First Baseball Player Diagnosed With Concussion-Related Brain Disease


Ryan Freel, who played eight seasons in Major League Baseball, was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) when he committed suicide in December 2012, his family announced Sunday, according to the Florida Times-Union. Freel is the first known baseball player to have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which has found the disease in numerous deceased former National Football League players.

Freel carried a reputation as a hard-nosed player throughout his Major League career, and his most notable injury came on May 28, 2007, when he was playing for the Cincinnati Reds and collided with fellow outfielder Norris Hopper. Freel was knocked out before he hit the ground and was later diagnosed with head and neck contusions.

“I know it was a concussion,” Freel said at the time. “I’ve had them before and know what it is. I was knocked out. Every other time I’ve had concussions, I’ve been knocked out. None of them have been like this. I never had the lingering affects. This is totally different than what I had before.”

At the time, Freel estimated that he had suffered nine or 10 concussions in his life, many of them on the baseball field.

Before his death, Freel had exhibited many of the same signs found in former NFL players who have committed suicide and were later found to be suffering from CTE. He suffered from depression and anxiety and, according to the Times-Union, “family said that they saw a pronounced mental decline in Freel over the final years of his life.”

Freel’s diagnosis is a reminder that while the majority of the scrutiny about CTE has focused on the NFL and, to a lesser extent, professional hockey, concussions are a concern in other sports too. Baseball, in fact, has taken steps to limit concussions, establishing a special seven-day concussion disabled list and protocol for handling the injuries. Still, there’s work to do: in August, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Alexi Casilla returned to a game despite suffering an obvious concussion on the field.

Freel’s family and Major League Baseball learned that he had CTE the same day MLB’s rules committee announced that it had decided to ban collisions at home plate between base runners and catchers. That decision was praised by many but also drew heavy criticism from some corners, including from some managers and former players. Freel’s diagnosis, though, should be seen as another justification for removing those collisions from the game, given that baseball trainers were told last week that 22 percent of concussions suffered on MLB fields happen on such plays. It’s impossible to totally remove outfield collisions like the one that sent Freel to the disabled list in 2007. Banning a play that is incredibly dangerous but easy to get rid of, though, is an easy way to prevent more players from suffering from the same disease that apparently plagued Ryan Freel until the day of his death.