When the game is gone: Freel’s final days
Ryan Freel follows through on an RBI double off of San Diego Padres pitcher David Wells in San Diego. (Denis Poroy/AP)
Latest MLB Videos
Latest MLB News
| SD @ BUF |
1:00 pm ET
| TEN @ CIN |
1:00 pm ET
| BAL @ CLE |
1:00 pm ET
| GB @ DET |
1:00 pm ET
| IND @ JAX |
1:00 pm ET
| OAK @ NE |
1:00 pm ET
| MIN @ NO |
1:00 pm ET
| HOU @ NYG |
1:00 pm ET
| WAS @ PHI |
1:00 pm ET
| DAL @ STL |
1:00 pm ET
| SF @ ARI |
4:05 pm ET
| KC @ MIA |
4:25 pm ET
| DEN @ SEA |
4:25 pm ET
| PIT @ CAR |
8:30 pm ET
| CHI @ NYJ |
Mon Sep 22 8:30 pm ET
April 18, 2013, 12:50 PM
Ryan Freel seemed to have it all—a major league career, a loving family, a few million in the bank. But life without baseball was more than he could bear.
A dead man rested on a couch, surrounded by mementoes of the things that mattered most. Memories from a life already lost: his daughters, his wife, his career. He left no note. No goodbye. Just three words, typed on his phone and sent to his mother. “You forgot one.”
Four sleeps to Christmas, and the darkness had set in. It was the longest night of the year. And then suddenly it wasn’t. Morning came, and a mother woke to read and reread a message from her son. Across town, a boy stood on a baseball field, awaiting a coach who would never appear, while on a highway, a woman sat in the passenger seat of a car, dialing her former husband.
It was Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012, and Ryan Freel’s phone lay ringing by his side. It didn’t take long for his mother to worry. Soon, she was standing outside his house, leaning on a friend, who was telling her, “You stay out here, I’ll go inside.” Wrestling now with guilt and dread. She’d taken his guns away for his own safety. They were in her car at the end of the driveway.
A day earlier, she’d found him in bed, alone in the dark in the middle of the afternoon. She’d held his hand, stroked his arm. Told him: “I love you.” She’d pleaded with him: “Let’s go get help. Let’s go. Come on.” But he’d said no. That it was four days to Christmas and he’d be OK. She’d left him there, told him she’d text him later. And she had. They’d texted into the night. His texts were angry and sad because he was drinking again. Because he couldn’t see his daughters. Couldn’t play the game anymore. Couldn’t make sense of the things in his head. And because she’d taken his guns.
Her friend disappeared into the house and made her way down the hall. Past the gloves, bats and the ball he’d kept. The one he’d hit off Roger Clemens on an April day in Yankee Stadium. Past the keys to the Lincoln Navigator he’d bought from Ken Griffey Jr. several years ago and the photos of himself sprinting, diving and swinging on the field. Past the framed Blue Jays lineup card from his first big-league game and the signed jersey from his idol, Pete Rose. He’d hung it in the hallway so he could read the message Rose had left him: “Ryan, keep grinding.”
Down the hall she went, through the kitchen and into the living room. Then she saw him on the couch, dressed in black, with the shotgun his mother had forgotten. The barrel resting by his head.
The first headline appeared on the Internet within hours. “Former major-leaguer Ryan Freel commits suicide at age 36.” By evening his face and name were all over the TV. It was the most attention he’d received in years. And as the outside world struggled to remember who he was, his friends and family tried to understand why he’d left.
Soon the journalists were calling. First from the local papers, then from the places where his name still resonated—Toronto, Cincinnati, Baltimore, Chicago and Kansas City. All trying to string together something about a forgotten man. A loving father who’d left three daughters. He’d grown up in Jacksonville, Fla., with his mother and older brother. His father had been nearby and was his No. 1 fan. Freel was a ballplayer, just like his paternal grandfather. He’d been a ballplayer at heart since the age of three when he sat on Hank Aaron’s knee. He was a hyper kid who’d struggled in school but excelled on the field. He was a little guy with a reckless soul who ran through walls, flew over railings and slid headfirst into bags. He did it all—playing pretty much every position but pitcher. Then one day he couldn’t play anymore. So he began coaching kids.
