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Grandfather Will Give Unforgettable Christmas Gift, Thanks To Baseball Card Collectors07:17
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Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Freel dives for a fly ball in a game against the Cleveland Indians on May 16, 2008, in Cincinnati. (David Kohl/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Ryan Freel dives for a fly ball in a game against the Cleveland Indians on May 16, 2008, in Cincinnati. (David Kohl/AP)

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Growing up, Matthew Christian loved collecting baseball cards.

"I was one of those kids that would just nag and nag and nag until my mom or someone would buy me those baseball card packs," he said. "I probably have around 50,000 baseball cards."

Matthew is now 40 years old, but his love for baseball cards hasn’t faded. This year, he started his own business, a network for card collectors. People message him and he tracks down the cards they’re looking for.

A few months ago, Matthew was at his house in Montana, going through his inbox, when he saw a message from a man named Patrick Freel in Jacksonville, Florida. In the message, Patrick said he was looking for his son's cards. It took a few more email exchanges before Matthew figured out that Patrick wasn't looking for his son's missing cards. He was looking for cards of his son: Ryan Freel, a former Major League Baseball player with a reputation for leaving it all on the field.

"He wanted to get out there and kick butt," Patrick said. "He’d go bounce off of walls if he could catch the ball."

Patrick says fans would chant “Freel for real” every time his son sacrificed his body to make a spectacular play, but this all-out hustle came with consequences.

Ryan was diagnosed with at least 10 concussions during his baseball career, and after each injury, his health deteriorated.

Patrick says his son became forgetful and irritable after he retired from the MLB in 2010. He battled depression and alcoholism and on Dec. 22, 2012, Ryan took his own life. He was only 36 years old.

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After his death, researchers diagnosed Ryan with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which is a condition that causes the brain to deteriorate.

"His brain, it looked like a Dalmatian puppy," Patrick said. "It had black marks all over it."

Ryan's three daughters were very young when their father died. So Patrick decided to create a special way for them to remember their dad, which is why he contacted Matthew Christian. He was hoping to find a few Ryan Freel cards he could give the girls as a gift.

"I've seen all kinds of generous things that the sports card community has done for other people," Matthew told Patrick. "I know they're going to step up and help this cause."

Matthew sent out messages to a few private collectors on Facebook, asking them to send him their Ryan Freel cards. He planned to send them to Patrick. In the meantime, he dug through his own collection. But even with 50,000 cards, he didn't have a single one of Ryan Freel.

After a fellow collector shared Matthew's post on Twitter, others joined in the search. Soon, it was hundreds of others. Matthew remembers the first envelope that came in the mail.

Matthew Christian has helped Patrick Freel collect thousands of his son's cards. (Courtesy Matthew Christian)
Matthew Christian has helped Patrick Freel collect thousands of his son's cards. (Courtesy Matthew Christian)

"It was a plain white envelope and it was just a stack of cards with a rubber band around them," Matthew said.

The cards kept coming in. At one point, Matthew was receiving 15 packages a day, some from as far away as Honduras. While most of the cards were commonplace,  others — like a shimmering, one-of-a-kind card he received — would make an avid collector’s eyes light up.

"They made one of this card and that is it," Matthew said. "It's the golden ticket. And somebody was willing to send that and donate it to his family."

The outpouring of support for the Freel family hasn’t stopped at baseball cards. Anything commemorating Ryan’s baseball career has shown up on Matthew’s doorstep: jerseys, autographed photos and even a baseball Ryan gave to one fan years ago.

Some also wrote personal letters to the Freel family, sharing fond memories of Ryan's playing days and admiration for the player who gave his all to baseball.

"Humanity can be awesome and this is another case of it," Matthew said.

In mid-August, Ryan’s father Patrick received a box in the mail, postmarked from Montana.

"My God was it heavy — [at] least 30 or 40 pounds," Patrick said. "I had never seen so many cards. There were some that I didn't even know about."

Ryan Freel takes batting practice at spring training in 2008. (Al Behrman/AP)
Ryan Freel takes batting practice at spring training in 2008. (Al Behrman/AP)

Over the past few months, Patrick has sorted the cards into three identical binders, one for each of his granddaughters, as Christmas presents. He wants to ensure that his son’s legacy is passed on and says he couldn’t have done this without Matthew Christian’s help.

As for Matthew, he plans to keep passing along every keepsake honoring Ryan's memory. He says he doesn't even plan to keep one to commemorate this whole endeavor.

"Really I just want to see the smiles on the girls' faces," Matthew said. "That's it."

This story first aired on Only A Game. Find Kind World on Facebook or Twitter, or email kindworld@wbur.org to share your story. You can also subscribe to the podcast.

This segment aired on December 11, 2018.

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