By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DENVER, Colo. – For the bulk of this season, the line for Justin Morneau between staying on the field to play the game he loves and endangering his own well-being has been fine.
It wasn’t a concussion that took him away from his post at first base for the Colorado Rockies in May, landing on the disabled list months after he was awarded the National League’s batting crown, and he feels no residual effects of the concussion that he suffered half a decade ago.
But what the 34-year-old is working his way back from – with a big step forward this weekend as Morneau starts a rehab assignment with the Double-A New Britain Rock Cats – could potentially be even more serious. That’s why he and the organization took extra precaution before determining his readiness to return to games.
“My problem isn’t concussion-related,” he said. “My neck is the main issue that I’ve dealt with and why I’ve been out so long. If something doesn’t feel stable or if something doesn’t feel right, then I’m at risk for further injury and it’s something that can affect me when I’m done playing. It’s not worth it to go out there and risk it.
“But I trust the people who are giving me advice and telling me what to do. I trust their medical opinion and if they feel I’m alright and I’m not at risk for further injury or permanent injury, I trust what they’re telling me and we just keep moving forward.”
Morneau was diagnosed with a cervical strain accompanied by concussion symptoms after diving for a ground ball resulted in injury, but the reason he was sidelined this time around is nothing like what he suffered from five years ago. And if it was, he wouldn’t be working his way back to the Rockies active roster.
“My memory wasn’t affected, my ability wasn’t affected as much, other than the frustration of being injured and not really knowing what’s going on,” the native of New Westminster, BC said. “I had to deal with headaches and feeling nauseous and there were some symptoms there, but they were more neck-related than head-related.
“If it was brain-related or head-related I don’t think I’d be out here trying to come back, trying to push through it. I don’t think it would be worth it at this point to try and risk something further with that.”
The road to recovery was much longer than Morneau had ever anticipated, with already more than three months having passed since his last game. After one setback during the rehabilitation process, things have sped up and gone smoothly for the infielder lately. The final step was just finding confidence in the strength of his neck before his inevitable return.
“It was pretty slow at the beginning,” he said. “Just because there are certain things you would do that would make you feel awful so it was frustrating. I had to take a little break in the middle but the last month it’s been good and the progress has been pretty steady.
“I’ve been able to add a lot more strengthening, swings every day, and I’m able to take as many swings as I want every day, to throw, run the bases, so now I feel like it’s in the final steps of getting confidence that I’m strong enough to do it and my neck’s strong enough.
“A weak neck can lead to a brain injury from just not being stable enough to stop your brain from bouncing off the inside of your skull, if your neck’s too weak. And that can set you up for injury that way. We’re trying to avoid that part of it, so that’s a part of the reason why I’m making sure the neck’s good before I come back.”
Because Morneau is more educated than most when it comes to his knowledge of brain injuries, learning more since suffering his own, he also had a heightened awareness of just how dangerous his injury this season could have been.
“It was a little scary, a little frustrating, it was a little bit of everything,” Morneau said. “I didn’t think it was going to be this long when it happened. I didn’t think it would carry on like this, but I’m doing everything I can to try to come back … I’m still doing my rehab with the goal of playing this year.”
Well on his way to doing just that, the hardest part for the former American League MVP has been the time he’s been forced to take away from the field, happy at the thought of getting back out there once again.
“Coming off last year and being a good year at the end, and being healthy for the whole year, you kind of hope it’s just going to keep going that way,” Morneau said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way you want it to. I’m in a better position now, going through all of the injuries that I’ve dealt with to deal with it, but it’s still frustrating.”