The next day’s newspapers said Freel was a concussion case, possibly the most significant in major league history. His body was still lying in the coroner’s office when someone from Boston University began calling Freel’s parents. They said they were collecting brains and examining them for signs of concussion damage. They said Freel’s might have evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. They’d found it in other athletes. Boxers mostly, but also in football and hockey players. It was a troubling request, but one the scientists thought might lead to some answers.
And so it was that the remains of Freel’s brain went to Boston while his family went to church. One day to Christmas and a funeral to be planned. All the while, they tallied the times they’d seen him concussed. His mother, Norma, recalled how when he was three, he ran into the street and smacked his head into the side of a moving car. His father, Patrick, remembered rushing him to hospital a few years later after he’d tied a cape around his neck and dived from a workbench, smashing his skull into a concrete floor. His stepfather, Clark, noted he’d knocked himself out in a high school football practice. His ex-wife, Christie, recounted how he used to come home from games and tell her he’d blacked out sliding into bases. There were 10 concussions at least. Probably more.
But had the concussions caused Ryan Freel to put a Benelli to his head and pull the trigger? It seemed a simple answer to a complicated question.
They’d all loved the man they’d lost. The way he’d walk into a room and charm them with his energy and wit. Disarm them with a kiss then lift them from the ground with a hug. But he’d long suffered from his own inner turmoil. He’d dealt with depression and anxiety for years. He’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an impulse control disorder and adult ADHD. He was an alcoholic and spent the last year of his life pumping his body so full of steroids that many of his friends and extended family could hardly recognize him under the muscles.
Still, his death didn’t make sense. Not to his mother, not to his ex-wife, not to anyone. Ryan Freel had been a professional athlete, one of the chosen few. He should have been happy. He had a few million dollars in the bank and a family who loved him. He’d lived his dream and now he was free to live his life. And yet, he was miserable, one of the many cast from the game due to injury and age. Left to live out his days knowing his greatest moments were behind him. And now he was dead.
A restless man dressed in white sat in front of his locker, immersed in a dream yet completely awake. It was April 9, 2001. Opening day at the SkyDome, and Ryan Freel, the Blue Jays’ starting second baseman, was overcome by anxiety and excitement. His right leg bounced like that of an overactive child.
He’d spent the past six years toiling in the minors, riding buses across North America to towns he couldn’t even locate on a map. Living in obscurity and praying to God that one day he might step off some no-name field and find a chauffeur waiting to take him to the airport so he could fly up to the big leagues. He’d done almost everything in the minors, scored 324 runs, stolen 133 bases and earned the nickname “Sugar Freel” because he was the most energetic man on any field. But he was no longer a kid. He’d watched as younger men had jumped off the bus and gone up to the majors. He was 25 and had been removed from the Jays’ 40-man roster two years earlier as a result of the trade that brought David Wells to Toronto and sent Roger Clemens to New York. He’d contemplated quitting right there, but now Homer Bush had a sore thumb and the Jays needed a man on second. That’s how Ryan Freel got his first shot in the Show.
Carlos Delgado was there in the Jays clubhouse. As was Jose Cruz Jr. and manager Buck Martinez. But it was Freel and his bouncing leg that attracted the journalist’s attention. “It’s a dream come true,” he told the reporter when asked about the upcoming game. “From now on, this is something I can always say I’ve done. I’m going to step onto my home field in a major league uniform.”
He’d played his first big-league game in Tampa Bay just five days earlier. His parents had been there, along with his fiancée, Christie, and his cousin Greg. They’d been the only ones cheering when he was subbed in on second base during the bottom of the ninth. They’d screamed from the stands the next day when he got his first hit. And they’d watched on TV later in the week when he stole two bases at Yankee Stadium and nailed a line drive off Clemens. He’d called them after the game and said he’d been allowed to keep the ball.
