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.
Mr. Freel, who was 36, died of what appeared to be a self-inflicted shotgun wound, sheriff’s office spokesman Shannon Hartley wrote in an e-mail Sunday. The medical examiner will make the final determination of the cause of death.
The speedy infielder spent six of his eight big league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and finished his career in 2009 with a .268 average and 143 steals.
Mr. 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,’’ Mr. 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. Mr. Freel missed 30 games in 2007 after a collision with a teammate caused a concussion.
Mr. Freel showed no fear as he ran into walls, hurtled into seats, and crashed into 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, Mr. Freel made his big league debut in April 2001 with the Blue Jays after second baseman Homer Bush injured a thumb.
Mr. 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 played in 2009 for the Orioles, Chicago Cubs, and Kansas City Royals.
Mr. 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 center field when he collided with right fielder Norris Hopper’s elbow on May 28, 2007, an injury that caused Mr. Freel to be taken off the field in an ambulance. He had 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.
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. Mr. 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 — Mr. 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.