Concussion fears real for Justin Morneau

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Justin Morneau was one of the top first basemen in the game, winning the 2006 MVP with Minnesota and making the All-Star team the next four seasons. Then he suffered a concussion in July 2010 when he struck his head on Toronto infielder John McDonald’s knee while sliding into second base.

Morneau missed the rest of the season and much of the next while dealing with concussion-related symptoms and other injuries. His career tailed off so significantly that in spring training 2012, he said that he would retire if concussion symptoms returned.

Fortunately, Morneau got better and returned close to his old form last year, hitting .319 with the Colorado Rockies to lead the National League in batting. There is no retirement talk this spring and Morneau says everything is good, but that isn’t to say the concussion issue will ever go away completely.

“It’s something that will always be with me," he said. “I look at it like a pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery -- every time he throws or his elbow gets sore or something happens, you’re going to go back to that. I just needed time to build confidence on it. The further away you get from it, the better you feel. But it’s one of those things that will never ever be out of my mind or be completely gone. That’s the reality of the situation.

“But you know what? I feel good today and am able to go out and compete, and that’s all I can ever ask for."

Concussions are not nearly as prevalent in baseball as in football. According to the Baseball Prospectus injury data base, there were 175 entries for concussions from 2001 to 2013 in baseball, a tiny fraction of the number in the NFL. Baseball does take the injury seriously, requiring players with concussions go on a seven-day disabled list and not return until all symptoms are gone and the player has been cleared by a doctor.

“I think it’s so much more rare in our sport [than football], when it happens there’s more attention paid to it," Morneau said. “I don’t know what the actual numbers are but it’s a lot more common in football. It’s just one of those things that happens and everyone knows is one of the hazards that can happen every game, that it’s a strong possibility.

“Whereas with us, it’s something that while you know the dangers, at the same time there might be one concussion a year per team and probably less than that. When it happens, you’re able to pay a lot more attention to it."

The Twins traded Morneau to the Pirates late in the 2013 season and he signed with the Rockies last year. In addition to leading the league in batting average, he had a .496 slugging percentage and an .860 OPS, along with 17 home runs. He says his return has been about being able to consistently prepare for the game rather than concentrate on rehabbing injuries.

“It’s been nice to go out there and play and work the way I want to work and prepare the way I want to prepare," Morneau said. “It’s been fun to just kind of start over and be part of a team that’s moving forward and be part of a lineup.

“People don’t understand. Confidence comes from preparation -- it doesn’t come from result. If you wait for result to have confidence, then you’ll never have confidence. You have to be able to put the work in during the offseason instead of just doing rehab."