Cincinnati Reds third baseman Ryan Freel (6) bats during the game against the Cincinnati Reds at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
During an eight-year major-league career that took him to five teams, Ryan Freel enjoyed a reputation among teammates as high-energy, outgoing and hilarious. That's why so many were shocked to learn that Freel, 36, was found dead Saturday in his Jacksonville, Fla., home with what police told the Florida Times-Union appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Sean Casey, Freel's former teammate with the Cincinnati Reds, tweeted about his death: "RIP Ryan Freel!! Great teammate, great guy, n loved his family! Such a sad day today with his passing! Awful news! Prayers are with his family!"
Freel played for the Reds from 2003 to 2008, and during one three-year stretch had 110 stolen bases. He was paid $11.55 million in his career, which ended prematurely because of a succession of injuries that plagued him after 2006. He was hit in the head with a pickoff throw in 2009, an injury that put him on the disabled list.
After retiring in 2010, Freel returned to Jacksonville, his hometown, and coached youth players for an organization called Big League Development. He was named head coach of St. Joseph Academy in June but resigned shortly after taking the job.
Freel was raised by his Cuban-American mother, who worked 16 hours a day as a teacher and housecleaner in Jacksonville. He credited her for his gritty, all-out style of play. Freel also had a goofy side. He told the Dayton Daily News in 2006 that he had an imaginary friend named Farney.
"He's a little guy who lives in my head who talks to me and I talk to him," he told the paper. "That little midget in my head said, 'That was a great catch, Ryan.' I said, 'Hey, Farney, I don't know if that was you who really caught the ball, but that was pretty good if it was.'"
Freel twice was arrested for alcohol-related offenses but said he'd stopped drinking. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to driving under the influence. In 2006, he was charged with misdemeanor disorderly intoxication.
"I have not had a sip of alcohol in (nearly) three years. I definitely learned from that," Freel told the Baltimore Sun when the Orioles acquired him in 2009. "Me and drinking probably wasn't a good thing. Kicking that whole thing was probably the best thing to happen for me, my family and my career."
His former teammates recall a personable, giving person. The Reds released a statement that said in part: "His teammates and our fans loved him for how hard he played the game, and he loved giving back to the community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."
Brandon Phillips, another of Freel's teammate with the Reds, tweeted, "Really hurt by his passing. You never will be forgotten."