Ryan Freel wasn't a Cub very long -- just two months and 14 games' worth of time, during which he hit .143/.226/.143 -- but I know he made an impression on people here with his imaginary friend "Farney" and his tough, bowl-people-over attitude on the field.
It was that attitude that got Freel several concussions during his playing career. Freel committed suicide a little less than a year ago, December 22, 2012, and Sunday his family revealed that he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease that has become more and more common among professional athletes who have had multiple concussions during their careers:
The report from the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and Sports Legacy Institute was presented to Freel's mother and stepfather, Norma and Clark Vargas, and to representatives from Major League Baseball on Dec. 11 at the winter meetings in Lake Buena Vista. There, evidence confirmed that Freel was suffering from Stage II CTE when he committed suicide on Dec. 22, 2012. The family learned of the findings on the same day that MLB announced that it approved a ban on home-plate collisions. Freel, who retired in 2010 following an eight-year career in the majors, was reported to have suffered "nine or 10" concussions in his career. Clark Vargas said that the report on Freel will be published in a medical journal early next year.
The article goes into a great deal more detail on CTE and how it affected Freel's career and life, and as you likely know, CTE has led to suicides among several former NFL players, including ex-Chicago Bear Dave Duerson.
This is why Major League Baseball's move to ban home-plate collisions is a welcome move. Being a tough competitor doesn't necessarily have to mean you have to subject yourself to possible brain injury. Baseball isn't designed to be a contact sport, though some contact between players is unavoidable. I'm glad MLB has taken this move.
Banning home-plate collisions wouldn't have made any difference for Freel, who wasn't a catcher, but I'd like it if playing professional sports didn't have to include things like this:
His career included a spate of well-documented head injuries, and later on, erratic behavior that was symptomatic of CTE. Freel struggled with depression and anxiety and had been diagnosed with adult attention deficit disorder. Numerous friends and family said that they saw a pronounced mental decline in Freel over the final years of his life.
For Freel's family, this doesn't bring him back, but it at least explains why. Maybe that's not much comfort, but now that we know more about what causes this disease, perhaps baseball and other sports will do more to help reduce or eliminate concussions.