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Family of Ryan Freel urges baseball to confront brain injuries

Posted: December 17, 2013 - 1:12am  |  Updated: December 17, 2013 - 1:14am
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Cincinnati Reds third baseman Ryan Freel, seen here in May 2008, would later battle memory loss and depression. He committed suicide.  Chris Park/Associated Press
Chris Park/Associated Press
Cincinnati Reds third baseman Ryan Freel, seen here in May 2008, would later battle memory loss and depression. He committed suicide.

Norma Vargas lost her son to suicide. Her grandchildren lost their father. A youth baseball league lost the coach it idolized.

As the picture became clearer this week as to what former Major League Baseball player Ryan Freel was battling when he took his own life last December, Vargas promised that her son’s death will not be one that ends with a story or a news segment.

Freel became the first MLB player to be diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a milestone announcement revealed Sunday by his family and later confirmed by the research groups responsible for the study of his brain.

The period of mourning has evolved into a mission of pursuing change to make the game safer, from the majors down to youth baseball. Vargas hopes that her son’s suicide will be what moves the needle for real change in the sport. While Freel’s situation may be unique — he was said to have suffered in excess of 10 concussions — it remains painfully personal to a family still adapting to life without Ryan.

“I hope so, I just hope it doesn’t die in the way,” Vargas said. “I hope it stays alive. The biggest thing is the medical field and profession, and the sports business. There’s got to be someone out there who can come up with something.”


Related: Family: Ryan Freel was suffering from brain disease CTE


While the NFL has occupied the headlines when it’s come to brain trauma and CTE, baseball had been immune from the discussion before Freel’s family revealed that he was diagnosed with Stage II CTE at the time of his suicide on Dec. 22, 2012. CTE is associated with memory loss, impulsivity, paranoia, depression and ultimately, progressive dementia, according to the Sports Legacy Institute.

Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, which handled the research of Freel’s brain, and SLI confirmed the results Sunday afternoon.

The complete report will be published early next year.

“I think he is the poster boy [for baseball],” said Freel’s stepfather, Clark Vargas. “Whether they accept that, I don’t know. Ryan was the good, the bad and the ugly and he can be that poster boy for a change [in making the sport safer].”

MLB released a statement late Sunday regarding the findings in Freel, saying it would continue to move forward on making the game safer.

“Major League Baseball’s thoughts remain with Ryan Freel’s family, friends and all those he touched throughout his life. Ryan played Baseball with love and passion and made a lasting impression on and off the field.

“We recently met in person with Ryan’s mother and stepfather and expressed to them our feelings about Ryan and discussed MLB’s continued efforts to provide a safe environment for our players. We will continue to work with the MLBPA and our joint Safety and Health Advisory Committee as well as our medical experts to remain proactive on concussions and head injuries.”

Christopher Nowinski, co-founder and executive director at Sports Legacy Institute, delivered the findings to Freel’s family and a small group of MLB executives at the Winter Meetings on Dec. 11. Hours after the report, baseball announced its intention to ban collisions at home plate to help make the game safer. The Freel report wasn’t the tipping point for the change, but dovetailed with it.

“I wouldn’t say there was great surprise, the folks at Major League Baseball have been following the work and they knew of Ryan’s history, and they were appreciative that we shared the findings,” Nowinski said. “… Major League Baseball has prioritized the issue. I’m glad that they banned home-plate collisions. The vote happened the same day we were there. I think baseball’s making some good moves.”

Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and later a professional wrestler in WWE, suffered a concussion during a match in 2003. Post-concussion syndrome forced him out of wrestling and into becoming a leading advocate in head trauma prevention and awareness. He authored the book, “Head Games,” and serves as the conduit between families and the Boston University group.

“I wouldn’t say we expected it [to find CTE in Freel], we’re always hopeful it’s negative, we didn’t know what we would see, a baseball exposure is different than most contact sports,” he said.

Finding CTE in a baseball player is a milestone for head trauma awareness advocates, as well as for the Freel family.

“There are a lot of accidents [in baseball] more than people even realize there were,” Norma Vargas said. “Football is a contact sport, but there’s also a lot of equipment.”

Whereas previous findings of the disease centered around athletes in contact sports and soldiers who have been exposed to blasts, Freel was a unique case. He had a prior history of head injuries, at least two significant incidents occurring before Freel turned 5. He also played football briefly when he was younger.

On the baseball field, Freel’s playing style — all-out, all the time — gained him a cult-like following around the big leagues, mainly with the Cincinnati Reds. By the time Freel retired in 2010, friends and family say that he was battling mounting cognitive problems, short-term memory loss and severe bouts of depression.

Freel’s legacy now, his mother said, is becoming a force for change in a sport that he grew up playing.

Numerous athletes, most of them former NFL players, have been diagnosed post-mortem with CTE. More recently, former NFL players Joe DeLamielleure, Tony Dorsett and Leonard Marshall have all said that testing done at UCLA revealed that they were diagnosed as having signs of CTE. However, data from Sports Legacy Institute and Boston University say that “CTE can only be definitively diagnosed through post-mortem examination of the brain although efforts are underway to learn how to diagnose CTE in living people.”

Justin Barney: (904) 359-4248