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A Qualitative Loss: The Short, Sad Story Of Ryan Freel And The Cubs

My youngest daughter is a fourth grader in a Chicago public school. One of the concepts introduced to her this year is qualitative and quantitative thinking. In my attempt to be helpful, I explained it to her—as I so often do—by talking about baseball.

The quantitative stuff in baseball is pretty easy to identify. The Cubs scored three runs in a game, and the Brewers scored one, which made the Cubs winners. With last year’s Cubs team, it was more likely to be the other way around. But it’s my teaching moment, so this time the Cubs win.

Players, too, are readily quantifiable in baseball. Alfonso Soriano’s home run and RBI totals were higher last year than in other recent years, and so Cubs fans were generally happier with him. And Chris Volstad’s records of wins and losses explains why he’s not back with the team this year.

My daughter is a lovely, smart girl, but she still doesn’t appreciate the quantitative side of baseball. She’s all about the qualitative: A player makes a nice running catch, a ball soars high and far into the sky and over the fence…these are the things, for her, that make a baseball game watchable.

I thought this when the news of Ryan Freel’s suicide broke last month, as the quantitative aspects of Freel’s brief Cubs career were widely noted: 14 games played, a .143 batting average, one RBI, one run scored, and so on. The numbers show he was an inconsequential Cub, at best.

But what about the qualitative aspect of his time with the North Siders? What insights can we glean from this man’s short, unfortunate life by looking beyond the statistics at his time as a Cub? After all, the Cubs didn’t bring in Freel for his numbers, they brought him to Chicago for the way he approached the game, for his passion, for the desire, and with the hope that it might rub off on those around him.

Freel’s style of play endeared him to the fans in Cincinnati, from the time he first broke in to the big leagues with them in 2003. He’d chase down balls in the outfield, make highlight reel catches, and sometimes collide with teammates. A 2007 collision with Norris Hopper in the outfield delayed a game for thirteen minutes, as he lay motionless on the warning track.

A four- or five-minute delay at a ball game is enough to get my attention as a fan. Imagine what a thirteen-minute delay must have been like, punctuated by Freel being carried off on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. When Freel came back from that injury, following an extended time on the disabled list, he wasn’t the same player. Prior to the collision, he was good for 35 stolen bases a season. After the collision, he never again exceeded 15 in a season. Quantitatively speaking, he appeared to be diminished as a player.

Freel complained of headaches that seemed to come from nowhere when he returned to the field in 2007. And in 2008, he played in just 48 games for the Reds. And since Freel still had one year remaining under contract, at $4 million, the Reds traded him to the Baltimore Orioles after the 2008 season. After six seasons as a fan favorite in Cincinnati, Freel had been cast aside. Baseball is a business. That’s how it goes.

Freel moved around on the field in his time with Baltimore, and on April 20, 2009—Patriots Day in Boston—he played third base for the first time as an Oriole. He led off the third inning against Justin Masterson in Fenway Park with an infield single. One-time Cub Felix Pie sacrificed him over to second. And then things turned ugly for Freel.

Freel had just enough of a base stealing reputation left to get Masterson’s attention. He twirled and threw to second, and the throw caught a diving Freel flush on the right side of his head. Once again, as with the collision with Norris Hopper, Freel lay motionless on the infield dirt at Fenway Park, as Red Sox players and the Orioles trainer did what they could to help. Freel never played for the Orioles again.

The Orioles sent him to the Delmarva Shorebirds, the class-A affiliate, for rehab. But he ran into an obstacle in getting back onto the field. The doctors who looked at Freel refused to clear him to play again. So now the Orioles were stuck with a $4 million player they couldn’t use, not even at the single-A level—until the Cubs came along.

Aramis Ramirez dislocated his shoulder, and the Cubs were suddenly in need of a third baseman. Freel had played a few games at third—at least, that’s where he was playing when the Masterson pickoff went awry—and so Freel was traded by Orioles president Andy MacPhail to his old team, and his old associate Jim Hendry, for a seldom-used outfielder named Joey Gathright. Whether the Cubs knew of his cognitive difficulties is unclear.

Freel joined the Cubs in Milwaukee on May 10, 2009, a scant 20 days after being knocked out in Boston. He pinch hit for Carlos Marmol in the ninth inning, and reached base on an infield single. He then moved to second on a throwing error. Whether he had any memories of the last time he was on second, in Fenway Park on Patriots Day, is something we’ll never know. But Freel got picked off second by catcher Jason Kendall, and Freel’s promising start was suddenly not so promising.

Over the next two weeks, Freel struggled to find a place with the team. He was used as a pinch hitter a few times, as a late-inning defensive replacement for Alfonso Soriano once, and as a pinch runner for Geovany Soto once, as well. He started five games at third base too, but had very few chances in the field, and made his first—and only—error of the 2009 season on May 21 at St. Louis.

At Wrigley Field on May 27, in his tenth game as a Cub, Freel led off the third inning with a single and, in his characteristic style of play, made a wide turn at first. Perhaps a younger, healthier Freel might have gone for the double, but he slammed on the brakes instead, and injured himself in getting back to first. A hamstring injury put him went on the disabled list, where he remained until June 25.

While Freel was on the shelf, Mike Fontenot emerged as a serviceable third baseman, and Jake Fox, a call-up from triple-A Iowa, emerged as the late-inning pinch hitter of choice.

Freel returned from the DL in time for the series with the White Sox on the South Side. He played in all three games of that series, and had what might be considered his best game as a Cub on June 28. John Danks was pitching for the White Sox that day, and he allowed just four hits in a 6-0 victory for the Sox. One of the hits was to Freel, who singled to center leading off the second inning. He advanced to second on a throwing error and, with two outs, took off for third and made it safely. It was his first, and only, stolen base as a Cub.

Quantitatively, Freel did other things to help secure his position on the team that day. He walked to lead off the fifth inning, and was hit by a pitch leading off the seventh. He didn’t score, but had reached base three times and given his team a chance to score.

Freel’s stay in Chicago reached the end of the line in Pittsburgh on June 29. Sam Fuld had been called up from Iowa that day. At 27, Fuld was the same age that Freel had been when he broke in with the Reds. Freel was now 33, though, and in that most quantitative of all numbers for a big league ballplayer, that’s too old. Hard play and outfield collisions and disastrous pickoff attempts had taken their toll. Freel was taken out of the game in the eighth inning and never again played for the Cubs. He was sold to the Kansas City Royals on July 6.

After playing for the Royals through July and most of August, Freel was released. The Texas Rangers signed him but never used him, and after that he was an unsigned free agent. A last-ditch attempt to get back to the majors by playing for Sparky Lyle and the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League fizzled, and Freel retired for good in May of 2010. He took his own life with a shotgun in December 2012, and his family donated his brain tissue for medical study. No results have yet been announced.

When thinking about Freel’s time in Chicago, I wonder if keeping him off the field, like the Orioles’ doctors had wanted to do, would have made a difference. But then I considered a scene from Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise’s character clearly explains to a hockey player the risks he’s taking by continuing to play. The player, of course, brushes aside the warning. Risks are part of the game, and players are rewarded for taking those risks. Quantitatively, we all know that.

But qualitatively, it’s another story. It’s the beauty of the game that enthralls my daughter—the roar of the crowd, the thrill of competition, the passion of the athletes for whom we cheer. Yet it all seems diminished to me by the sad stories of men like Freel. And I’m not yet ready to explain that to a fourth grader.

STORY ART: Main image made in house with photo by AP Photo/Jim Prisching.

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