MIAMI - Ryan Freel, a former Major League Baseball player known for his fearless play but whose career was cut short after eight seasons by a series of head and other injuries, was found dead Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla., according to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office.
Freel, who was 36, died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound, sheriff's office spokesman Shannon Hartley wrote in an email Sunday. The medical examiner will make the final determination of the cause of death.
"RIP Ryan Freel!! Great teammate, great guy,n loved his family!" former Cincinnati Reds teammate Sean Casey tweeted. "Such a sad day today with his passing!Awful news!Prayers are with his family!"
The speedy Freel broke in with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001 and spent six of his eight big league seasons with the Reds, finishing his career in 2009 with a .268 average and 143 steals.
"Really hurt by his passing!" Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said on Twitter. "You'll never will be forgotten."
Freel drew attention in 2006 when he was quoted by the Dayton Daily News as saying he had an imaginary friend, Farney. "He's a little guy who lives in my head who talks to me and I talk to him," Freel was quoted as saying. "Everybody thinks I talk to myself, so I tell 'em I'm talking to Farney."
The Jacksonville native thrilled fans with his all-out style, yet it took a toll on his career. During his playing days, he once estimated he had sustained up to 10 concussions. Freel missed 30 games in 2007 after a collision with a teammate caused a concussion.
Freel showed no fear as he ran into walls, hurtled into the seats and crashed into other players trying to make catches. His jarring, diving grabs often made the highlight reels, and he was praised by those he played with and against for always having a dirt-stained uniform.
Selected by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 10th round of the 1995 amateur draft out of Tallahassee Community College, Freel made his big league debut in April 2001 with the Blue Jays after second baseman Homer Bush injured a thumb.
Freel appeared in just nine major league games that season, became a free agent and spent all of 2002 at Tampa Bay's Triple-A farm team. He signed a minor league deal with the Reds that November and made it back to the majors the following April.
He stayed with the Reds through 2008, when a torn tendon in his right hamstring caused him to miss the final 103 games of the season. He was traded to Baltimore at that December's winter meetings and split the 2009 season among the Orioles, Chicago Cubs and Kansas City Royals.
"The Reds family is deeply saddened to hear of the death of Ryan Freel," the Cincinnati Reds said in a statement. "His teammates and our fans loved him for how hard he played the game, and he loved giving back to the community. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."
Freel had consecutive seasons of 37, 36 and 37 steals from 2004-06 but started to slow the following year. After hitting .271 with eight homers and 27 RBIs in 2006, he gained a $2,325,000 salary for the following year and then in April 2007 signed a $7 million, two-year deal covering 2008 and '09.
He was in centre field when he collided with right fielder Norris Hopper's elbow on May 28, 2007, an injury that caused Freel to be taken off the field in an ambulance. Freel sustained a concussion that caused headaches and an impaired memory, and he didn't return until early July. He then suffered a season-ending knee surgery in August.
"I think what happened last year has taken a toll on this year," he said at spring training the following year. "Obviously there's question marks. Obviously there's people questioning or doubting or whatever it may be."
He sustained another head injury that put him back on the DL when he was hit by a pickoff throw to second base from Boston pitcher Justin Masterson during the Patriots Day game at Fenway Park on April 20, 2009. Freel appeared dazed as he walked off, both arms extended over the shoulders of Baltimore's trainers.
Disappointed about conditions surrounding a stress test he was forced to take before beginning a minor league rehabilitation assignment — he insisted he felt fine — Freel was traded to the Cubs on May 8 only to be dealt to Kansas City on July 6. The Royals cut him a month later, and he signed a minor league deal with Texas. The following year, he played in nine games for the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League.
Jacksonville.com reported he was hired as baseball coach at the St. Joseph Academy on June 28 this year and then "backed away" from that position.
Freel also had trouble related to alcohol. He was arrested in northern Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in April 2005 and was charged with drunken driving, careless driving and driving with an open container in a motor vehicle. A month later, he pleaded guilty.
The following January, he was arrested at a pool hall in Tampa, Fla., and charged with disorderly intoxication, a misdemeanour. Prosecutors settled the case by having Freel do community service.
Associated Press writers Ronald Blum and Ben Walker contributed to this report.