It was difficult not to like Ryan Freel, who shot himself to death Saturday night in his Jacksonville home at the age of 36.
One spring as I arrived at the Reds' spring training complex in Sarasota, Freel dropped what he was doing and nearly sprinted across the room to greet me. I am about as far down in the pecking order of the Reds' media contingent as one can be but Freel did everything and, I mean everything all out.
When he partied, it was also at full tilt. He was arrested following opening day 2005 for driving under the influence of alcohol. Even without being under the influence he wore out his gas pedal. He had another incident in his native Jacksonville. He gave up drinking after that one.
He would talk about anything, everything. My worn out shoes for instance. We had a twenty minute discussion about them. He even offered me a pair of his. He was one of the few baseball players that made a point out of calling everyone by name. The only thing he refused to talk about were his statistics. He would get a little agitated if his batting average was brought up, especially if he was going good.
He was always available for an interview. Once while in Sarasota a radio reporter, Wildman Walker, wanted to send an interview with Freel by cell phone but his cell phone wasn't charged. Freel used his and ran up a huge bill.
"Freel Bird" as his teammates sometimes called him told Dayton reporter, Hal McCoy and I about an imaginary friend, "Farney" one day after he made a diving catch. "Farney said that was a great catch you made," Freel said. "Farney, I thought you made it, if you did it was a great catch."
Freel stole 110 bases for the Reds from 2004 through 2006.
He was drafted twice, first by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 14th round of the 1994 draft out of Sandlewood High School in Jacksonville. He attended Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee and then Tallahassee Community College before signing with Toronto as the 10th pick in the 1995 draft.
Freel spent most of his early career in the Blue Jays organization running up the minor league laundry bill.
The scrappy 5'10" ball of energy finally appeared in the Major Leagues with Toronto in 2001 playing in just nine game in April of that year but was sent back to the minor leagues and it was two years before he reached the big leagues again.
Dave Miley, who managed the Reds' Triple A affiliate in Louisville at the time recommended him to team management mostly because he was tired of wearing Miley's teams out. The Reds signed him as a free agent in November 2002. Freel appeared in 52 games in 2003. Miley took over the team from Bob Boone in August of that season and gave Freel a larger role.
Reds' fans were endeared to him for the way he reminded them of Pete Rose with his all-out play. The Reds even had a Ryan Freel T-shirt promotion. The shirt was designed with dirt marks on it.
There was a darker side to Freel. There were days that he wouldn't talk and just stared into his locker. Those days were uncommon, yet they were as much a part of his personality as his almost puppy-like unbridled affection moments in which he would hug anyone in sight, teammates, reporters, clubhouse attendants.
Sometimes you had to wonder what life would be like for him without baseball.
Physical injuries forced him out of the game in 2009. Perhaps the unseen injuries that he carried became too much.
As much as we all liked being around him, we perhaps failed to get to know him. I for one will try to pay closer attention to the people around me.