Commentary

Much still unknown about concussions

Jason Bay and Justin Morneau remain sidelined, and Corey Koskie understands why

Originally Published: August 31, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

For the major league ballplayer who's never had to cope with a concussion and its lingering effects, the experience can be a confusing, exasperating and often harrowing ordeal.

[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau
Tom Szczerbowski/US PresswireJustin Morneau has been out since July 7 after taking a knee to the head while trying to break up a double play.

You don't have to be Canadian to know the feeling. In the summer of 2010, it just seems that way.

New York Mets left fielder Jason Bay, who suffered a whiplash-related concussion in a collision with the Dodger Stadium wall on July 23, finally received clearance Friday to begin riding a stationary bike. Bay still doesn't have the go-ahead to resume baseball activities, so his return in 2010 is iffy.

Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, a fellow British Columbia native, was in the middle of the early MVP conversation when he took a knee to the head from Toronto infielder John McDonald on July 7. Although Morneau continues to progress, he has yet to shake some persistent concussion symptoms.

Few people can relate to what Bay and Morneau are going through better than Corey Koskie, a Manitoba native, former Twins third baseman and Morneau's teammate in Minnesota in 2003 and 2004. Koskie suffered a concussion with Milwaukee in 2006, when he took a seemingly innocent spill while chasing a pop fly by Cincinnati's Felipe Lopez. Little did he know that he would never play in the majors again.

Koskie and Morneau are friends from their Minnesota days, and they've conferred several times by phone since early July. Koskie is optimistic about Morneau's recovery, based on what he's seen of Morneau's progress and work regimen. But he has no doubt that the concussion-induced inactivity is taking an emotional toll on Morneau.

"I know him well enough to know that this is absolutely killing him,'' Koskie said. "And I'm sure Jason Bay is the same way. You want to be out there and you want to be playing, and it sucks when you can't play. You tell yourself, 'It's just my head. Why can't I get over this?' You're looking for answers. 'Somebody tell me when I can play again.' It's a tough deal. It's something you don't wish on your worst enemy.''

The problem, of course, is that concussions are so insidious and resistant to timetables. Phillies second baseman Chase Utley broke his thumb in late June, underwent surgery in early July and was back in the lineup six weeks later. In contrast, no one can hazard a guess when Morneau or Bay will play again.

Koskie, only half in jest, says that if he were to write a book on concussions, it would be titled, "If I Only Had A Cast.''

If there's an encouraging aspect to the story, it's the cautious approach that the Mets and Twins are taking with the two players. In 2008, the Mets made an error in judgment by putting outfielder Ryan Church on a flight from New York to Denver after he had suffered two concussions in 2½ months. The organization took a big media hit for mishandling the situation, but general manager Omar Minaya said all the right things in an interview with New York reporters Friday.

"When the time is right, it will happen,'' Minaya said of Bay's return.

The Twins, similarly, are putting Morneau's long-term health ahead of the lift they would receive from having the 2006 American League MVP back in the lineup. Morneau was hitting .345 with a 1.055 OPS when he went on the disabled list, so the Twins were destined to miss him no matter how spry Jim Thome looked in his twilight years.

"This isn't something where you just snap your fingers and get over it,'' Twins GM Bill Smith said. "Head injuries are nothing to be messed with, and we're going to show all the patience needed with Justin. He's a huge part of our organization, and whatever we can do to make sure we get it right one time, we're going to do.''

I couldn't do anything. I couldn't drive. I couldn't go on the computer. I couldn't read. I was just in my own little personal prison.

-- Former player Corey Koskie
on the effects of a concussion

That sentiment is catching. When Milwaukee outfielder Carlos Gomez was hit in the head by a pitch from Cubs rookie Brian Schlitter, the Brewers rested him for two games, then put him through a battery of tests to assess the damage. When the results were inconclusive, the Brewers exercised caution and placed him on the DL.

If Koskie can take a smidge of credit for helping to heighten awareness of the dangers of concussions, he'll take that as a legacy.

In hindsight, he probably erred by trying to come back too quickly from his concussion. Koskie worked out a week after the incident, and now recalls that "I felt like I got hit by a Mack Truck.'' Over the next two years, he visited the Mayo Clinic, talked to neurologists, psychologists and an array of other specialists, and doggedly searched for answers.

One doctor told him he had a social anxiety disorder, and another attributed his problems to post-traumatic stress. Amid the various diagnoses, the only constants were dizziness, nausea, fatigue and a tendency to feel overwhelmed in crowds. When Koskie exerted himself, he might sleep 14 to 16 hours in response.

"I couldn't do anything,'' Koskie said. "I couldn't drive. I couldn't go on the computer. I couldn't read. I was just in my own little personal prison.''

There are remnants of ill will from Koskie's time in Milwaukee. He recalls club officials telling him that team doctors believed he was 95 percent healed, and that the last 5 percent was "in my head.'' The Brewers declined to exercise Koskie's $6.5 million option for 2008, and the two sides haggled over payment of medical bills.

Things finally began to turn around in late December 2008 when Koskie visited Dr. John Groves, a physical therapist who specializes in whiplash victims. Groves focused on treating the muscles in Koskie's neck, and put him through a series of eye exercises. Within weeks, Koskie felt good enough to return to the playing field.

He played for Team Canada in the 2009 World Baseball Classic and signed a minor league deal with the Chicago Cubs that included an invitation to big league camp. But after going 1-for-5 in the Cactus League, Koskie woke up one morning and decided it was time to go home. "I'd lost the hunger,'' he said.

Now 37, Koskie has settled into a comfortable retirement in the Twin Cities suburbs. He owns and operates two Planet Fitness health club franchises, and stays busy helping to raise four boys who range in age from 10 years to 6 months old. Koskie coaches three youth baseball teams in the summer and three ice hockey teams in the winter, and recently played all nine innings in a charity game in St. Cloud, Minn. Next summer, some lucky town team in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area will have a cleanup hitter with 124 big league homers and a .379 career average (11-for-29) against CC Sabathia.

Koskie doesn't profess to know everything about concussions, but he's compiled a list of "do's'' and "don'ts.'' He advises any athlete with concussion symptoms to consult a doctor with no vested interest in the player's return to the field. His blood pressure also spikes when he reads a news story that Player X suffered a "mild'' concussion in the line of duty.

"That's a pet peeve of mine,'' Koskie said. "The brain is the most important organ in the body. You'd never hear somebody say, 'This guy just had a minor heart attack. He should be able to play in two days.' ''

[+] EnlargeCorey Koskie
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCorey Koskie never played in another major league game after suffering a concussion on this play in a July, 2006 contest.

When will his friend Justin Morneau be back and contributing for Minnesota? Koskie has no idea.

"At eight weeks, he's where I was after two years,'' Koskie said. "But either situation would not surprise me. Things could all of a sudden click and he could get better really fast and be ready to go in three days. Or it could drag out and he might not feel better until Christmas. That's the thing with his injury. It's so individual. I'm sure that's what's so frustrating from a team and a doctor's standpoint.''

Koskie spent 12 years in the Minnesota organization and played an average of 146 games a season from 2000 through 2002, so he knows the difference between playing through conventional aches and pains and dealing with the unknown. Smith and former Twins GM Terry Ryan stayed in touch with Koskie during his ordeal in Milwaukee. If the Twins learned any lessons from that dialogue, Koskie is glad to hear it.

"When I was going through what I was going through, the Twins knew,'' Koskie said. "They would call and ask me, 'How are you doing, Corey? How are you feeling?' They kind of lived it vicariously through me a little bit. They don't want Justin Morneau to be another Corey Koskie, that's for sure.''

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer