For Morneau and Bay, fog of concussions is slowly lifting
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- By all indications, Justin Morneau's batting practice session is a typical spring scene: Morneau is taking cuts and the sound of ball meeting bat slices through the morning silence at Hammond Stadium, the Minnesota Twins' spring training home.
Twins legends Tony Oliva and Harmon Killebrew watch as they lean on the back of the cage. Morneau sends a drive over first base. "I like it, hit hard,'' Oliva says. "Knock that first baseman over when they come inside.''
A few pitches later, Morneau's line drive disappears over the rightfield fence and Killebrew grins. "Gone,'' The Killer says. "Beautiful. Beautiful swing.''
Maybe, but while Morneau is back on the field, looks can deceive.
Last July 7, Morneau, 29, suffered a life-altering and season-ending concussion while sliding into second base in Toronto, and the Twins aren't sure when their four-time All-Star and former American League MVP will be ready to play when Minnesota opens its season back in Toronto on April 1.
The Twins and Morneau are taking his recovery slowly. The team isn't going to rush Morneau, saying that stress will hinder his chances to return. Doctors tell him that as long as he's completely healed from a concussion, he is not susceptible to another.
"We're taking our time,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire says. "When he's ready, we want him to be completely ready with no questions.''
There are signs of progress. Last week, Morneau passed the latest test, playing two consecutive days, with a day game after a night game. Monday, Morneau was the DH in a minor league game, starting on what he hopes is another benchmark, playing in three consecutive games. Morneau will be in another minor league game Tuesday and is scheduled to be in the Twins' lineup Wednesday vs. the Baltimore Orioles.
"I'm going to play in three consecutive games, take a day off and see,'' Morneau says. "Then, I will try four consecutive days, take a day off and see. I have to get to the point where I can make 10 or 12 in a row.
"It's better to miss a couple of weeks in April and be strong for the entire season, and I hope, for this team, in October. I don't know when the right time will be. I know I will be completely over it when I can go out there and not think about it.''
His teammates are pulling for that day to arrive.
"Justin has overcome a lot just to get where he's at, because when you are dealing with a head injury, that's tough,'' Twins outfielder Denard Span says. "But, it's so good to have him back. Our whole team has more swagger with him around. We all have extra bounce in our step because we have one of our MVPs back. We're all pulling for him.''
Morneau has been getting support from two fellow Canadians who've experienced their own problems with concussions, outfielder Jason Bay of the New York Mets, and infielder Corey Koskie, a former Twin whose concussion ended his career.
"I told him, 'Don't do anything stupid, and listen to your doctor,''' says Koskie, who suffered a concussion July 5, 2006, going after a looping pop while playing for the Milwaukee Brewers.
Koskie stopped playing, and from that point on, he worked out every day in an attempt to come back. But after each work out he'd have pain with headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and numbness in his face. At times, he'd have to leave his son's hockey games because the arena lights would trigger the symptoms.
"The workouts were like constantly re-opening a scab,'' Koskie says. "I felt like I was drunk for 2 ½ years. I was always in this foggy state.''
He said that his depth perception was constantly jumbled, and, "I lost a couple of mirrors backing out my vehicle. They'd get clipped off on the side of my garage because I didn't have good depth perception.''
Koskie, who finished with a .275 average and 124 home runs, never played another game. A few years later, after the Brewers released him, he went to spring training with the Chicago Cubs. But the symptoms re-emerged. He decided to retire to be with family.
"I had a setback after I dove for a ball,'' Koskie says. "I said to myself, 'What am I doing?' The team doctors asked that question. There's more to life than professional baseball. I was tired of working out and feeling sick all the time.''
Bay's concussion happened last season when he ran into an outfield wall at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium on July 23. He played two more games and then sat out the rest of the season. He didn't start feeling better until October.
"The No. 1 thing I learned is that concussions are unpredictable and no two concussions are alike,'' Bay says. "The frustrating part is that it is a condition that can't be determined by an MRI. It's how about you feel.''
Bay had headaches for weeks when the back of his skull wound pound non-stop, "like your scalp is alive with vibrations.'' For the first few weeks, he couldn't do anything. He couldn't play with his kids, read, work on the computer or watch TV.
"All I could do was listen to the TV,'' Bay says. "I was lying around the house, like a bump on a log. My kids didn't understand. They wanted to play. I'd focus on the headache, and it made it worse. And that's the problem. There's nothing you can do. You're supposed to do something to take your mind off it, but every time you thought about it, it got worse.''
Bay's first benchmark toward health was to go two days without a headache. When the headaches subsided, he began doing light workouts, starting with five minutes on the bicycle and working his way up.
The concussion has not affected Bay's aggressiveness this spring. He ran into a wall going after a fly ball against the Boston Red Sox in a Grapefruit League game, and he made a sliding attempt at one ball.
"It was a freak accident,'' Bay says. "I have run into the wall a hundred times, so I'm not worried about it happening again.''
Morneau, a left-handed batter, was hitting .345 with 18 home runs and 56 RBI in 81 games and planning to start his first All-Star Game when he slid into second base and took a knee to the head from the Blue Jays' John McDonald.
"It was a common play that happens five or six times a game,'' Morneau says.
But Morneau's slide changed his life. He said the brain injury caused his thought process to slow down. For example, he said that if a ball were coming at him in a game of catch, he could see the ball coming, but before he could react and get his glove out to catch the ball, it would already have whizzed by him.
The concussion caused Morneau to miss the Twins' postseason and possibly a chance at winning a second AL MVP. In September, Morneau and his wife, Krista, enjoyed the birth of their first daughter, Evelyn. Bay also has a daughter named Evelyn.
"The fogginess is the hardest symptom to get rid of,'' Morneau says. "It's the last one to go. It takes patience, a lot of patience.''
Morneau wants to be like Bay, and get back on the field because he loves baseball and he wants to help the Twins win the World Series. But he also relates to Koskie and knows there is more to life than baseball.
"This is frustrating, and it's difficult to deal with every day, but there are a lot of people that are worse off than me,'' Morneau says. "There are people who are risking their lives fighting a war. I'm just trying to play a game that I love.''