Yes, it had been the best week of Ryan Freel’s life. And he was determined to show he was more than just a cheap substitute. He set out to prove his worth early in the home opener, helping turn two double plays. Then he took to the plate in the sixth and cranked a two-run double, only to roll his ankle while running the bases. He was pulled. “I wish I could have stayed out there,” he told a reporter after the game. “Tonight was definitely something I’ll always remember.”
For the next six days he prayed his name would reappear on the lineup card. When finally it did, it was as a pinch runner in the ninth inning against the Royals. He could sense the Jays readying to send him back to the minors. Two games later, he was gone. And when he realized he wasn’t getting called back up, he flipped out, broke a clubhouse lamp and started arguing with everyone, telling his managers they were holding him back, until the Jays dropped him entirely.
It took his agent, Jamie Appel, a few conversations with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays to resurrect Freel’s minor league career. “You’re a great guy,” Appel told him at the time. “But you’re your own worst enemy. You’ve got another shot here, but you’ve got to be smart.”
By April 2002, Freel was a newlywed and playing ball again, this time in North Carolina as a member of Tampa’s minor league affiliate, the Durham Bulls. He was back on the bus, travelling to towns like Pawtucket, Scranton and Toledo. The Bulls were the best team in their division, and Freel their star. He was their second-best hitter, led them in stolen bases and played with more abandon than ever. He’d steal home, graze his face on the bases and chase balls straight into the stands. He was a fan favourite and yet he hated his life in Durham. He’d heard his name echo through Yankee Stadium and he wanted desperately to hear it again. Away from the field, he was depressed and moody. He’d leave the park smiling, then go home, drink by himself, crawl into bed and stay there until the middle of the next day. That’s when his wife started worrying about his mental health. She’d fallen in love with him four years earlier. They’d met at a friend’s house, he’d asked her out, but she’d turned him down because he seemed somewhat obnoxious. Then he’d asked her again and she’d said fine. He’d taken her to the movies and entertained her afterwards with his infectious charm. They were engaged six months later. She adored his impulsive behaviour, his high-pitched laugh and endless energy. The way he’d do anything to get a laugh out of people, even if it was at his own expense. But that man was gone. One doctor she took him to diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and said it explained why he’d oscillate between manic highs and desperate lows. The doctor prescribed him anti-seizure drugs. But Freel hated being labelled bipolar. It made him feel like he was weird. Like he didn’t belong. So he sought out a second opinion, was diagnosed with depression and began taking anti-depressants. It was a label he could handle. Everyone gets depressed. Not everyone’s bipolar.
Back on the field, he helped the Bulls to their first minor league championship in 35 years. Then he and Christie jumped on a plane and flew to Barquisimeto, Venezuela, so Freel could play winter ball. There, he became known as la hormiga atomica (“the Atomic Ant”), a favourite among local fans, especially after he followed a ball straight through a wooden fence and wound up unconscious on the other side. The Venezuelan press likened him to Pete Rose and Lenny Dykstra. He told them: “Rose is Rose. Dykstra is Dykstra. I want people to say Freel is Freel.”
Then, one night, as he sat in a dilapidated hotel room with his wife, the phone rang. It was Appel. “The Reds want you.”
An earnest man stood by a field, seeking acceptance from the men around him. It was March 5, 2003, and Ryan Freel was making his first appearance at the Reds spring training camp. He was 27 years old. He was fast, but he was also desperate and unafraid to show it. “I’ll play anywhere,” he said to a beat reporter. “My No. 1 asset is my speed. I’m going to steal every time I get on base. I can come off the bench and pinch-run, I can come in and play defence, either in the outfield or the infield. They always say guys like me are hard to find, but here I am. I can help this team. I know I can.”
For four weeks, he proved himself the hardest-working man in the Reds’ camp, diving for balls and stealing bases with no regard for his body. His official major league return came in Montreal three weeks into the season. It was the top of the ninth when Freel was thrown into the game as a pinch-runner, only to end up marooned on first and then subbed out in the bottom of the frame. It wasn’t the most glorious return, not by far, but that didn’t matter. “He was excited just to be back at that point,” recalls Appel. “He knew he was lucky and that not a lot of guys like him ever got a second chance to make it. He wasn’t that young anymore either, so it mattered even more.”
