Add Justin Morneau to the list of baseball players whose careers have been compromised and then brought to a close due to concussions and their after-effects. The longtime Twins first baseman who made subsequent stops in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Colorado has retired to take a gig in the Twins’ front office, as a special assistant.
One of the best ballplayers Canada has ever produced, Morneau became the Twins’ regular first baseman halfway through 2004, after the Twins dealt incumbent Doug Mientkiewicz to the Red Sox. Mientkiewicz ended up catching the final out of the Red Sox’s stupefying 2004 run to their first World Series triumph since 1918, when he took closer Keith Foulke’s toss off Edgar Renteria’s grounder. The Twins had reason to believe Morneau would be part of a core taking them back to the Promised Land, too.
Morneau, catcher Joe Mauer, and pitcher Johan Santana anchored four American League Central division winners from 2004-2010. The bad news was their getting knocked out of the postseason in the division series all four times, three by the Yankees, one by the Athletics, and three by 3-0 sweeps. Morneau won a Most Valuable Player award in 2006; Mauer won the award in 2009; Santana won his second Cy Young Award in 2004.
2010 was also the season in which Morneau suffered the first concussion, the one that turned his career to the downslope to stay. On July 7, he suffered the injury sliding into base. It forced him to withdraw from the All-Star Game — he’d been voted a starter for the first time in his career — at a time when he led the American League in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. He ended up missing the rest of the season and the Twins’ division series. It was only the beginning of Morneau’s physical issues.
2011 — A flu in April, a sore wrist in June, missing much of June, all July, and part of August after pinched neck nerve surgery. A left shoulder injury in late August that produced concussion-like symptoms and put paid to that season.
2012 — Injury-free, but numbers not quite to his former standard: 19 home runs, 77 runs batted in. Before that first concussion, Morneau had a four-season spread of averaging 31 home runs and 117 RBI per 162 games.
2013 — Morneau was en route equaling 2012, which still wouldn’t have been his former production, when he was traded to the Pirates that August.
He finished 2013 in Pittsburgh and signed a two-year deal with the Rockies. The good news: Morneau won the National League batting championship for 2014. The bad news: Morneau suffered a second concussion, also on a diving play, and lost all but 49 games, with the Rockies declining a mutual contract option. He signed with the White Sox for 2016, but he suffered an early elbow injury and never quite recovered, posting his worst season at the plate since his 40-game debut with the Twins in 2003.
Despite playing in last year’s World Baseball Classic for Canada, Morneau wasn’t able to land another major league gig and decided at last it was time to call it a career.
It’s arguable that that first concussion ripped Morneau off the Hall of Fame track before he’d really settled onto it. But until it happened, Morneau matured into one of baseball’s best hitters and a slightly above league-average defender at first base. Morneau wasn’t the only Twin from those division-winning seasons to have a career compromised by concussion; Joe Mauer (who shared a home with Morneau during 2006) suffered one after struggling with knee and leg issues that began in 2011 — after he signed that eight-year extension that remains a record for a catcher — forcing him to move out from behind the plate and to first base, and he hasn’t been the player he was before the extension.
Mauer’s three batting titles as a catcher, his single season leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and the MVP he won that season despite not being the Twins’ best run producer down the stretch of that AL Central title drive, tended to cause people to overrate him. Morneau’s four-season stretch through 2009 was superior to any such stretch in Mauer’s career, and that’s allowing for Mauer playing a tougher defensive position.
But you don’t have to compare those two to realize what the first concussion did to Justin Morneau’s career. Brooklyn Dodgers legend Pistol Pete Reiser’s career was compromised by a concussion too many thanks to his bullheaded outfield play versus Ebbets Field’s partial concrete wall.
Generations later, Mets outfielder Jason Bay—formerly a fine power threat in Pittsburgh and Boston, and looking likewise in New York—ran into a wall on a play and suffered a concussion. Never the same again, he retired after one more try in Seattle. His Mets teammates and manager remembered a genuine competitor and hard worker, but fans too often forgot his compromise by concussion as his once-respected long ball power dissipated in the aftermath.
Reiser, Morneau, and Bay could be considered exceptions to the rule. No position in baseball is more concussion prone than Mauer’s. Ask John Jaso, now a free agent first baseman hoping for another major league contract. Jaso played first base after moving out from behind the plate for the same reason as Mauer—one concussion too many, and sometimes that amounts to just one. He’s played for the Blue Jays, the Rays, the Mariners, the Athletics, the Rays again, and the Pirates.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny became a former Cardinals catcher with Yadier Molina’s emergence. He moved to the San Francisco Giants, had one splendid season for them on a three-year deal, and took enough foul tips off his mask in a May 2006 game to cause a concussion. Playing career over, thanks to post concussion syndrome. He’s made a fine if sometimes controversial managing career, but he was a fine defensive catcher until those foul tips.
Jason LaRue is another former catcher whose career ended thanks to a concussion—incurred not behind the plate but when he took a spiked kick to his head from then-Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto. That happened during a nasty August 2010 brawl with the Cardinals, incited when Brandon Phillips—who’d trash talked the Cardinals to the press the night before—greeted Molina friendly like checking in at the plate and Molina barked at him.
The benches emptied but did little other than jaw until Reds third baseman Scott Rolen and Cardinals pitcher Chris Carpenter began beefing and tussling, triggering a backstop crowd of tussling Reds and Cardinals during which Cueto was pinned to the backstop and tried to kick his way out, catching LaRue’s head. LaRue had taken twenty concussions, almost, since his high school sports days. He retired to his Texas home and insists to this day he holds no grudge against Cueto.
David Ross — who finished his career with a bang, hitting a dramatic Game 7 home run en route the Cubs’ staggering World Series conquest in 2016—switched from the hockey-style catcher’s mask to the old cage mask to minimize the impact of foul tips that once caused him a concussion. Corey Koskie, himself a one-time Twin, ended his career after missing 2007 entirely following a 2006 concussion whose after-effects caused him to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome in the bargain. He tried one more time in spring 2009 but hung it up rather than risk further issues.
And Ryan Freel, once a happy-go-lucky outfielder, suffered concussions enough to end up with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — diagnosed only after his suicide in 2012, the first and so far only baseball player known to have had the condition, which may have contributed to the mental illness under which Freel shot himself to death.
A year before Freel’s suicide and after he ended his career, baseball implemented a concussion protocol that includes a seven-day disabled list minimum for players suffering concussions and medical affirmation even after the DL period before a concussed player can return to play. Major league teams are also required to designate physicians in their home cities who are mild traumatic brain injury specialists.
Baseball’s concussion issues aren’t even close to those known by the National Football League, but at least they can help manage players whose careers, if not their lives, are threatened by such injuries. Morneau may be one of the more fortunate ones. The compromise and end of his playing career is minuscule compared to the chance to live a productive life off the field.
This essay was first published in slightly different form by Sports-Central.org.