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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.