Baffoe: Ryan Freel & The Hurt Of Hustle
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By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) “Doesn’t it seem like with all the concussions being reported in the world of football and hockey that baseball’s kind of overreacting? I mean, you guys probably know more about this than me, but name me a catcher in the last 10 years that’s got a concussion.”
Clap it up for Pete Rose, folks.
I happen to be on the side of the polarized argument that believes Rose should be in Cooperstown—and not just signing autographs for money down the street from the museum—but he sure knows how to crawl out of his hole every now and then and allow the ad hominem folks to refuel.
Rose’s asinine comments—about 15% of MLB catchers hit the disabled list with a diagnosed concussion in 2013 alone—stem from Major League Baseball recently ratifying a ban on home plate collisions because they are dangerous, destructive, and essentially asinine for the game. It was inevitable that Rose would be asked for his pseudo-wisdom because he engaged in one of the game’s most famous collisions at home, one that drastically altered catcher Ray Fosse’s career. In an exhibition game of zero consequence (other than any wager Rose may have had on the game for entertainment purposes only).
A significant amount of people glorify Rose for that play and others that earned him the nickname “Charlie Hustle.” The overlap of the Venn diagram between fans of his and former brief Chicago Cub Ryan Freel is fairly large. Both made their hay with the Cincinnati Reds, and both were celebrated for often sacrificing their bodies for the sake of the team.
The narrative of grindy or scrappy or whatever working-class “embodiment of this blue collar city” adjective you want to apply to Freel is tainted, though, when you learn that he was suffering from CTE when he killed himself a year ago. He had “nine or 10” concussions as a player slamming into walls and flopping hard on the ground to make a sprawling catch and colliding with opponents to reach the next base. He was the all-American boy that could have come straight from a Matt Christopher novel as the embodiment of all the Ken Burnsian glow that draws so many to baseball.
And he’s dead because of that.
Freel is the first Major League Baseball player to be diagnosed (posthumously, as is the unfortunate usual way) with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
He will not be the last.
More will suffer from the disease because we demand 110% from our overpaid, prima donnas that don’t appreciate what it’s really like to work for a livin’. That’s the standard fallback, right? “I’d crash into walls and people for dat kinda money!” And so Ryan Freel, whose marginal natural gifts might not be enough to sustain a career if he’s not sacrificing his health, gets folk hero status and a comparatively mediocre $11.5 million over a career. They are the guys we don’t exactly buy a ticket or flip on the TV to see specifically, but they make their names known by “giving that extra something,” which usually means “something” to the effect of the Aaron Rowand-style French kissing of a wall. And we have an allergy to acknowledging that what we build up as a folk hero actually creates a tragic hero instead.
That’s a culture thing, though. “Changing the culture,” says noted CTE pioneer Chris Nowinski, “is very difficult.”
Curbing collisions at home is a good thing, regardless of what the vocal Old Schoolers like Rose and other counterproductive scum will say. It will help reduce the immediate devastating injuries like the one that ended Buster Posey’s season in May of 2011, but it will also reduce the one’s we can’t see until it’s too late. The one’s we don’t notice or care about after the spikes are hung up and a now-former-player is useless to us and slowly spirals down a path of uncontrollable mental health issues until they just become too much. Who knows how many ballplayers before Freel that took their own lives did so because of a frightening confusion of why their head was betraying them after they left the game? Guys whose baseball lives included instances of jarring of the brain that fell under the familiar harmfully ignorant idioms of “cobwebs” and “bell ringing” or even less so.
But no more barreling over of catchers doesn’t mean baseball brains are in the clear. I’m not calling for baseball to be played in bubble wrap, as the knee-jerk reaction of purists to any altering of the game for safety reasons usually belches out. And there are unavoidable part of the game that make a player’s brain vulnerable. A catcher has to catch the brunt of foul tips. Outfielders cannot pull up short of a wall if a fly ball is otherwise catchable. The art of basestealing often involves a strategic headfirst slide. These are integral parts of the game, and unlike a collision at home, which isn’t necessary and has been criticized by such pansies as Johnny Bench, Mike Matheny, and Bruce Bochy, I have no desire to alter them.
But over time they damage the hustlers we treat as heroes. They killed Ryan Freel. So when you see one of these great hustle plays from now on just know what you’re clapping it up for.
Tim Baffoe attended the University of Iowa before earning his degree from Governors State University and began blogging at The Score after winning the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He enjoys writing things about stuff, but not so much stuff about things. When not writing for 670TheScore.com, Tim corrupts America’s youth as a high school English teacher and provides a great service to his South Side community delivering pizzas (please tip him and his colleagues well). Got a comment for Tim? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow Tim’s inappropriate brain droppings on Twitter @TimBaffoe , but please don’t follow him in real life. He grew up in Chicago’s Beverly To read more of Tim’s blogs click here.