Today we stand in a dilemma of disappointment complimented by controversy and conspiracy, and in the midst of the sports’ concussion crisis many have lost sight of the real issue—the protection and preservation of athletes’ careers at all levels. This is more of an issue of safety as opposed to how ‘malignant’ some modifications may be to the sports, or how certain sports may lose the interest of upcoming athletes, or how financial investments may come to hurt those in positions of authority—ah, yes, it is money that makes the multi-billion dollar industries go round. The spotlight on concussions has been directed mostly toward football and hockey, for they are truly of the most prevalent incidents of contact and collision. Standing behind these two major sports—which have been rightly criticized for an extensive period of time regarding concussion management—are sports such as baseball, to name one, which is not necessarily considered by all to be a contact sport. What would the concern for concussion be in baseball? Is it time for America’s pastime to provide a leading example in the management and addressing of concussion in sports? Maybe so.
When I was in middle school, I witnessed a baseball-related head injury for the first time. We were doing somewhat of a drill consisting of simulated game play, and were not required to wear helmets. After all, nothing THAT bad could happen right? This was just practice. Wrong.
One of my teammates had got caught in a run-down, from what I recall, which involves defensive players playing “cat and mouse” with the runner until he is tagged ‘out.’ During this predicament that my teammate had caught himself in, he was nailed in the head by the baseball… fell to the ground… was hardly responsive… could not open his jaw… and was taken to the hospital. Afterward, the coach blamed one of the defensive players for not being careful enough, and yet the coach was the one who rightfully deserved blame. Base-runners are REQUIRED to wear helmets in games, so why would my friend not be required to wear one during practice? Looking back on it, it is quite a frustrating situation, especially knowing what I know now about concussions. Now I may be speculating here, but, it just so happened that the child who took a baseball to the head in middle school also led a football career in high school that was cut to an end due to multiple concussions (amongst other injuries).
This was the first, but not the last, time that I would be exposed to head injuries in baseball. I knew a kid who took a baseball to the head during a junior legion game and put up with some troubling repercussions, including a misalignment of his eyeball following the moment of impact. During my junior year, one of my best friends was drilled in the back of the head by a baseball at the beginning of practice… fell to a knee… went unconscious… and was taken to the hospital. It’s scary to think about, because in a sport that is seemingly so ‘safe,’ there is always the risk of concussion or head injury. When I was dealing with the after-effects of a concussion as a sophomore in high school playing football, I was also a member of an AAU travel-baseball team. I was the ace of our pitching staff, and I could not last more than an inning on the mound because of the headaches that would gradually build. The following year, I took a baseball to the head when I was at the plate (also just some time after my most recent concussion) and was frightened at what may have immediately impacted me. Luckily, I was okay.
Now aside from my experiences and exposures to head injuries in baseball, we must consider who it is that sets the example for all youth levels of the game. The answer: Major League Baseball. Here is what I have to say…
I have been impressed with how Major League Baseball has dealt with concussions in the game, but is it enough? First of all, I am appalled at how long it has taken for Justin Morneau to recover from his concussion. This is not to say that I think he’s taking too much time off—I am saying that I feel he is an example for all athletes, no matter the sport or level of play. He is the primary example of what it means to take care of yourself. Nearly eight months removed from his injury, Morneau has taken ‘baby-steps’ in the road of his recovery. His concussion was the product of a head to knee collision when he tried breaking up a double-play against the Twins. Think about this: NFL players hit their heads against one another nearly one-thousand times a year and are usually back on the field within a one-to-three week time frame. I know every injury is to be handled differently in relation to many other factors that go into the management, BUT the comparison is staggering. Morneau has treated his concussion as an injury, rather than ‘something that was in his way.’ This is admirable, and the MLB must take note of it.
Let’s look back some time to the moment of David Wright’s concussion against the San Fransisco Giants when a 95mph+ fastball greeted his noggin. The sports world lost its breath when they watched this happen over and over on ESPN’s SportsCenter that night and the following morning, and the rest of the week. After missing a few weeks of play following his concussion, Wright returned to the baseball diamond wearing a new helmet—a helmet that a handful of professional baseball players said to be ‘ugly’ and something that they would ‘never wear’ due to its appearance. And yet the helmet is intended to help against concussive impact! I’m sure that the MLB is looking into such advanced technology for protection, but the game needs to step in a further direction that emphasizes safety over ‘good looks.’ This will take some time, but when one may examine the baseball helmets of high school programs (much like my own), they will find themselves surprised that these helmets don’t crack into a pile of dust when they come in contact with a baseball. Wright’s utilization of this new helmet is yet another admirable move on the part of the baseball player.
Major League Baseball has an opportunity to step to the foreground of concussion management and safety. They have a chance to take the spotlight from the NFL and NHL and place it on themselves in a much more beneficial way. They can set an example, and can shed some hope upon the slate of American athletics. The issue does not have to be proportionally similar to other sports for it to be effectively addressed. Concussions are a part of baseball just as much as they are a part of football, but there are some clear reasons as to why the two differ tremendously with regards to the acknowledgment of concussion.
This is just a collection of my own thoughts, let us hear yours.