The 36 year-old Freel, who hadn't played Major League Baseball since 2009, died last week, after shooting himself in the head. According to his family, baseball-related concussions - he suffered somewhere between 10 and 20 of them - were almost certainly to blame. According to his ex-wife,
“I don’t know how many times he would talk about sliding into second or third base and blacking out or seeing stars. I cringed that that’s who he was – all-out, full throttle. It was very hard to watch.”
I've actually known about Ryan Freel since he debuted, given that he came up with the Blue Jays in 2001. It's a somewhat vague memory, at this point, but I remember really liking him - he was small and overly serious. He was also quite good, and Freel's career and performance (the 62nd most valuable hitter from 2004-2006) was shockingly similar to that of Byrnes. And, like Byrnes, a lot of that value came from doing the little things that aren't easily appreciated - running the bases well, stealing bases, playing strong defense.
Freel was not highly-valued or considered to be incredibly talented (unlike Lawrie, in this regard) but was considered hard-nosed and gutsy, sacrificing his body at every turn and chasing after every ball within a couple hundred feet of him. And, like Byrnes, in his early 30s he quickly went from being a tremendously useful, and above-average, everyday player to a poor-hitting scrub. Again, like Byrnes, the injuries eventually became too much to play through, too much of an impediment and detriment.
Freel and Byrne were only useful so long as they could run hard and crash hard - be it into walls, into the stands, into opposing players, or even, occasionally, their own teammates. (A collision with a teammate is often cited as the concussion that finally ended Freel's career.) And when they could no longer do those things, their below-average skills couldn't keep them employed.
Lawrie is a better athlete, and probably a better player, than either Freel or Byrne. But one would hope that players like these can take something away from Freel's story.