BALTIMORE — The final image of Ryan Freel's time with the Orioles was one of potential tragedy: Freel remaining motionless on the Fenway Park basepaths after being hit in the right side of the head by an errant pickoff throw by Justin Masterson during a game April 20, 2009.
Freel had to be helped off the field, stayed overnight in a Boston hotel, was placed on the disabled list with head trauma and never played for the Orioles again. He was traded less than three weeks later to the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Joey Gathright.
The high-energy, hard-charging Freel told Baltimore reporters that he wasn't diagnosed with a concussion after that Boston incident, but he had "three or four" concussions previously during his career. It has been estimated the past few days that he had as many as 10concussions while playing baseball.
That scene at Fenway Park was one of the things I thought about when I learned Saturday that the 36-year-old Freel reportedly had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Jacksonville, Fla. That, and of course, his family, who lost a husband and father way too soon.
Freel lasted eight seasons in the majors, but he played just nine games and had only 20 plate appearances with the Orioles after being acquired in the deal that sent Ramon Hernandez to the Cincinnati Reds.
Heading into that spring training, it became obvious that Freel didn't have a role on the Orioles after the club traded for Felix Pie and signed Ty Wigginton. His disaster of a season continued in April when he was sent to Delmarva for a rehabilitation stint after the beaning incident but was forbidden to play because he failed cognitive tests.
Freel, who had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, said he was blindsided by the test in Delmarva, was continually interrupted during the exam and later expressed frustration to the Baltimore media that he was sent all the way to Salisbury, only to be turned back.
Within two weeks, Freel was traded. And he didn't play in the majors beyond 2009. His time with the Orioles signaled the beginning of the end of his major league career.
I didn't get to know him very well, but in my experience, Freel was slightly odd and exceptionally approachable. He made headlines in Cincinnati when he talked about having an imaginary friend, Farney, whom he would often talk to.
When I asked him about Farney, Freel laughed and said he was having some fun with a reporter and the story mushroomed beyond his expectations. He wasn't crazy, he joked with me, he just liked to keep things loose.
I'll never forget the last real conversation I had with Freel. He had just read the book "The Shack," by William P. Young, and I had just purchased it at a used-book sale.
He implored me to read it because he wanted to discuss it — the best-seller is about a man who has an intense religious experience after dealing with a tragedy. It's one of those books that demands discussion after it's read. Freel was out of the organization before I had a chance to read it, and we never met again.
In my brief time around him, Freel struck me as an introspective and passionate guy. As in all of these situations, it's a tremendous tragedy that he took his own life.