Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Morneau's Head

The whole sports world has been a flutter today after reports arose that Brett Favre has been informing his teammates that he won't be returning for this season. It's yet another chapter in a seemingly endless drama, but I'm confident that when it's all said and done, Favre will be starting for the Vikings against the Saints in their season opener.

The matter that is weighing on my mind is a far more ominous and immediate concern, and that's the continued absence of Justin Morneau from the Twins' lineup. The slugging first baseman sustained a concussion in early July against the Blue Jays, and a month later his return to the lineup still is not in sight.

Morneau was a human wrecking ball over the first three months of the season, posting a stellar .345/.437/.618 hitting line to go along with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. While the Twins offense slumped at times early in the season, Morneau did not, as he kept on pounding the ball while looking more comfortable and disciplined at the plate than ever before. It seemed as though this might finally be the year that Morneau kept on hitting through the end of the campaign and clearly established himself as the American League's most dangerous offensive first baseman.

Then, on that July 7 game in Toronto, Morneau suffered a seemingly innocuous injury when he hit his head against the knee of Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez while trying to break up a double play. The woozy Morneau initially expected only to miss a couple games, but days have stretched to weeks and those weeks have now stretched to a month. How much longer will it be? No one seems to know, but one can't help but be alarmed at today's report via MLB.com that Morneau "was not feeling as good Monday as he did Sunday following a light workout back in Minneapolis."

This tells us that Morneau is not particularly close to returning, perhaps confirming a report by USA Today's Bob Nightengale from a couple days ago that the first baseman is "still likely weeks away from returning."

Concussions are the most tricky of injuries. They can confound even the most respected of physicians, and there is generally no treatment capable of curing the effects of the injury. Either Morneau's headaches will go away with rest or they won't, but either way it's something that will largely have to happen on its own.

In seeing Morneau's post-concussion effects continue to linger on, one can't help but be reminded of another former Canadian Twins slugger, Corey Koskie. After spending several outstanding (and, in my opinion, often underrated) seasons in a Twins' uniform, Koskie signed with the Blue Jays following the 2004 campaign. After the '05 season, the Jays traded Koskie to Milwaukee, where he sustained his fateful concussion in a July game against the Reds.

At first glance, Koskie's injury was as minor as Morneau's. Patrick Reusse recounted the situation in a 2007 Star Tribune column:
Koskie was chasing a looping fly ball that day in Miller Park. "My only chance to catch it was to put my head down and run to the spot," he said. "When I got there and looked, the ball was behind me. So, I bent back and reached, caught the ball, and hit the ground."

Koskie crashed onto his back. His head didn't clearly slam to the ground, but his neck whiplashed. The ball popped from his glove and Bill Hall caught it for the half-inning's final out.

"I thought I was OK, but when I went up to hit, the pitcher was out there somewhere ... like he was behind a TV screen," Koskie said. "I felt nauseous. I was woozy. I slapped at a couple of pitches and fouled them. I got to a 3-2 count and remember thinking, 'What happens if I draw a walk here and have to run the bases? I won't be able to do it.'

"As it turned out, I struck out. And when I got the dugout, I told the trainer, 'This isn't going to work,' and left the game. I assumed I would be back in the lineup the next day."
But he wasn't. In fact, that ended up being the last regular-season major-league game that Koskie would ever play in. At the age of 33, the third baseman's career as a baseball player was effectively done. But the effects of the injury stretched far beyond Koskie's career. For years after the concussion, he regularly dealt with headaches and nausea. I recall reading stories suggesting that at times Koskie couldn't even manage to play with his young children. The story was heartbreaking.

Now, plenty of other baseball players have experienced concussions and bounced back without issue. In fact, Morneau himself took a pretty nasty hit to the head early in the 2005 season, and it's now a distant and oft-forgotten memory. But post-concussion syndrome is very real and as Koskie's situation proved the effects can be long-lasting and extremely serious.

Baseball is a secondary concern for Morneau right now, but it's going to be a real shame if the Twins are forced to play through the final months of the season without him for a second straight year. When he was healthy, his bat was easily the best in the lineup, and his return is of particular importance now that Joe Mauer's ailments are forcing Drew Butera's terrible bat into the lineup on a more frequent basis. Being without Morneau's outstanding (and expensive) bat for the remainder of the season would be devastating. I don't even want to think about the complications that could arise if the issues stretch beyond September.

Hopefully, Morneau can eventually put this injury behind him return to the lineup at full strength down the stretch. The Twins will need him.

But, however long the recovery takes, please (PLEASE) don't accuse the Twins' first baseman of being "soft." Concussions are nasty business.


Emily said...

Nice analysis, Nick...especially summary. And when you think about recent policy changes in the NFL in regard to concussions, it's even more critical that players take good care of themselves. Even the nation's largest professional organization of neurologists (based right here in St. Paul) is glad to see what the NFL is doing:


Dan Cook said...

I've been having the same kind of anxieties over the Morneau situation lately.

When I think about it, I can't help but compare it to the Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard. A couple of bad hits, and the guy hasn't been the same since. He missed all but what - 6 games last season?

You're dead-on though. It's not something he can play his way through. He's got to rest and get himself 100% right before he can even consider coming back.

Get well soon, Justin!

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I have STRONG doubts Morneau will play again this year. Head injuries of this nature tend to have a way of healing quickly, or lingering for long periods of time. There never seems to be an in between. As you can tell with Justin, this is no longer healing quickly. It wouldn't shock me to see him go on the inactive list within two weaks.

TheJazzyOne said...

Hopefully Morneau can shake this off soon. The Twins hit just fine against KC and Seattle without him, but it's been pretty evident the last couple days that when they start playing better teams they need to have their good hitters on the field.

Ed Bast said...

"...it's been pretty evident the last couple days that when they start playing better teams they need to have their good hitters on the field."


Please tell that to Ron Gardenhire. Why in the world was Trevor Plouffe starting last night's game? Probably didn't cost us the game, but it's just a terribly baffling decision.

Matt said...

Cuddy has filled in well, but one thing besides the plate discipline that Nick mentioned has been Morneau's much improved defense. He looked awesome at first this year, and even though Cuddy is doing an admirable job at several positions this year, he's not as slick as Justin over at first. This weakens our defense, too.
In any case, let's hope for Justin to feel better for himself and hopefully salvage this otherwise excellent year for him, and wish he and his family the best if it indeed drags out for a long time.

fenring said...

It's just natural for a Canadian to feel a little woozy when their brain finally thaws out.

Robert said...

Here is a link to a great slide show explanation of why a blow to the head causes the concussion symptoms we observe, and why it takes a long time to reverse those causes. I can even, mostly, understand it.


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