Morneau starring again as MLB confronts concussion problem
DENVER -- On these late spring nights, with the still snow-capped Rocky Mountains looming past the leftfield wall of Coors Field, baseball watches a ghost.
He's a cartoon-perfect athlete: tall, muscled, eyes locked, blonde curls peeking out from the back of his batting helmet. The ghost sometimes appears before games, before batting practice -- just him, a pitcher and the grounds crew on the field -- hitting, hitting, hitting. You'll see him stretch, see him jog, but only when the lights are on and the crowd is roaring do you realize: this is no ghost. This is Justin Morneau in the flesh, hitting like he hit in 2006, when he won the American League MVP award with a .321 average, 34 home runs and 130 RBIs. This is the Morneau who made the Metrodome shudder, who prompted Twins fans to roar so loudly it's a wonder that old fabric roof didn't pop and deflate. He's hitting for power, driving in runs, holding down first base.
Morneau is doing all this for the Rockies, whom he has helped become one of the season's early surprises by regaining the form that made him a four-time All-Star before concussions sent his career sideways. He ranks in the National League's top 10 in RBIs (34), slugging percentage (.533) and total bases (105), has an .876 OPS and has played 54 of Colorado's first 56 games. He is a strong candidate to make it back to this year's All-Star Game, which will be held, appropriately, in Minnesota.
For much of the past four years, it seemed Morneau's talent had been lost for good. The trouble began on July 7, 2010. Morneau was off to the best start of his career, batting .345 and slugging .618 for a Twins team that was nine games over .500. In the eighth inning of a loss to Toronto, Morneau was sliding into second base when Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald, hoping to hurdle the 230 pounds of ballplayer rocketing his way and complete a double play, leaped to throw to first. The jump wasn't high enough, and McDonald's right knee connected with Morneau's helmet. Instead of getting up, Morneau curled into a ball on the base path. And when he finally removed his helmet and propped himself up onto his elbows, the look on his face was not just confused.
It was empty.
"The wind might have been knocked out of him," Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven suggested on the air.
In the days the followed, Morneau was diagnosed with a concussion. He sat out the rest of 2010 and returned for Opening Day of 2011, but even then, something was off. In just 69 games that season, Morneau batted .227, his worst mark since his rookie year in 2003. A diving attempt to field a ball on Aug. 28 set his brain rattling again, ending his season. He returned to play 134 games in 2012 and 152 in '13 but he batted just .256 over those three seasons with 40 home runs combined.
"What's most likely to happen in baseball is a concussion that goes onto post-concussion syndrome," say Dr. Robert Cantu, a sports concussion expert at the Boston University School of Medicine. "The symptoms don't clear up quickly....When you have post-concussion syndrome, when you're still symptomatic and still haven't completely healed, very commonly reaction times are slow [and] your eyes do not track with the same coordination and speed."
On Aug. 31, 2013, Minnesota traded Morneau to Pittsburgh. He was in the midst of his first completely healthy season since before the concussions, but his batting was still off, and the Twins weren't going to offer an extension as the 32-year-old's contract expired. A free agent after the Pirates' short playoff run, Morneau latched on with the Rockies, thanks to some heavy campaigning by former Minnesota teammate Michael Cuddyer -- "I was both the spokesman for the Rockies to him and for him to the Rockies," he says -- coupled with Colorado's hope to replace local legend Todd Helton with a veteran at first base.
In Morneau, Colorado got more than the leadership and experience it was hoping for. Before signing him, the Rockies noted his improved play last August, when he cracked nine home runs and drove in 21 runs. They also recognized that he played 19 more games than anyone on their squad last season. His health was returning, manager Walt Weiss believed. But it would have been impossible to predict his offensive resurgence.
Today, Morneau says he feels good -- as good as he has since that July evening in 2010. He doesn't overstate things, though, and laughs at the suggestion that he might be 100 percent -- which he hasn't been since his days playing junior hockey in Canada.
"(The concussions have) changed my perspective," he says. "I think I was always one of those people that looked forward to what's next. I don't think I was ever able to appreciate stuff as I was going along, and I've tried to slow it down and just enjoy every day. Some days aren't a lot of fun, but when you can go from being one of the best players in the game... and have it turn that quick, and you wonder if you're ever going to be able to play again, I think you're able to put [things] in perspective pretty easily."