Four days later he stood in the outfield of Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, going through the ritual of his pre-game warm-ups, when he felt something pop in his leg. For 33 days he played with what he thought was a torn hamstring, not admitting to anyone that he was hurt, for fear he’d lose his spot on the roster. He would have played injured for longer had the Reds coaching staff not noticed he was limping. It took three months for his leg to heal entirely.
He’d been back just three innings when he took to the plate and stared down one of the hardest throwers in the history of the game. Never at any point had anyone mistaken Freel for a power hitter. And yet there he was, rounding the bases as the ball he’d just hit flew over the left-field wall. That it was his first major league homer and that it had come off a Randy Johnson fastball merely added to the significance. That the Arizona fans threw the ball back onto the field was fortuitous. It allowed him to pack it away so that one day it might rest alongside the one he’d hit off Clemens.
There were just six weeks left in the 2003 season, and the Reds were one of the worst teams in baseball. And yet, for those six weeks, Freel played as if his team were in the heat of a pennant race. When he wasn’t sliding face first through the dirt, ingratiating himself to fans, he was winning friends in the clubhouse, collecting signed jerseys from teammates and opponents and putting them in boxes as keepsakes.
He was earning the league’s minimum wage—$300,000—but he didn’t care. Though he still struggled to control his emotions, he was focused and determined that by next spring, he’d not only have a spot on the Reds’ roster, but his own position. That off-season, with his wife pregnant and his dreams seemingly coming true, friends and family said he was the happiest they’d ever seen him.
A troubled man sat behind the wheel of a Chevy Tahoe, a flask of whisky behind his seat and a police cruiser not far away. It was April 4, 2005. Opening night in Cincinnati and Ryan Freel was drunk, angry and driving down a dark Kentucky road. He’d spent the past few months recovering from off-season surgery, but now he was physically healthy, albeit mentally distraught. He’d invited his father to Cincinnati so that his old man might watch him rekindle his role as the Reds’ leadoff batter. But his father had no sooner arrived than Freel had learned the Reds didn’t need him for the home opener after all. “He was livid,” recalls Patrick Freel. “He couldn’t handle the feeling of rejection.” He’d caught up with the team after the game at a bar and now he was cruising along the southern banks of the Ohio River, the driver-side door of his truck already sporting the damage of an earlier collision. He couldn’t remember what he’d hit when the officer pulled him over. His first call from jail was to his mother, Norma, for help. He was remorseful when his father arrived to bail him out.
The next day, Freel stood in the Reds’ manager’s office, speaking emotionally to reporters. He’d embarrassed the team and himself. “I can’t describe how bad I feel,” he said. “I’ve worked my tail off to be where I am as a baseball player and a man. I’m very, very sorry. I’m devastated.”
Despite its disastrous start, the 2005 season would be one of the most productive of his career. His wife was pregnant again, and he was sober. By August, he was batting .304 and had just become the first player in the Reds’ 136-year history to steal five bases in a single game. And though he spent chunks of the season on the disabled list, he finished the season with more stolen bases—36—than the entire Oakland Athletics roster.
Soon Appel was explaining to him that it was time he got a better deal from the Reds. And though it wasn’t easy to convince Freel of his worth, it wasn’t difficult to get the Reds to offer $3 million to retain his services. Ryan Freel was on a high. He was preparing for Christmas, spending time with his wife and two young daughters and feeling more valuable than he’d ever felt in his life. But he was about to crash.
It was 3:35 a.m. when the Tampa Bay police pulled up to a downtown pool hall and found Freel’s friends desperately trying to calm him down. He’d been out drinking at a bachelor party, gotten into an argument inside the pool hall and was now standing in a parking lot screaming profanities at a long-time friend. Those present that night recall the shock of seeing him so out of his mind that the police had to throw him in their car and drive him away.
