Concussion symptoms force Matheny to retire

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Matheny's decision to retire was made for him. His doctor refused to clear the longtime catcher to play in 2007 after a concussion sidelined him for the final four months of last season.

Matheny's announcement Thursday that he is hanging up his catching gear after 13 major-league seasons came as no surprise. He didn't play again for the San Francisco Giants after May 31 following a series of foul tips he took in the mask -- and doctors warned him that he was more susceptible to even further damage if he received another blow.

"This is not a shoulder, a knee or an elbow," Matheny said on a conference call. "We're talking about the brain. ... I didn't expect this. I don't think anybody did."

In early December, Matheny underwent another extensive battery of tests at the Sports Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to determine if his symptoms had subsided. They had not. He said that on Dec. 28 he tried to exercise and after his heart rate had been elevated he experienced the same troublesome symptoms for a day and a half, such as fatigue, memory problems and a tough time focusing and seeing straight.

The 36-year-old Matheny played his last full season in 2005, his first year with San Francisco, and earned his fourth NL Gold Glove award. He owns a .239 career batting average with 67 home runs and 443 RBIs in 1,305 games for Milwaukee (1994-98), Toronto (1999), St. Louis (2000-04) and the Giants (2005-06).

Matheny is known as a fierce competitor who was often the first to show up at the stadium during spring training, sometimes at 6 a.m. He will miss his relationship with pitchers the most.

"As my catcher and as a person he just meant so much to me," said Giants pitcher Matt Morris, who also threw to Matheny in St. Louis. "On the field he taught me how to be a professional. Off the field he taught me to be a man and a respectful person. He's going to be sorely missed by everybody.

"Unfortunately through his head trauma and concussions, it's just ending a little abruptly to him. He was a guy so hard-nosed and he wanted to play every day, so for it to end this way is unfortunate. After the blows to the head, he wasn't the same. We want the old Mike Matheny back, baseball player or not," he said.

Now, Matheny will spend more time at home with his wife and their five children.

"It's been a fun ride," he said. "The finality of it just kind of hit today as I was signing the papers. I have been blessed beyond what I could have imagined. For me it's all been kind of a fantasy ride the whole time."

When the Giants acquired Bengie Molina during the winter meetings in December, general manager Brian Sabean said he had spoken to Matheny.

Matheny told Sabean he understood the team had to move forward with its plans for next year, with or without him.

Sabean said at the time that it made him "sick to my stomach" to replace Matheny, but San Francisco did get a front-line catcher in Molina.

"I think it's safe to say while we knew this day was going to come, you're never really prepared for the finality of it all," Sabean said Thursday. "We wish him the best. We're going to sorely miss him as an individual and as a baseball player."

Athletes sustain an estimated 300,000 concussions nationwide each year, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's concussion program. Most recover fully, but experts believe a person who suffers a concussion is more prone to one in the future.

The concussion center in Pittsburgh developed a computerized test called ImPACT that puts the brain to work and derives data about points of trauma -- measuring attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time.

Matheny hopes his case shows that concussions happen in baseball, too, and such testing could be beneficial.

"I think all of baseball is going to learn from it," Sabean said.

Matheny plans to take it easy and has promised his family he will give himself time to heal. Doctors have told him it could still be six or nine months until he's fully recovered.

"I know Little League is probably going to be my arena right now," he said.