The Troubling Case of Justin Morneau

Justin Morneau‘s frustrating season is officially over.

After a number of nagging injuries to its first baseman, the Minnesota Twins decided to shut down its former All-Star for the remainder of the year. Though Morneau struggled through a number of injuries this season, he admitted he never fully recovered from a concussion that he suffered July 7, 2010, when he got kneed in the head while trying to break up a double play. The injury cost him 78 games, destroyed his season and perhaps led up to the moment last month when he said he again began feeling concussion-like symptoms — this time after diving for a ball but not hitting his head. “That’s kind of what makes this whole thing scary,” Morneau told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It’s a simple play — diving for a ball — that brought this stuff back again.”

Now the 30-year-old will be back to square one heading into 2012 — and perhaps so will the Twins and Major League Baseball.

Morneau started for Minnesota on Opening Day this year, but he struggled mightily in his return to the lineup. A homer-less April was a harbinger of things to come for Morneau — who stumbled to a .227/.285/.333 slash line in 288 plate appearances over 69 games. Add to the concussion symptoms a strained wrist and neck surgery and you have what Morneau has called a “year to forget.”

Morneau’s inability to recover from his concussion is troubling for the Twins, but it also presents a major problem for MLB. While league officials have been proactive with head injuries — instituting a seven-day disabled list this year that’s specifically designated for traumatic brain injuries — concussions are a significant problem for many baseball players. The Twins certainly are aware of these issues: Former Twin Corey Koskie went through a similar situation when he was with the team Milwaukee Brewers and was forced to retire. Mike Matheny also retired for similar reasons. Now with Morneau’s situation, the Twins — and MLB in general — might need to be even more proactive when it comes to concussions.

The implementation of the seven-day DL is not not enough. While the DL move — which requires neurological testing — is a step in the right direction, it seems like too little time to accurately judge whether a player is fit to return to action. Players easily can be transferred to the 15-day DL if they fail to recover in time, but might the seven-day DL put more pressure on teams and their players to rush back from head injuries?

Brain injuries affect each person differently, meaning there’s no single solution on how to effectively treat concussions. Case in point is Morneau, who clearly hadn’t fully recovered from his 2010 concussion (his second recorded TBI in the majors prior to his August injury) and perhaps now is even more susceptible to head injuries. But for every Morneau, there’s a Jason Bay, who remained symptom-free after suffering a concussion around the same time last year as the Twins’ slugger. Despite the difference in recoveries, one thing is certain: As we learn more about the effects that concussions have on the human body, it’s clear that these injuries need to be handled carefully.

And it’s important that MLB adapt a strategy to ensure that its players receive proper treatment before returning to the field. Major League Baseball has shown a willingness to combat concussions; let’s hope the league will continue to show a willingness to further evolve as more information about these injuries comes to light.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


20 Responses to “The Troubling Case of Justin Morneau”

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  1. Joe says:

    Koskie was with the Brewers when he suffered from a concussion that ended his career.

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  2. CircleChange11 says:

    Now with Morneau’s situation, the Twins — and MLB in general — might need to be even more proactive when it comes to concussions.

    Not necessarily. Individuals vary in their tolerance levels and resistance of various aspects (Note: You say the same thing later on). It is possible that Justin Morneau is at the very extreme end of “intolerance” in regards to head trauma.

    I’ve said this before but on the very same night that David Wright was beaned in the head and suffered a major concussion, Ian Kinsler was drilled in the side of the head, spun around, and jogged to first.

    I recall it vividly, because it’s a great example of how two players, and possibly their environments, tolerated a similar situation.

    The implementation of the seven-day DL is not not enough. While the DL move — which requires neurological testing — is a step in the right direction, it seems like too little time to accurately judge whether a player is fit to return to action.

    Based on what? I’m asking legitimately, not just razzing. 7-days may “seem” like too little time, but why?

    Brain injuries affect each person differently, meaning there’s no single solution on how to effectively treat concussions.

    Agreed. But, then most offer a single (often mandatory) solution.

    This is where I kind of diverge from societal norms. I view laws and policies as a means of protecting individual freedoms, not necessarily protecting individuals from themselves (same thing with society).

    We’re talking about athletes, a highly talented and ultra competitive group of men that are most often very singularly skilled. Playing their sport is what they do, what they’ve always done, and very often the only thing they are really good at (for various reasons). I’m not at all suggesting that we go back to the days where athletes are deprived of water during practice, or concussions are treated with a headslap to get the eyes looking in the same direction or anything of the sort.

    We’re basically looking at a situation and trying to determine whether an organization can decide whether a player can play based on criteria other than what the player wants to do. Protecting a player against his own desires or the wishes of his peers or the requests of his boss might not need to be the domain of a professional organization.

    I think the player should be presented with options … options that he is legally allowed to exercise, and decide what he wants to do based on his individual desire.

    For example, if an athlete decided that the headaches were worth the risk of continued playing and the player performed as desired, despite showing side effects of the concussion, would we really consider manadatory rest time?

    We allow athletes to play with a whole host of risky ailments. It’s the nature of the beast. Concussions present a new issue in that they deal with the brain, can lead to worse things including death. It is different that pitching with pain in the elbow or taking cortisone shots for a bludging disk.

    But, in a case like Morneau, where any jarring of the head might bring back debilitating symptoms, there might not be any policy that “helps him”.

    This is a very complex situation. Here in Northern Illinois, the situations of Bob Probert (encelapothy) and Dave Duerson (suicide; brain problems), are still in the minds of sports fans.

    Everything in sports in faster and harder, so I think the problem is going to continue to be pronounced. I’m not sure what the right answer is.

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    • RC says:

      “. Protecting a player against his own desires or the wishes of his peers or the requests of his boss might not need to be the domain of a professional organization.”

