue’s voice drops. He had to retire in 2010 due to a severe concussion he suffered in a bench-clearing brawl. LaRue still feels the effects of those career-ending kicks to the face. He takes between 15 to 20 fish oil pills per day to keep his blood inflammation down and the symptoms away. The father of three is reminded of the costs of his former teammate's risky and punishing playing style. 

“He had to have hit his head at some point doing all that crap,” says LaRue. 

By his twenties, Freel was living out his dream in front of tens of thousands of people every night. He was also quietly hurting. Diagnosed with depression and attention deficit disorder, Freel also struggled with alcoholism and anger. Those closest to him say he began behaving impulsively.

“He would say, ‘Mom, something is wrong with me,’” Norma Vargas says. “‘I feel like sometimes like I’m inside of a jar. My brain is just not working right. I feel like somebody is just pressing my head.'”  

Christie Freel, his ex-wife, recalls his worst injury in May 2007. Playing centerfield for the Reds, Freel sprinted to his left to track down a fly ball. He had one speed, and he didn’t stop. When his head collided with the right elbow of right fielder Norris Hopper, Freel was believed to be unconscious before he hit the ground.

In a May 2007 game, Freel's head collided with the right elbow of teammate Norris Hopper. After the game, Hopper believed that Freel was knocked out before he even hit the ground.
David Kohl/AP

With blood filling his mouth, Freel lay on the turf for 13 minutes before he was carried off on a stretcher. He was diagnosed with contusions to his head and neck, but Freel said he knew it was a concussion, with all of the headaches, nausea and dizziness. He couldn't get out of bed for days.

“That was the one that really solidified the other ones over the years,” says Christie Freel. “I definitely saw a change in his behavior prior to that, but after that collision, he wasn’t ever the same.”

While playing for Baltimore in 2009, Freel was leading off second when he was hit in the back of the head on an errant throw. The ball caromed off his head so hard that it rolled all the way to first base. He lay motionless on the ground for just a minute, dazed and confused. 

“It just went rapidly downhill in those last couple years,” says Christie, who had divorced Freel by the end of 2011. “I saw glimpses of my Ryan, but in a lot of ways, he was unrecognizable to me.”

To his parents, it was evident that Freel was afraid of what was happening to him.

“I hated losing the child,” his stepfather says. “I got a person who I love and I admire telling me, ‘Dad, I’m scared.’ This guy is a god in the field because he can control his mind and his physical body, and he tells me he’s scared? And I’ve got no answer?”

He would say, ‘Mom, something is wrong with me. I feel like sometimes like I’m inside of a jar. My brain is just not working right. I feel like somebody is just pressing my head.'

Norma Vargas

It’s easy to point to Freel’s diagnosis as one of the reasons why MLB has taken such an aggressive approach to head injuries in the last couple years; it was baseball's jarring and tragic discovery that the sport wasn't immune to the plague. But exactly how vulnerable, we don't know.

Ryan Freel with his then-wife, Christie, and two of their three daughters.
Courtesy: Christie Freel

“From my reading of the research, it’s just still not there yet,” Green says of CTE research in sports. “But we are working with Ryan Freel’s family and trying to understand it better so that it doesn’t happen again in baseball.”

The days aren’t any easier for Christie Freel and the three daughters she had with the smiling, sweet, kind man she was married to for a decade. In her last text message to him around Christmas 2010, she pleaded with him to please get the help he needed to be the father their girls deserved. She never heard back from him. But she’s no longer desperate for answers either.

“It made the explanation a lot easier for my children,” she says.

She also knows that more knowledge of the CTE risk in baseball and its consequences probably wouldn't have stopped her husband from being the player that fans, teammates and opponents had come to know.

"If Ryan had known that if he played that way he could develop CTE, it wouldn't have changed anything for him," she says. "He still would have played the way he played." 

Freel was an inspirational figure around Cincinnati baseball when he came off the disabled list later in the 2007 season. In the weeks following the injury, he was noticeably unsure of himself. He couldn’t figure it out – and we couldn’t either.

“I’m nervous,” Freel told the media after missing 24 games because of the Hopper collision. “I’ve never gone through this. I want to know what’s going on."

Lisa Binns and Michael Okwu contributed to this report.

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