Christie Moore Freel lost count of the nights her husband, Ryan, arrived home from the ballpark with a tale that added to her growing concern over his health.
“I don’t know how many times he would talk about sliding into second or third base and blacking out or seeing stars," she said Saturday in a telephone interview from her home in Jacksonville, Fla.
While his peers and fans praised Freel’s headfirst approach throughout an eight-year career in the major leagues, which he deemed necessary to compensate for a lack of size and talent, the person closest to him became tormented by it.
“I cringed that that’s who he was — all-out, full throttle," she said. “It was very hard to watch."
An accumulation of concussions, as well as mood swings and troubling incidents, left relatives — and Freel himself — apprehensive about his well-being.
Still, she was surprised to learn that Freel, 36, was found dead in his Jacksonville residence on Dec. 22. Authorities concluded that the cause was a self-inflicted shotgun wound.
“I know a lot of people say they weren’t shocked by it, but I really was," said Christie Freel, who had been divorced from Ryan since April after 11 years of marriage, and had spoken to him briefly on the eve of his death. “I really thought, at some point, the answer to all of this would come along for him. It just never did."
Now his family will seek answers postmortem.
A spate of suicides and diagnosed cases of dementia involving retired National Football League players has prompted research to determine whether there is a correlation between constant blows to the head, which are endemic to football, and a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Testing of brain samples drawn from deceased former players by the Boston University Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy has found that 33 from the NFL, along with 17 who competed at other levels, suffered from CTE.
With Freel, the center enters the realm of baseball, a sport not usually associated with head trauma. His parents approved the donation of tissue to search for evidence of CTE, which might partly explain his decline as a consequence of the injuries.
“I’m very hopeful," Christie Moore Freel said. “We certainly believe there is some sort of connection."
Based on the recollections of the player’s mother and Ryan Freel’s own statements, his stepfather, Clark Vargas, estimated that Freel may have suffered 15 concussions, 10 as a professional ballplayer.
“He was a hard driver," Vargas said by phone. “It was not a career to him. It was a game that he played hard."
That mindset had roots in Freel’s overly active childhood, according to his mother, Norma Vargas. She remembered him falling off bicycles, tumbling out of a bunk bed and careening into the side of a water slide. Some accidents left bumps on his head or required stitches.
“He was always very careless," she said. “No fear."
By the time he was an adult, a reckless style of play marked by crashes into fences, seats and other players helped Freel gain entry to the majors but may have hastened his exit.
He would dive after balls in insignificant spring training games. His former wife witnessed a winter league game in Venezuela in which he smashed through an outfield wall and had to be hospitalized with a concussion.
She advised him to exercise more caution. “Some of it was joking: ‘If you are going to play center field, please use a helmet,’" said Christie Moore Freel, who had three daughters with him, now ranging in age from 4 to 8.
But Ryan Freel knew no other way, even while cognizant that his daredevil ways exacted a price.
“He knew he was causing harm to himself," she said, then quoted his sermons to youngsters aspiring to become big leaguers: “I don’t have the size and the power, but I have the heart. Anybody can have that."
Pleas from his mother to scale back, which might have extended his career, also went for naught.
“I asked him: ‘Why do you play like that? Nobody else plays like that,’ " Norma Vargas said. “He told me: ‘This is the reason I’m playing ball. You don’t understand. I don’t have the size, but I have the energy to play this game. People are not coming to see me play if I change the way I play.’ "
Freel’s former wife said she found no fault with his teams or their medical staffs, concluding that they diagnosed his condition properly and insisted that he abide by the stipulated recovery period.
“He used to get angry at them, wanting to come back sooner than what they recommended," she said.
A collision with a Cincinnati Reds teammate resulted in 30 missed games because of a concussion that was accompanied by memory loss.
Freel’s last head injury may have occurred early in 2009, his final season, from being struck by a pickoff throw. He was placed on the disabled list and closed out his playing days in the minor leagues.
Freel had consulted with doctors and had undergone examinations, mostly psychological, according to his former wife, and even became aware of the CTE studies. “He sought answers to his problems," she said.
Yet he did so reluctantly, according to his mother. She indicated he would not always heed her advice to seek help from doctors or counselors and was especially reluctant to carry through with follow-up appointments.
“It was very difficult to get him to do anything like that," she said.
Freel’s mother dropped by his home on the Friday before Christmas and, noticing that he was not feeling well, urged him to visit a counselor. He agreed to do so the next Monday, she said. His body was discovered the next day.
Both women eagerly await the test results for CTE. “We want to see if that had something to do with what he was going through," Vargas said.
Christie Moore Freel acknowledged that the head injuries might not fully explain why her former husband took his life. “Ryan had a lot of battles, fought a lot of demons," she said.
He was arrested at least once for drunken driving and on another occasion for disorderly intoxication.
Freel was buried Thursday in Jacksonville after a funeral at which the pallbearers wore baseball jerseys.