      The problem with this attitude is that head injuries specifically affect a player’s judgment. Its kind of like arguing that a guy who is wasted has good enough judgement to decide whether or not he can drive.

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    • I agree with your take.

      I only think that if players are allowed to play, they will play, because of pressure from teammates, sportswriters, coaches, etc. Even if these people aren’t literally encouraging them to play through it, players who have a reputation for playing through injuries are idolized. Micheal Cuddyer is going to make twice what he’s worth the next few seasons, and this reputation is one of the big reasons.

      Personally, I think the mandatory 7 days is a good compromise between the two viewpoints.

      Other than that, the focus should be on getting the most information possible out to the players, coaches, and fans.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I think athletes will play, because that’s what athletes do.

        Athletes will play because that’s their whole purpose … to be on the field. Fear of losing one’s job to another player is likely greater than peer pressure.

        I guess what I am saying is that I’m doubtful that we can always prevent an athlete from suffering effects, particularly when it’s so grey area. I also don’t think, inherently, that it’s someone else’s job to protect an athlete from his own desires. I think, in the end, it’s up to Hank Gathers whether he plays basketball or not, y’know. I think a lot of regular folks are conservative by nature … os they’re goal is to live a long life, albeit uneventful. The athletes has an opposite mindset … better to be great now. Caution and success rarely hold hands in the sproting world.

        IMO, that would be next to impossible to demonstrate that concussions significantly and negatively affect an athlete’s judgement in regards to his own well being due to the nature of athletes … which is to always (or at least very often) choose the reward over the risk. Almost all athletes will play hurt, for various reasons, with the primary one being they want to play because theyir whole value, love, and self-worth is wrapped up in being a good athlete (and macho).

        They play now, because the chances for ultimate success are so few and far between, their career is limited in length, the prime years so narrow compared to other fields, their earning power is small … and well, there’s All-American Johnnie waiting to take their job if they are given the chance. That’s the nature of sports.

        I still recall the amount of negative things said about Eric Lindros when he started experienced multiple concussions in a very short period of time. He was called everything from a p—y to a b–ch. Sidney Crosby is lucky this is not the 1950s.

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  3. adohaj says:

    It is a shame that he suffered the concussion. He was well on his way to a second MVP in 2010 .345/.437/.618 With a 9.8 UZR

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  4. grandbranyan says:

    I wonder if years of youth hockey could make one more susceptible to concussion or at least be a contributing factor in the case(s) of Morneau and Koskie.

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  5. Jeff Zimmerman says:

    The other major with Morneau is that the one in 2010 was the second major one of his career.

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  6. AndyS says:

    I’m confused…the seven day DL is not enough…so we should…add more days? Which we already have in the 15 day?

    I thought the whole point of the seven day DL is to encourage teams to put their players on the DL as opposed to having them fight through day to day.

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  7. bill says:

    Like Koskie, Morneau had suffered previous concussions playing hockey, at least 5 in total. It seems there’s a turning point after x concussions where you have to throw the idea of “recovery” out the window and focus on protecting your basic quality of life. He should probably retire.

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  8. Llewdor says:

    We’re getting enough data points, I think, to start drawing conclusions about concussions. Specifically, that Canadian players are more likely to suffer lingering effects.

    I blame minor hockey.

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  9. caseyB says:

    “But for every Morneau, there’s a Jason Bay, who remained symptom-free after suffering a concussion around the same time last year…”

    This requires some clarification I think. Someone could read that and conclude Bay was symptom-free shortly after incurring his concussion. But in fact he was out for the remainder of the season (over 2 months) and was bothered by symptoms long after his initial injury at the end of July in 2010.

    It’s true that Bay has eventually recovered more quickly than Morneau, but his injury initially and long after was just as serious.

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  10. Davor says:

    Every concussion increases the risks and consequences of the next one. That’s why hockey players and former hockey players are at greater risk than most other athletes.
    7-day DL should be adequate. The key is to get player to specialist as soon as possible. If specialist determines that after 7 days player can play again (usually meaning that he is symptom-free for at least 3 days), he is almost certainly safe. If he still has symptoms, doctor won’t clear him to play and he goes to 15-day or 60-day DL.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Every concussion increases the risks and consequences of the next one.

      That’s the scary part.

      What makes it worse for hockey is that the eyes must be up to see the players, but also must glance down from time to time to see the puck. No one is good enough at stick handling to never drop their eyes … and the players are in contact with the puck in more situations that the athletes in other sports.

      Any sport that deals with velocity issues is going to have risks of concussions. Hockey is a very fast game.

      That is what intrigues me about the NFL. They keep changing the helmets for added safety and the result is that the players just keep using the helmet as a weapon. “Tackling” to some players is tucking your chin and putting your helmet in their facemask/head/chin.

      I think the next step baseball needs to make is to turn the front of home plate (second base side) into a “catcher’s crease” (like hockey) where the catcher must stand on plays at the plate, and the runners cannot make contact with the catcher while he’s in the crease.

      Concussions occur most often when a player is contacted when their attention is elsewhere and cannot brace for impact. We see it in hockey when the eyes shift to the puck, in football when receivers are tracking the ball, and in baseball when catchers are attempting to catch a throw from another defender (and batters that are beaned in the head). In regards to concussions, catchers are to baseball what quarterbacks are to football … they’re the player that’s put in defenseless situations most often.

      In all of these situations, the player is deemed “defenseless”, regardless of equipment worn, because they cannot simultaneously complete the athletic task and brace for contact.

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      • bill says:

        That’s an interesting suggestion, although truth be told baseball is not nearly as risky concussion-wise as hockey or football.

        What about 2nd base? After all, Morneau’s last concussion occurred breaking up a double play.

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