This is sad news. Former Major League baseball player Ryan Freel was found dead at home yesterday from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was only 36. Unless you’re a Cincinnati Reds fan (or a few other teams, where he played late in his eight-season MLB career), you’ve probably never heard of him. I only saw him play once, but he left a lasting impression on me and the 40,000 people at the game that night in Cincinnati by leaving it all out on the field. Truth is, I probably wouldn’t remember Freel at all, were it not for the night I saw him make one of the most miraculous defensive plays I’ve ever personally seen.
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
St. Louis Cardinals vs. Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park
It was a balmy, late-summer night in the Nati. The Reds were still in the playoff picture, giving this series with first-place St. Louis a bit more importance in the dog days of summer.
This was my first-ever game at the new stadium. I’d been to old Riverfront a few times, but really looked forward to checking out the new digs. I had a front-row seat in the upper deck, along the third base line. For me, personally, it’s one of best views of a baseball game. You can see every play developing. I was also excited to see a couple potential Hall-of-Fame players on this night: Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Pujols, the latter whom I consider to be the best player in baseball of that decade. But it was Ryan Freel who stole the show.
Holding onto 4-1 lead in the top of the fifth, Albert Pujols was facing Eric Milton with two runners on and no one out. Pujols lined a shot to deep right-center field. “No way he catches up to that,” I said, watching Freel sprint toward the wall. With his back to the plate, the dude laid out—LAID OUT!—and hauled it in on the warning track, saving at least two runs.
Never before, and never since, have I witnessed a crowd get so electrified like that from a flyball out in the middle of a regular season game. The stadium erupted into a protracted standing ovation for Freel’s catch. It was the stuff that makes you happy to be a baseball fan. Local sports writers called it the best play in franchise history. No, really! Even Cardinals fans had to appreciate the great play.
The video, which is included in this article, really does no justice to just how incredible Freel’s effort was. The crowd was buzzing for the rest of the inning and couldn’t wait for Freel’s next at bat to show him some love. Predictably, he received another standing ovation. He led off the inning with a double.
The Reds won the game 10-3, but faded down the stretch and the Cardinals went on to win the World Series. But for me, that play Freel made in the fifth inning is one that I still talk about to this day.
I don’t know what led Freel to take his own life this week. Like most suicides, there are probably more questions than answers. I’d hate to think his eccentricities—and he had a few—during his baseball career were hiding darker battles in his mind. Either way, it’s tragic. I feel for his family and friends and can only hope they take some comfort in known Ryan Freel will always be remembered for that one amazing catch in August in Cincinnati.