Why one former MLB player's dad is looking for his son's baseball cards

Patrick Freel knows mortality all too well. Life, as he learned the hard way, can be gone in an instant. It was three days before Christmas in 2012, when his son Ryan took his own life.

Yes, that Ryan Freel. The MLB utilityman who spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues with the Cincinnati Reds, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays, among others.

As we approach Father’s Day, one of the toughest times of the year for a father who had to bury a son, the elder Freel has just one thing he wants.

Baseball cards with Ryan on them.

“I’m getting older,” Patrick Freel told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve had a heart attack. I don’t know from one day to another if I’m going to get up in the morning until I see that blue sky.”

Mortality — it changes your priorities. And these days, the elder Freel’s priorities include gathering his son’s cards. The idea is that he wants to create a binder of baseball cards for each of Ryan’s three daughters — who are now 9, 11 and 13 years old.

He has enough cards to fill one binder. But Ryan had three daughters. So you can see the problem here.

“I want to give them something to remember their daddy by,” he said. “I love those grandchildren to death. I just want to make sure that they’re taken care of before I go.”

Patrick, 74, speaks with a subdued Southern drawl. He’s the type of man who calls someone he just met “pal” or “buddy.” He’s likable in that way.

That helps explain how Freel started— inadvertently as it might have been — what’s turned into a nationwide search this week for his son’s cards.

It started with one Facebook message, then a dozen more, soon it was getting shared thousands of time on Twitter and now the first batch of cards is rolling in from collectors across the country.

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Ryan Freel's MLB career
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Ryan Freel's MLB career
DENVER - MAY 1: Ryan Freel #3 of the Cincinnati Reds slides head first back to first base during the game against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on May 1, 2003 in Denver, Colorado. The Reds defeated the Rockies 7-2. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
SARASOTA, FL - FEBRUARY 20: Ryan Freel #68 of the Cincinnati Reds poses for a portrait during the Reds' spring training Media Day on February 20, 2003 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 16: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds looks on against the Houston Astros at Great American Ball Park on August 16, 2003 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Astros defeated the Reds 4-2. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 19: Ryan Freel#6 of the Cincinnati Reds makes the hit during the game against the Colorado Rockies on May 19, 2004 at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 4-3. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Cincinnati Red Ryan Freel during the game against the New York Mets at Shea Stafdium in Queens NY. The Mets lost 2-6 (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)
HOUSTON - APRIL 8: Catcher Brad Ausmus #11 of the Houston Astros makes the tag out at home against the attempted steal by Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds in the sixth inning April 8, 2005 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas. The Astros defeated the Reds 3-2. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 21: Infielder Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds throws the ball against the Chicago Cubs during the game on July 21, 2005 at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 9-6. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI - APRIL 19: Ryan Freel of the Cincinnati Reds sits in the dugout during the game against the Florida Marlins at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio on April 19, 2006. The Reds defeated the Marlins 9-8. (Photo by John Grieshop/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
CINCINNATI - MAY 2: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds at the plate against the St. Louis Cardinals on May 2, 2006 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds defeated the Cardinals 3-2. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
SARASOTA, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Ryan Freel of the Cincinnati Reds poses during Photo Day on February 23, 2007 at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - APRIL 22: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds pauses during the seventh inning stretch against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 22, 2007 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Phillies defeated the Reds 9-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - APRIL 17: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds makes a catch at second base during the game against the Chicago Cubs on April 17, 2008 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Reds defeated the Cubs 9-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 7: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds steps on second base to record a force out during the game against the Chicago Cubs on May 7, 2008 at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Reds won 9-0. (Photo by Joe Robbins)
CINCINNATI, OH - MAY 29: Ryan Freel #6 of the Cincinnati Reds tries to catch a fly ball against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park on May 29, 2008 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Ryan Freel #2 of the Baltimore Orioles poses during photo day at the Orioles spring training complex on February 23, 2009 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)
The Chicago Cubs' Ryan Freel reacts after scoring a go-ahead run in the eighth inning against Chicago White Sox. The White Sox defeated the Cubs, 8-7, at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago, Illinois, Saturday, June 27, 2009. (Photo by Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
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BASEBALL’S FIRST CASE OF CTE

Ryan Freel was never a star in the big leagues. He was always one of the players trying to fit in. He was scrappy and on the smaller side, but quick and carried no fear. He’d play where ever he was needed, zipping around the outfield or taking any infield position.

Some fans — particularly in Cincinnati, where he played from 2003 to 2008 — appreciated how fearless he was on the field. But Freel paid the price. He suffered multiple concussions through his career, either when he was diving around the basepaths or jumping around the outfield.

After Freel killed himself, his family and friends started counting how many concussions he’d had in the life. It was a lot. More than 10. That’s what led Boston University to ask if its doctors could study Freel’s brain.

They diagnosed him with CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), the first baseball player to get such a diagnosis. That didn’t totally explain why he chose to take his own life, but it made sense.

Ryan struggled with a number of issues during and after his playing days: Alcohol, a bipolar diagnosis, depression. He was 36 when he loaded his shotgun that December night.

‘ANYTHING WILL WORK’

For all his demons, Ryan Freel was still a son and a father. That is what Patrick Freel holds onto these days. That’s what made him recently message a man named Matthew Christian on Facebook.

They’d never met. Christian lived in Montana. Freel in Florida. There was no connection other than that Christian was a sports cards fan who runs The Sports Card Connection in his downtime and Freel thought that sounded like a place to turn for help.

He was right.

Once they talked and Christian understood what Freel was trying to do, he put the call out to card collectors in almost a dozen private Facebook groups he’s a part of.

“I can almost guarantee you we’re gonna get some cards for those granddaughters,” Christian told Freel.

Fact is, Ryan Freel cards aren’t worth much. He’s what people in the hobby call a common. If you ask a collector if they have a Ryan Freel card, they probably wouldn’t know off the top of their head. They’d have to dig through old stacks of cards. That’s just what Christian asked them to do, thinking once they heard the story, they’d happily part with their Freel cards.

But then something surprising happened: That Facebook post got copied and pasted onto Twitter. That tweet got retweeted and retweeted — thousands of times.

“This is why I turned to this community,” Christian told Yahoo Sports.

On Thursday, the first cards started rolling in. There were rookie cards from his Blue Jays days, many cards from his Reds years. Even a Baltimore Orioles card from his final year in the big leagues.
Based on the social-media response, Christian expects more to arrive in the coming weeks.

“A guy sent me a message and said, ‘This is Ryan Freel’s actual glove from 2002 that he gave me,’” Christian said. “The floodgates are pretty much open at this point. I told Patrick we might get enough cards to fill a U-Haul. He just laughed and said, ‘We’ll figure it out, buddy.’ ”

They will. And they might fill more than two more binders before it’s all said and done.

“Anything will work,” Patrick Freel says. “As long as his name is on them.”

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Mike Oz is a writer at Yahoo Sports. Contact him at mikeozstew@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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