Patrick Freel knows mortality all too well. Life, as he learned the hard way, can be gone in an instant. It was three days before Christmas in 2012, when his son Ryan took his own life.
Yes, that Ryan Freel. The MLB utilityman who spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, among others.
As we approach Father’s Day, one of the toughest times of the year for a father who had to bury a son, the elder Freel has just one thing he wants.
Baseball cards with Ryan on them.
“I’m getting older,” Patrick Freel told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve had a heart attack. I don’t know from one day to another if I’m going to get up in the morning until I see that blue sky.”
Mortality — it changes your priorities. And these days, the elder Freel’s priorities include gathering his son’s cards. The idea is that he wants to create a binder of baseball cards for each of Ryan’s three daughters — who are now 9, 11 and 13 years old.
He has enough cards to fill one binder. But Ryan had three daughters. So you can see the problem here.
“I want to give them something to remember their daddy by,” he said. “I love those grandchildren to death. I just want to make sure that they’re taken care of before I go.”
Patrick, 74, speaks with a subdued Southern drawl. He’s the type of man who calls someone he just met “pal” or “buddy.” He’s likable in that way.
That helps explain how Freel started— inadvertently as it might have been — what’s turned into a nationwide search this week for his son’s cards.
It started with one Facebook message, then a dozen more, soon it was getting shared thousands of time on Twitter and now the first batch of cards is rolling in from collectors across the country.
BASEBALL’S FIRST CASE OF CTE
Ryan Freel was never a star in the big leagues. He was always one of the players trying to fit in. He was scrappy and on the smaller side, but quick and carried no fear. He’d play where ever he was needed, zipping around the outfield or taking any infield position.
Some fans — particularly in Cincinnati, where he played from 2003 to 2008 — appreciated how fearless he was on the field. But Freel paid the price. He suffered multiple concussions through his career, either when he was diving around the basepaths or jumping around the outfield.
After Freel killed himself, his family and friends started counting how many concussions he’d had in the life. It was a lot. More than 10. That’s what led Boston University to ask if its doctors could study Freel’s brain.
They diagnosed him with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the first baseball player to get such a diagnosis. That didn’t totally explain why he chose to take his own life, but it made sense.
Ryan struggled with a number of issues during and after his playing days: Alcohol, a bipolar diagnosis, depression. He was 36 when he loaded his shotgun that December night.
‘ANYTHING WILL WORK’
For all his demons, Ryan Freel was still a son and a father. That is what Patrick Freel holds onto these days. That’s what made him recently message a man named Matthew Christian on Facebook.
They’d never met. Christian lived in Montana. Freel in Florida. There was no connection other than that Christian was a sports cards fan who runs The Sports Card Connection in his downtime and Freel thought that sounded like a place to turn for help.
He was right.
Once they talked and Christian understood what Freel was trying to do, he put the call out to card collectors in almost a dozen private Facebook groups he’s a part of.
“I can almost guarantee you we’re gonna get some cards for those granddaughters,” Christian told Freel.
Fact is, Ryan Freel cards aren’t worth much. He’s what people in the hobby call a common. If you ask a collector if they have a Ryan Freel card, they probably wouldn’t know off the top of their head. They’d have to dig through old stacks of cards. That’s just what Christian asked them to do, thinking once they heard the story, they’d happily part with their Freel cards.
But then something surprising happened: That Facebook post got copied and pasted onto Twitter. That tweet got retweeted and retweeted — thousands of times.
“This is why I turned to this community,” Christian told Yahoo Sports.
On Thursday, the first cards started rolling in. There were rookie cards from his Blue Jays days, many cards from his Reds years. Even a Baltimore Orioles card from his final year in the big leagues.
Based on the social-media response, Christian expects more to arrive in the coming weeks.
“A guy sent me a message and said, ‘This is Ryan Freel’s actual glove from 2002 that he gave me,’” Christian said. “The floodgates are pretty much open at this point. I told Patrick we might get enough cards to fill a U-Haul. He just laughed and said, ‘We’ll figure it out, buddy.’ ”
They will. And they might fill more than two more binders before it’s all said and done.
“Anything will work,” Patrick Freel says. “As long as his name is on them.”
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