It's Hotels and Whiskey and Sad-Luck Dames

1976-2012 - Andy Lyons

With help from -MBP and all of you, it's one man's remembrance of Ryan Freel

I'm obviously not more prepared or entitled to write a Ryan Freel tribute than any of you, and I hope you all choose to write/sing/draw/think your own. I didn't even think that I would be writing something like this, stuck as I was in the same state of "dang"itude as the rest of you.

But last night I was stuck at a party full of septuagenarians telling jokes in a language I don't speak in some sort of nouveau riche coke den of some sort. So I was on my phone a lot. And I'm still not sure if he meant it as a tribute or just as a statement, but one of MBP's tweet's really caught me off-step.

Those three words reminded me of one of my favorite sports stories I've ever read, Football in the Gulag's "A Nocturnal Upon a St. Stevens Day"

Upon first listening to a Tom Waits record, the response of the uninitiated is often the same: ‘This guy cannot sing.’

It's a great chuckle to start off with, but then they explain:

Waits growls, hollers, mumbles and whispers as he voices the various narrators in his songs. Fluctuating between a moaning falsetto and a tectonic rumble, he gives the impression of a man barely in control of his own voice. Yet this is misleading, for the truly stunning thing about Waits, which one grows to realise, is that he isn’t merely winging it: he has complete control over that seemingly unmasterable voice.

Freel would easily find his home as a character in a Tom Waits song. He's not Tom Waits. It's clear now - much more frighteningly so than it was before - that he was not in control. His bizarre remarks, frightening intensity, and constant injuries were not the actions of someone like Waits, someone playing a role. They were the actions of someone so weary and down on his luck that his audience, us, fell in love with him.

It was easy to fall in love with Freel, not in the least because it was clear he fell in love with us. I wrote before about the craft, guile, and minimalism of Homer Bailey, and Freel was the opposite. His hits were all gutted out, his walks were all staving off (he had one intentional walk in his whole career, his first year in red), he hit a home run off of Randy Johnson and dove into walls, spectators, and teammates. He was a maximalist, an entertainer, and a ballplayer we only think off as "old-school" because he reminds us of when greenies and cocaine were the drugs of choice, not steroids and HGH.

There was indeed something almost pornographic about Freel's style of play. He played big in big moments, of course, as anyone who was around in 2006 remembers. But he was otherwise completely outside the narrative. Which was a wonderful thing in those rudderless years. The losing streaks, the pitchers called in from the Mexican Leagues, the statuary of an infield and reliquary of an outfield were all just the plumber making a house call, a complete side story for our interest in what Freel would do next. He wasn't a star because he had the most talent, he was a star because he would do the absolute utmost to entertain us. In pornography, that's all it takes.

In many ways, his suicide reminds me less of those of Junior Seau or Dave Duerson and more of those of Chris Benoit or Savannah. Though truly, for all five of them, it was not just about the concussions (though it is always first and foremost about the concussions). But the injuries, the painkillers, the constant travel, the difficulty of relationships (we all remember Freel's Craigslist starring turn), the abuse hurled by fans, coaches, and teammates can be as damaging as a kick to the head. There is no magical formula for any of this, but the tale of the troubled entertainer goes back to Virgina Rappe and well before.

So it's easy to think of Freel walking along the sewage-strewn streets of Jacksonville pining after baseball and the crowds, stuck with only Farney for company. It's easy to think that he missed us as badly as we missed him. That he had serious issues after he was tossed aside from what was truly the only really successful period of his life after 2008. It is also very easy to think that I am overreacting here with no other information to go off of then a few police reports.

It's tough to find peace after baseball. I know I'm not the only one torn up after this past October on RR. And we all got a chance to chuckle about Votto's "Rambo IV" comments. By December, usually, perspective comes around.

But when your life is dedicated to a lack of perspective, towards treating every at bat like a race to the death, every crack of the bat as an escape from prison, you can become beloved and just as soon become belated. Once Ryan Freel's body went from constant injury risk to constant injury, his mind may not have had enough time to catch up to a new, decrepit, reality at age 33. Especially when, if you think about it, his "decrepit reality" was far quicker and stronger than any of our finest days.

There's such intense sadness at a time like this because of the unspoken possibility that Freel gave his life for a few wonderful memories of ours. That his descent into Waitsdom was done for our benefit. I honestly don't know how true that may be, and that friction is enough to make me consider forgetting about the possibility.

But I loved Ryan Freel for those few years, and I've convinced myself that he loved me. It was a doomed, Waits-ian love from the start. Falling in love with a pornographer is going to end in everyone's sadness, but then again most loves end in sadness. It is just too much of a tremendous shame that Ryan Freel's life had to careen into this. It is selfish to say, perhaps, that he took a little bit of me with him. Hopefully I can repay that selfishness by saying that a little bit of him lives in me.

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