News of his second arrest reached the Reds quickly, and Freel soon found himself in a rehab clinic in Cleveland, meeting with doctors who told him he didn’t just have a drinking problem, he also had adult ADHD. They put him on Adderall, a psychostimulant. Before long, they added Valium to the mix, and when another doctor diagnosed him with an impulse control disorder, he went on more drugs. His washroom was starting to look like a pharmacy, but he wasn’t drinking now and was ready to play ball again. And with his first big-money deal, the pressure to succeed had never been greater.
A desperate man sprinted toward an outfield wall, oblivious to the danger before him. It was May 28, 2007, and Ryan Freel, the most versatile and ultimately expendable man in a Reds uniform, was moving fast, tracking a ball as it sailed through the sky. He’d followed it toward right field and was readying for the catch. He never saw his teammate
Norris Hopper coming from the other side. Felt nothing of Hopper’s elbow when it connected with his chin. Didn’t see the ground while he flew through the air. Didn’t hear the fans as they gasped from above. For 13 minutes he lay unconscious on the warning track while his wife watched on TV in horror.
She’d seen him knock himself out countless times, but this time he didn’t seem to be getting up. She knew he’d been struggling. Had been since the start of the season. He’d been having a hard time maintaining his sense of self-worth.
Yet he was smiling when the Reds brought him home from the hospital, but he was confused. He had no memory of what had happened; all he knew was that he had to get back in the game as quickly as possible. But he couldn’t get out of bed. For five days, he dealt with headaches so crippling he could barely stand without nausea setting in. Soon the Reds began administering memory tests, and when he failed, he became irritable and depressed.
When he rejoined the team in July, Freel was a different man. He’d always been the first to show up to practice and the last to leave. Now he wasn’t even showing up on time. He wasn’t quite as fast, and couldn’t react like he used to. But he was still reckless. His mother told him she was worried. She’d helped train him as a child. Tossed balls to him into the night. Watched as he’d skin his knees to make a catch. He’d been fearless since birth, and she’d always been worried, but now she pleaded with him to take better care of himself and change the way he played. He told her he couldn’t. That the moment he slowed down was the moment he’d get dropped: “I have to play this way.”
By early August, he was back in hospital for surgery on his knee. He didn’t return to the Reds until the following spring, and when he did, his value had dropped. Younger, healthier men had carried out his utility role while he was gone, and he often found himself on the bench. Dejected, he walked into manager Dusty Baker’s office and told him he wanted more playing time. And when he didn’t get what he wanted, he got even more depressed until one day he just left the clubhouse midway through a game, went home, said hello to his wife and crawled into bed.
Freel was done with the Reds, and the Reds were done with him. But by that off-season, the Baltimore Orioles were saying they wanted him. Needed him, even. It was 16 days to Christmas, 2008, when Freel heard he’d been traded. He hadn’t felt so appreciated in months. But when he arrived for training in Fort Lauderdale the following spring, he discovered the Orioles had acquired others just like him.
He was struggling at home, as well. He paid less attention to his wife, who’d just given birth to their third child, and retreated within himself. He’d always loved his daughters, called them “Daddy’s three little girls,” but he’d found it hard to bond with them and now he was hiding from them. He’d close the door to his bedroom, sit on his bed and strum a guitar for hours on end. “It was the start of a very tough year,” says Christie. “He was having to fight for his job again. He was definitely frustrated. It was a never-ending cycle, he would be so close and he would get there but nothing would ever stick. His frustration had reached a point that when he did play, his focus was off and he’d make mistakes.”
His ninth and final game with the Orioles came just two weeks into the season. It was April 20, 2009, and Freel stood in the middle of Fenway Park, his toes inching away from second base, his eyes on third, when Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson turned to pick him off but drilled him in the head.
Freel fell to the ground, then was rushed to hospital with yet another head injury. Soon, he began failing basic cognitive tests, and the Orioles put him on the DL. Eighteen days later, he was gone. Traded to the Cubs.
