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Exactly five weeks after he last played in a game, the Minnesota Twins announced on Monday that Joe Mauer would be shut down for the remainder of the season. The decision has seemed obvious and inevitable ever since it was revealed the catcher was still suffering symptoms weeks after sustaining a concussion while behind the plate.
Ultimately, the incident will end up costing Mauer 39 games, or roughly a quarter of the season. In other words, this is a serious brain injury. The Twins have understandably tried to downplay the severity of the issue by insisting there have been no setbacks and stubbornly maintaining that he'd be back before season's end, but that's the reality we're facing.
And here's another reality we must face: Mauer's days of catching are done.
Despite major strides in recent years, we still don't know a whole lot about concussions. But here are a couple things we do know: they can be debilitating -- both professionally and personally -- and they are much more likely to be suffered by those with a history of having them before.
The risk of Mauer experiencing another blow may not have been quite so worrisome had August's incident proven to be relatively minor, but that's far from the case. Five weeks after his brain was shaken by the fateful foul tip, Mauer still has not engaged in any baseball activities and still reports symptoms such as sensitivity to light and noise.
Even if the complications clear up completely during the offseason and Mauer reports to spring training at 100 percent, there's still no way that a return to catching duties would be palatable. No position in baseball exposes the head to more frequent potential trauma than catcher, where batted balls to the mask and full-body collisions are part of the job description. Mauer is one of at least six backstops to be diagnosed with a concussion resulting from a foul tip this year, joining Detroit's Alex Avila, Kansas City's Salvador Perez, New York's Austin Romine, Houston's Carlos Corporan and Minnesota's own Ryan Doumit. If he ends up back at catcher, Mauer and Twins fans will live in a constant state of apprehension every time a ball is deflected back into his mask.
Of course, the risk doesn't disappear if Mauer switches positions. Justin Morneau notably re-triggered his concussion symptoms when he made a diving attempt for a ball at first base more than a year after his July 2010 injury. But clearly the danger is far greater behind the plate at the game's most punishing position, one which has been mostly responsible for Mauer missing an average of 44 games per season in his career.
Now, in fairness, I've been a proponent of moving Mauer away from catcher for two years, so I might be more predisposed to this conclusion than most. My original concern stemmed more from the condition of his legs than of his head, but these are both areas subjected to significant wear and tear.
We know all too well how concussions can linger and relapse almost at random. We've seen it up close with Morneau and from afar with Corey Koskie, Jason Bay, Brian Roberts and countless others. Mauer, who will be integral to any return to contention within the next handful of years, is already going to be a sensitive enough case. Even without accounting for the percentage of payroll they dedicate to him, how can the Twins justify putting him back at a position where he's essentially guaranteed to take a jarring hit to the mask every other game, and maybe worse?
I don't think they can, and with the precedent set by Morneau fresh in their minds, I suspect they know that. Posturing about the organization's intent to fulfill Mauer's wish of continuing to catch full-time is just that. He's too valuable to the franchise -- monetarily and otherwise -- for such an undeniably substantial risk.
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