Four years after the initial concussion, loud noises no longer make Morneau flinch. Sharp movements don't throw him off. Morneau's mind is clear in a way that it hasn't been in years. After hours of watching video from 2009 and '10 with Weiss and Rockies hitting coach Blake Doyle, he has tweaked his swing to look like that of a much younger version of himself. The aggressiveness and instinct the concussions sapped are back, and the man who took a .306 average into June is a far cry from the person who admitted during spring training in 2012 that if things didn't improve, he'd have to give up baseball for good.
"It's all due to the injury," Doyle says. "He struggled at times last year, and when you start struggling and questions start getting into your head, you start to make adjustments, and sometimes the adjustments aren't the adjustments you need to make."
Morneau has finally found room for introspection. A two-year contract has given him a measure of security, and despite his aversion to the spotlight, he's become less reticent about his experiences, although it's still hard to express the fog he was in during those two years.
"You feel like you're moving in slow motion, and any little thing can cause a headache, or cause you to feel (nauseated), or cause you to feel just like you're..." Morneau pauses, his brain struggling to explain its darkest hours. "I don't know, it's hard to put into words. It's almost like a hangover that never goes away.... You can do one thing one day and feel fine and do the same thing the next day and all of a sudden, it sets off something. It's a very frustrating process."
Cuddyer remembers how difficult it was to see a teammate so isolated.
"There would be times when he was at his house, not able to come to the field, and everybody was like, 'Where is he? Why can't he come and support us?'" Cuddyer recalls. "But he couldn't. Nobody can understand [what he went through]. As much as you try and be in his corner [as a teammate], you're still fighting that."
With concussions, there are no casts, no splints, not even Band-Aids. They're impossible to describe, difficult to diagnose, the murkiest of maladies -- which is precisely why Morneau's story matters. The more awareness around brain injuries the better, even if baseball is hardly the first sport that comes to mind when the c-word is evoked. Still, 18 players were put on the disabled list for concussions in 2013, 13 the season before. In December 2012, former major leaguer Ryan Freel committed suicide, and a year later studies on his brain revealed that he was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Freel was the first MLB player to be diagnosed with CTE, a progressive degenerative disease that's come to be synonymous with head trauma in contact sports like football and hockey and can only be diagnosed posthumously. Morneau's case, and stories similar to his, are hardly indicative of a looming CTE crisis in baseball -- the condition is most closely related to multiple concussive and subconcussive hits, rather than one or two major concussions -- but they do highlight the potential dangers.
"Guys are running into walls, colliding, even sliding into a base if they're going headfirst," Weiss says, adding that concussions weren't even a part of the conversation when he played in the majors from 1987-2000. "You hope that no one ever gets hit in the head with a pitch, but that does happen from time to time. You don't think of concussions in baseball, but when you sit down and really look at it, it makes sense."
Before the 2014 season, Major League Baseball voted to limit collisions at home plate, prohibiting base runners from initiating deliberate contact. The ruling comes as the league takes a closer look at all collisions, although home plate became a priority due to the higher incidences of head trauma in catchers. Baseball, it seems, is coming to realize that no matter how rare concussions might be, no player should have to go through what Morneau did, or struggle with the worries that still lurk in the back of his mind today.
Morneau's story, however, appears to be arcing toward a happy ending, a late-career renaissance fueled by a fresh start. There's little need to worry about long-term damage if Morneau has fully recovered, Cantu says. He's living pitch to pitch, out to out, appreciating the monotony that's so hard to love until it's taken away. Morneau was never one to seek change, and his injury brought the worst kind -- weeks away from the game, powerlessness, confusion. But eventually it brought him here, to Colorado, and to success he can no longer dream of taking for granted.
During his 11 seasons with the Twins, Morneau had a special batting practice routine. Each day, he'd get on base, and once he made it to third, he'd wait there for Joe Mauer, who hit behind him. As his good friend rounded the bags, Morneau remained at third, standing to the side to wave him home. It was unnecessary. It was routine. After so many years, it was the only way he knew how to do it.
And on a May afternoon at Coors Field, hours before the Rockies would lose to the Padres, there is Morneau, helmet atop head, just in case. He takes a few cracks, then advances: first base, second base, third ... home. There's no reason to stop anymore, no tradition to uphold. Maybe that's a little sad -- or maybe not, because it means he's is still rounding those bases, dusty cleats marking each one in case it's his last.