His head still wasn’t right when he arrived in Chicago. But the Cubs needed him in the lineup immediately. So he stepped onto the field, stretched out his legs and injured his left hamstring again. “That’s when his luck really ran out,” says Appel. For 17 days, he played through pain until finally he couldn’t any longer. Six weeks later, the Cubs unloaded him on the Royals, who played him for a month then discarded him to the Rangers, who sent him down to Oklahoma City. He was 33 years old and getting back on the bus.
He lasted just two games in the minors, then he packed up his gear and went home to Jacksonville.
A lost man wandered through his home, struggling to connect with his wife and children. Christie Freel always believed that when the game was gone her marriage would be normal. She didn’t know her husband was one of those men who needed to play in order to survive.
“For the first month he was home, he was golden,” she says. “He accepted his career was over.” He’d decorated their home with the memorabilia he’d collected, built a shrine dedicated to himself and the game he’d loved. He was seeing friends, laughing, spending time with his daughters. Then Christmas came, and the mood swings began.
By spring, he wanted back in the game, and when Appel couldn’t convince any clubs to pick Freel up, he struck out on his own and signed with an independent league team in New Jersey. “Baseball has been very good to me,” he told a local reporter. “I want to see if I can still play and see if my body can hold up.” Nine games later he gave up and went home.
“When he came back that second time, his identity was gone,” says Christie. He’d left it on the field like so many others. He and Christie sold their home and moved the family in with her parents. When that proved disastrous for their marriage, Freel moved in with his mother. He’d left his wife before, wandered off in a fit of mania or despair. But he’d never gone far, and he’d always found his way home. She’d never given up hope that someday he’d sort through his demons and return as the husband and father she thought he could be. But this time was different. This time he didn’t come back.
By the end of 2010, he’d started up his own little league baseball organization and was coaching kids. He was living alone in a bungalow on the east side of Jacksonville, cruising around in his Cadillac Escalade or Lincoln Navigator, and hitting the local bars. By early summer 2011, he’d filed for divorce and driven himself to a rehab clinic in Palm Beach. But he didn’t stay long. When he came back to Jacksonville, he decided he wanted back in the game again.
He enlisted a friend, John Edwards, himself a recovering alcoholic and one-time prospect whom he’d met while coaching, to help get back into game shape. It took a week of training for Freel to finally admit: “I’m done, man. My career’s over.” Later, as the two sat in a local diner eating eggs and grits, Freel confided that his life was in ruins. He said he couldn’t control his drinking and didn’t know why.
Everyone who saw him that summer noticed he was getting bigger. No one ever suspected Freel of taking steroids while he’d played the game, but now he’d transformed from the 185-lb. man they’d known into a 220-lb. muscle-bound specimen who could bench press 365 lb. He told friends how when he was a Red, people would look at him and fawn. Now that he was big, they were doing so again.
He poured days and nights into running his little league teams, but he struggled at times to keep calm during games. One evening, he called a childhood friend and fellow little league coach, Billy Bone, and recounted a troubling incident. “He said he’d been screaming and talking down at an umpire so hard that the umpire’s pacemaker kicked in, shocked him and caused him to fall down. This was in front of a team of 11-year-olds. I told him it wasn’t acceptable to act that way. He went quiet, thought about it, then felt really horrible.”
Friends and family all say Freel’s mind seemed to be leaving him. He’d forget where he’d left his lawnmower, drift in and out of conversations and say things like: “I know I’m not smart, but I can’t remember what we’re talking about.” Searching for answers, he looked to the Bible, reread verses from it daily, and texted a childhood friend who’d become a doctor to inquire if the concussions might have something to do with his troubles.
By April 2012, he’d finalized his divorce and was spending more time secluded in his house. He’d avoid calls and hide from friends and family even when they came to his door. Those with keys would sometimes wander inside in the middle of the day and find him in bed. His actions and words left those who loved him most in a constant state of fear. His mother can’t recall the number of times she’d read one of his texts saying he was sad or didn’t want to live anymore and sped to his house to make sure he was all right. On two occasions, Edwards says he walked into Freel’s house and found him lying with a gun. Freel admitted he was contemplating suicide, but said he didn’t have it in him to do it. Said he knew there were things worth living for.
