Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE

Justin Morneau’s Uphill Battle


A concussion is a traumatic brain injury often resulting in a bad headache, altered alertness, and in some cases a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome is a complex disorder in which a variable combination of post-concussion symptoms, including headaches and dizziness, last for weeks and sometimes months after the injury that caused the concussion.* These are two very different diagnoses. Of course, the latter is a result of the former, but those who experience a concussion are not always destined for post-concussion syndrome. Justin Morneau‘s is one of those unfortunate exceptions.

*These definitions come courtesy of the Mayo Clinic – I assure you, I do not simply memorize medical definitions in my spare time. 

A knee to the head by then Blue Jays shortstop John MacDonald in 2010 left Morneau with a concussion. A normal baseball play, a common sports injury. However, this injury was far from common in Morneau’s case. The concussion in 2010 cost him the rest of the season. The resulting post-concussion syndrome cost him most of 2011.

Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Now, as spring training starts, a fresh season on the horizon, Morneau feels good, but the questions linger.  He was one one of the best players in the league.  He went to four straight All-Star games and was league MVP in 2006.  He has two silver sluggers to his name, five 20-plus home run seasons, and has had an OPS+ under 100 just three times in nine seasons.  Morneau was a big part of why the Twins defied most odds and reached the postseason four times since 2003.  And his absence was a big reason why the Twins finished last in the American League Central last season.

Injuries of the brain are so much more difficult to overcome than those involving bones or ligaments or joints.  Muscles tears can be sewn, bones can be healed, sprains can be iced.  Concussions require rest and a certain amount of luck.  Some players get knocked around and suffer multiple concussions without ever feeling any post-concussion ill affects.  Others, like Morneau, get a solid lick, and they struggle to overcome the affects for years.  Drew Cumberland of the Padres comes to mind quickest.  He suffered multiple concussions as an amateur and a minor leaguer.  Then, last season he was diagnosed with an inner ear disorder resulting partially from the numerous concussion.  The issue caused him to retire before he ever reached his full potential.  Luckily, he has since found a treatment that allows him to return to baseball.  Hopefully, rehabilitation and a little luck will allow Morneau to return to form as well.

With Joe Mauer looking to bounce back this season, the Twins reeling after a season they’d like to forget, and the Tigers suddenly getting much better – at least on paper, Just Morneau’s return is of critical importance to Minnesota.  But beyond that, it’s important to Morneau.

Morneau recently spoke to the Associated Press about his recovery and his return to baseball.

That’s the reality of the whole thing. I’m obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point where you can only torture yourself for so long.

It’s [baseball] something I love to do but you keep preparing and you keep being left out, that’s something that nobody wants to go through. Obviously it’s been a tough winter that way. I try not to think about that kind of stuff. Obviously it’s crossed my mind and it’s something I’ve had to think about, but when that stuff comes into my mind, I continue to look for something positive, and look how far I’ve come in the last week or in the last month and just hope it continues to go well.

These are not the words of a confident man.  These are the words of a defeated man.  And who can blame him?  With nearly two years under his belt since the knee to his head changed his career forever, Morneau is no more certain about his future now than when he was first concussed.  No more certain now than when he tried to return last season.

However, if he can return to form – or anywhere close to form, the Twins will be in much better shape going forward.  Last season, most hope, was an anomaly.  The Twins are generally a likable team, and many were surprised by their sudden fall.  Injuries were clearly the reason, and if Morneau can return and contribute, the team should be competitive.

Morneau has been worth 19.5 wins in his 9 year career, or 2.16 wins per year.  And that includes his negative 1.1 win performance last year thanks to the injury.  In no uncertain terms, this is a make or break year for Morneau.  He can’t afford another season of ups and downs.  He can’t afford another negative WAR performance.  The Twins can’t afford these things either.  At $15 million per year, they need more from Morneau, and he knows it.

Well, I don’t think there will be a career if it’s something I’m dealing with.  That’s the reality of the whole thing. I’m obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point where you can only torture yourself for so long.

Any baseball fan is rooting for Morneau.  He is one of the game’s best, dealing with an injury that no one truly understands.  The brain is a mystery, even to doctors.  If this is his last shot to return and contribute, he has to be one of the biggest story lines of the 2012 season.  Will and MVP-caliber career be cut short by one simple play in 2010?  Will the four-time All-Star first basemen out of British Columbia be able to stave off the dizziness and headaches?  Will we be able to enjoy the flashes of power, average, and on-base percentage Morneau was known for during his career?  2012 holds the answer, and for now, all anyone can do is wait and hope.

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