The Twins first baseman calls his battles with concussions ''torture.''
FORT MYERS, FLA. - Kent Hrbek, another Twins first baseman and cleanup hitter hampered by injuries during his career, watched from the dugout as Justin Morneau took batting practice.
Corey Koskie, another Canadian-born Twin whose career was altered by a concussion, spoke on the phone from Minnesota as Morneau took his swings.
On the day Morneau revealed doubt about his ability to overcome concussion symptoms, Hrbek articulated Morneau's fears, and Koskie embodied them.
"It's spooky,'' Hrbek said. "You can live with a hurt leg or arm after you're done playing. When you start messing with your coconut, it's a whole different story. He'd like to live past his 40s, if he could, and not be pushed around in a wheelchair because he screwed himself up.''
Injuries shortened Hrbek's career but did not damage his life. Koskie's injury ended his career and left him temporarily unable to drive, read, watch television or play with his children.
Friday morning, Morneau called his battle with concussion symptoms "torture'' and admitted he couldn't continue to play baseball if they persist. He also revealed that he stays in touch with Koskie, his old friend.
Koskie said he doesn't give Morneau medical advice but sympathizes with anyone trying to recover from the most mysterious and insidious injury in modern sports.
"There are psychological and emotional aspects of dealing with a concussion that are hard for people to understand,'' Koskie said. "You walk into a clubhouse and you sense all the second-guessing and side-eyeing.
"Your teammates look at you like, 'He seems fine, he doesn't have a cast, he can talk with us and laugh with us and hit the ball 500 feet -- so why can't he play?'
"There were even times when I was going through all of this when Justin said to me, 'Why can't you play?' Until you've walked a mile in his shoes you have no idea what he's going through.''
Friday morning, Morneau spoke quietly in front of his locker, looking so thin you wondered whether he had been ill. He said he dieted to reduce weight so he can avoid nagging injuries. For a man who averaged almost 30 home runs a year from 2006 to 2009, a loss of mass is ominous.
Morneau seems to accept the possibility that he will not recover, at least not enough to play baseball for a living. "I don't think there will be a career if it's something I'm dealing with,'' Morneau said. "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.''
Short of Joe Mauer complaining of knee pain, Morneau worrying about his career during his first day of spring training might have been the worst possible development for a 99-loss team hoping to dramatically improve by virtue of better health.
"He asks, 'How did you deal with this?'" Koskie said. "The difference between me and him is that Justin is an AL MVP and brings so much to the table. And he's at the peak of his career. I was at the tail end of my career and while I thought I was an asset to the team, I wasn't an asset like Justin Morneau.''
Koskie's cautionary tale of modern-day concussions has not led him to believe Morneau is done. It has led him to believe that no one knows what lies ahead.
"There are no two concussions that are the same,'' Koskie said. "You could wake up tomorrow and you're ready to go.
"He would get frustrated with the time it's taking, and he had his frustrations with the medical staff, and I would just ask, 'Are you better than you were three months ago?' He'd say, 'Yes.'
"'Are you better than you were three weeks ago?' He'd say, 'Yes.' So he is getting better.''
A concussion ended Koskie's career, but he recovered to live a fulfilling life. Friday, Morneau sounded like he would consider that a victory.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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