On a Saturday in late June, he joined Bone and other friends with whom he’d played ball as a kid. He put on his old cleats and took to the field for a pickup baseball game. He led off the match with a hit and sprinted for first. Then he stole third. Moments later, he took off for home. And when the ball came flying toward the catcher, he dropped to the ground and slid into the plate. It was the last run of his life and he limped back to the bench smiling.
Days later, he slit his wrists. When the blood began seeping from his veins, he freaked out, sent photos of the damage to his brother, then put pressure on the wounds, and drove to get help. He was losing control, but still crying out to be saved.
A tortured man stood in the parking lot of a church, trying to convince a friend that everything was fine. It was a Sunday morning in early September. Ryan Freel was back from rehab. He’d planned to stay there for three months, but he’d left just weeks later. He was telling Edwards that there was no need to worry, then said something Edwards will never forget: “If I drink again, I’ll die.”
Days later, Edwards heard from those he knew in AA that Freel had been driving from one group meeting to another, doing all he could to stay sober, until one day he just stopped showing up. Autumn had arrived and Freel spent his nights perched on a stool at the sports bar near his house, talking of his days with the Reds. Regaling the bartenders with stories of the time he hit a homer off Randy Johnson. He’d become just another lonely old athlete, desperate to relive the past.
By mid-December, Freel was sitting in a doctor’s office. He wasn’t feeling well but didn’t know why. The first few tests showed serious damage to his liver from all the steroids, alcohol and painkillers he’d been pumping into his system. The doctors said they needed to clean him out.
It was two weeks to Christmas, the darkest time of the year. Now Freel was alone, dealing with the things that had always been there. He took himself off all his medication and tried to stop drinking. But he couldn’t help himself. On Dec. 16, he was drinking beer from a cup in the back of his mother’s car, on the way to Disney World with his daughters.
The next morning, he apologized to Christie. You can’t see our daughters when you’re like this, she said. He agreed and said he’d get help. But that night, he was back at the bar, his fist cocked while some guy lay unconscious by his feet. Tuesday followed, and he stood on a diamond, teaching kids the art of fielding. Wednesday, he dropped by a therapist’s office, told him his troubles, then left and never went back. Thursday, he sat alone at home and called his father in Arizona. He told him he loved him and asked when he’d be flying back for Christmas.
Friday arrived and he slept through the morning and into the afternoon. Then his mother called and asked how he was. He said he wished God would take him. She went straight to his house just as she always had and pleaded with him to go with her to see a doctor. But he said no. That he had a date with his daughters and he’d get up soon, head to the mall and meet them with Christie. And that together they’d go see Santa Claus. After his mother had left, he called Christie, told her he wouldn’t be coming.
Later that night, he sat alone at the bar of an Outback Steakhouse. Ordered a 16-oz. prime rib steak, medium rare, just how he liked it. Chased it with two pints of beer and a whisky and Coke. He texted furiously on his phone. He told Christie he was sorry for cancelling on Santa Claus and asked his mother what she’d done with his guns. He knew she’d been collecting them for his own safety.
“You forgot one,” he wrote.
Three simple words that, at the time, didn’t seem as alarming as the ones she’d read so many times before. She never thought he’d use the gun that night. Couldn’t have known how tortured and lost and desperate he’d become. That he’d lived his dream, and now he was going to end his life.
The air was cold, the sky clear. Not a cloud to be seen by the time he got home. Just the darkness and the breeze brushing through the pines beyond his patio. He parked his truck in the garage and walked inside. Down the hall, past the gloves, bats and the ball he’d hit off Roger Clemens. Past the photos of himself sprinting, diving and swinging on the field. Straight for the loaded Benelli. Then back to the living room and the couch he liked best.
It was the longest night of the year. And then suddenly, it wasn’t.
This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.