Ryan Freel had CTE, parents say

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Ryan Freel, a former Major League Baseball player who committed suicide last year, was suffering from the degenerative brain disease CTE, his family said Sunday, according to The Florida Times-Union. 

The brain of Freel, who retired in 2010 after having reportedly sustained nine or 10 concussions during his career, was studied after his death by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy and Sports Legacy Institute.

The Institute issued its findings Wednesday to Freel's family at baseball's winter meetings in Florida, the report said.

"Oh yes [it's helpful], especially for the girls," Freel's mother, Norma Vargas, said of his three children, speaking of the study to the Times-Union. "We adults can understand a little better. It's a closure for the girls who loved their dad so much, and they knew how much their dad loved them. It could help them understand why he did what he did. Maybe not now, but one day they will."

Freel's stepfather said the center's study of Freel's brain will be published in a medical journal early next year.

"It's a release in that there was a physical reason for what he did," Clark Vargas told the Times-Union. "On the other side, for me, Ryan fell through the cracks."

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a condition that has been increasingly associated with longtime former football players who repeatedly sustained head injuries in their careers. 

Freel's career, six years of which were spent with the  Cincinnati Reds, was cut short after eight seasons by a series of head and other injuries. He was found dead on Dec. 22, 2012, in Jacksonville, Fla.

Freel was suffering from Stage II CTE, according to the report, when he died at 36 of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. In Stage II, victims often experience headaches and loss of attention and concentration, depression, explosivity and short-term memory loss, the report said.

"One of the things Nowinski brought up, we're keeping track of pitch counts, can we keep track of how many guys are hit on the head?" Clark Vargas said, according to the newspaper, referring to Chris Nowinski, the co-founder and executive director at the Sports Legacy Institute.

Freel drew attention in 2006 when he was quoted by the Dayton Daily News as saying he had an imaginary friend, Farney.

"He's a little guy who lives in my head who talks to me and I talk to him," Freel had said. "Everybody thinks I talk to myself, so I tell 'em I'm talking to Farney."

The Jacksonville native thrilled fans with his all-out style, yet it took a toll on his career. During his playing days, he once estimated he had sustained up to 10 concussions. Freel missed 30 games in 2007 after a collision with a teammate caused a concussion.

Freel showed no fear as he ran into walls, hurtled into the seats and crashed into other players trying to make catches. His jarring, diving grabs often made the highlight reels, and he was praised by those he played with and against for always having a dirt-stained uniform.

He was in center field when he collided with right fielder Norris Hopper's elbow on May 28, 2007, an injury that caused Freel to be taken off the field in an ambulance. Freel sustained a concussion that caused headaches and an impaired memory, and he didn't return until early July. He then suffered a season-ending knee surgery in August.

"I think what happened last year has taken a toll on this year," he said at spring training the following year. "Obviously there's question marks. Obviously there's people questioning or doubting or whatever it may be."

He sustained another head injury that put him back on the disabled list when he was hit by a pickoff throw to second base from then-Boston pitcher Justin Masterson during the Patriots Day game at Fenway Park on April 20, 2009. Freel appeared dazed as he walked off, both arms extended over the shoulders of Baltimore's trainers.

Disappointed about conditions surrounding a stress test he was forced to take before beginning a minor league rehabilitation assignment -- he insisted he felt fine -- Freel was traded to the Cubs on May 8 only to be dealt to Kansas City on July 6. The Royals cut him a month later, and he signed a minor league deal with Texas. The following year, he played in nine games for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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