Patrick Reusse has been covering sports in the Twin Cities since 1968. He has been a Star Tribune sports columnist since 1988. His sportswriting credo is twofold: 1. God will provide an angle; 2. The smaller the ball, the better the writing.


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Concussions will change catching in MLB

Posted by: Patrick Reusse Updated: August 21, 2013 - 2:46 PM

We're fewer than five years into full-blown concussion paranoia with athletics in this country. The majority of the focus has been on football.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell keeps stealing players' money in an attempt to have them think twice about hitting opponents with extra force. Now, college football has decided to empower its officials to throw players out of the game any time they see a questionable hit.

The job description for many college officials is to be both power mad and mediocre at their task, so this has a chance to turn into a complete fiasco. Allegedly, there were 99 penalties called in big-time college football in 2012 that could have led to an ejection under 2013 rules. I'm predicting more than 250 such penalties once these egomaniacs try to start outdoing one another in throwing players out of a game.

There wasn't even conversation about concussions in baseball until 2006. San Francisco catcher Mike Matheny played his last game on May 31 due to ongoing concussion symptoms. Milwaukee third baseman Corey Koskie played his last game on July 5 for the same reason.

Matheny's problem was caused by repeated foul tips to the mask. He retired in February 2007. Koskie's problem was caused as he fell pursuing a pop fly and his head snapped back. He was with the Cubs in spring training in 2009, played in three games with five at-bats, and then retired that March.

The Koskie situation hit home in Minnesota, since he played seven of his nine seasons with the Twins. It wasn't until July 7, 2010, when the local sporting public became fully engaged in the uncertainty of an athlete's recovery from a concussion.

On that day in Toronto, the hot-hitting Justin Morneau was kneed in the face while sliding into second base. He missed the final 78 games of the 2010 season. He returned for the start of the 2011 season, played until early June, and then missed 55 games after undergoing neck surgery unrelated to the concussion.

Morneau returned to the lineup on Aug. 12, dove for a ball a couple weeks later, and started feeling some of those post-concussion symptoms. He missed the final 29 games of that disastrous season for the Twins.

On Tuesday, Morneau had a big night in Detroit -- a home run, double and four RBI -- in the Twins' upset victory over the Tigers. There have been a number of nights like this for Morneau in 2013, but not enough for the Twins to try to extend his expiring contract, or for a contending team to make the Twins what they consider a reasonable offer for his stretch-drive services.

As Morneau was producing a big game, the chances of him being back in Minnesota next season were likely reduced by the major event with the Twins on Tuesday night:

Joe Mauer was scheduled to play first base. He felt dizziness during the mild activity of the pregame workout. He was pulled from the lineup. Post-game, the Twins announced that Mauer was being placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list that baseball has instituted. He will fly back to Minnesota when doctors consider it feasible.

I have been saying to colleagues, newspaper and radio, for a couple of years that if and when PEDs get to the backburner, the next big crisis in baseball is going to be catcher's concussions.

Baseball can't make the cosmetic P.R. moves we're seeing from Goodell and in college football. You can't play the game without a catcher. You can't play the game without ferocious foul tips that hit catchers in a collarbone, in a groin, on a foot ... and most dangerously, in head-shaking blows to the mask.

They can talk about new masks suited to cushion the blow, but the head still is going to rock.

That's what happened to Mauer on Monday at Target Field, a shot to the mask that rocked his head.

That's what has seemed to happen to Mauer more than ever this season -- even as he's had a great comeback as a defensive catcher after his mediocre work behind the plate in 2012.

You're seeing the concussion problems all over the big leagues. Kansas City's tremendous young catcher, Salvador Perez, missed time. He's tall, like Mauer, and does that make them more likely targets for those quick blasts to the mask?

Probably not. It's probably only part of the concussion crisis that is just starting to gain momentum.

I don't think hitters of Joe Mauer's excellence are going to make it through a team's minor league system as a catcher. I think they will be switched to another position before they get to the big leagues.

Players of great promise have been moved from catcher through the years -- Craig Biggio being a prime example.

Bryce Harper fancied himself as a catcher for a time as an amateur. Johnny Bench and Joe Torre moved to third base later in their careers.

The reason for the position change was because of the  "wear and tear'' of the catching position. The reason from now on for big prospects being switched early in the minors will be the fear of concussions.

Two things I believe:

*Joe Mauer will be the Twins' first baseman in 2014, which means Morneau will be elsewhere.

*Catcher will become primarily a defensive position in baseball's near future. There will be a handful of interchangeable players in the majors and the top levels of a team's minor leagues who are arriving, departing and can be found hitting at the bottom of the order.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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