Commentary

Justin Morneau's long road back

Eight months later, Twins first baseman is still asking himself, "How do I feel?"

Originally Published: March 18, 2011
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He's back. Finally.

Back on a baseball field. Back where he belongs. Back where the mere sight of Justin Morneau makes all the Minnesota Twins around him breathe in the soothing spring air just a little easier.

"You know what?" his teammate, Jim Thome, said. "I feel excited when I'm out there on deck and I hear them announce his name."

But if there's one thing we've learned from the long, strange saga of Morneau, in the eight months since a serious concussion changed his world, it's that appearances can be deceiving.

Thankfully, the presence of that man's name on a spring lineup card tells us how far he's come. Unfortunately, what it doesn't tell us -- or him -- is how much farther he has to go.

So if all we're asking ourselves in this case is, "Will Justin Morneau be back by Opening Day?" we're asking the wrong question.

We shouldn't be wondering if this man can recover so he can play baseball again. We should be wondering if he can recover so he can resume his regularly scheduled life.

"Somebody told me, when you're able to do things and not think about, 'How do I feel?' that's when you know you're past it," Morneau said this week, on what looked, to the outside world, like just another routine day in the life of spring training.

But there's no such thing as a routine day for the Twins' first baseman now. Not yet. And there's no such thing as a day that goes by that he can stop asking himself, "How do I feel?"

It's the ultimate question for a guy trying to complete the long, tortuous expedition back to health from a life-shaking injury to his brain. So it's a question Morneau finds himself constantly asking -- and not merely when he steps on a baseball field.

I'm a very impatient person myself. But one thing I've learned, and I'm still learning, is that these things are on their own timetable. It's out of your hands.

-- Justin Morneau

"You become hypersensitive to the symptoms," he said. "You can't help it, because it's all based on how you feel. So you wake up in the morning and you go, 'OK, how do I feel right now?' No headaches. Everything feels good.

"And then, as you go through the day, it starts when you're first coming out and driving your car: 'Does this feel right?' Then you're riding your [exercise] bike. All you do is get on the bike for 10 minutes to get your heart rate up: 'How's that feel?' And then it just progresses from there, for months or, for guys who are lucky, for a week or two. That's where it starts. And it just continues from there.

"Does being on the computer for an hour make it worse? Does watching TV or going to the movies [make it worse]? You know what I mean? Just everything that happens during the day is processed through your brain. It's all stimulation for your brain. It's activity. And when your brain is working, it's not healing."

When your brain is working, it's not healing. Think about that statement for a moment and you'll begin to comprehend exactly what Morneau has been dealing with all this time.

He has learned so much about his brain and so much about the mysterious injury to that brain over these last eight months. But "it's such a crazy thing," he said. "We have so much more to learn about it."

So what's transpiring this spring, inside the gates of the Lee County Sports Complex, is more than merely the saga of a great player -- a former MVP and a four-time All-Star -- trying to return from an injury.

It's a comeback saga that should be teaching all of us a powerful lesson about a serious condition that few people still don't understand. And that includes the people around Morneau -- people who care about him, root for him and want to help him.

If only they could wrap this injury in a little tape, throw an ice pack on it, treat it in a way they could relate to, this would be so much easier. Instead, they can only ask the right questions, be as supportive as they can be and wait -- wait for that golden moment when this man and his doctors finally tell them everything's fine.

"I don't think we've ever had to deal with anything like this, to where, honestly, as a manager, I feel like I'm kind of left out in the dark because I can't help," Morneau's manager, Ron Gardenhire, said. "I mean, if there are other injuries, I can normally say, 'I know a guy who had that and this is how it went.' But with this, we don't have a timetable. And that's been difficult."

Gardenhire said he still thinks back to how naïve he was about all this on the day last July when Morneau got hurt. It was just another play in a baseball game. A double-play ball. A collision at second base. The knee of Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald inadvertently crashing against Morneau's head.

"At first, we kind of took it lightly," the manager said. "A concussion. He's a big guy. Didn't look like he took a bad hit. He'll be fine. But it's not something you can really take lightly at all. I've seen that more and more."

He's seen it. His whole team has seen it. His teammates have seen it in the face of one of their favorite people, a guy who only wants to get back the world he lived in before July. But he has learned there's no flight he can take, no highway he can drive, no time machine he can ride that can bring that world back as fast as he'd like to travel.

"This is a generation of instant gratification," said Morneau, as bright and articulate a man as you'll find in any locker room. "You want news? You look it up on your phone. We've just become more impatient as a society. And … I'm a very impatient person myself. But one thing I've learned, and I'm still learning, is that these things are on their own timetable. It's out of your hands. There are things you can do to help it, and things you can do to make it worse. And one of them is pushing too hard to play when you're injured. …

"The culture of sports is based on toughness and gritting it out. But there's a difference between being tough and playing through a sore elbow, and being smart and not playing through a brain injury. There are things you can play through. And this isn't one of them."

[+] EnlargeJustin Morneau and John McDonald
AP PhotoThe play that changed everything: Last July, Justin Morneau took a knee to the head from Blue Jays infielder John McDonald.

He has used the word "fog" to describe the state he found himself in for many more months than he ever imagined. But when he puts into words what that fog feels like and looks like, he paints a picture that's more jarring than a Freddy Krueger flick.

"Your mind is just slowed down," Morneau said. "This isn't the best analogy, but if you're going 65 miles an hour down the road and you look out your side window, everything looks like it's just going by so fast that you can't really focus on it. Then you look out the front window and you see everything clear."

Yet for weeks, for months, he saw the world mostly through that side window. And the toughest part was knowing the fog wouldn't lift until it was good and ready to lift. And only the fogbank knew when that was.

"It's a test of your patience and your will and everything," he said. "There were times this winter when I wondered if I was ever going to be able to play again. And that's usually when I'd give the doctor a call. And they'd let you know that everything was going to be OK, and they'd make you believe that everything was going to be OK.

"You've just got to stay positive. Stress is one of the worst things for it. It's easy to say, 'Don't be stressed.' But you've just got to have strength. And you've got to have confidence in the people who are helping you make decisions. And you've got to believe they're telling you the truth."

Across the locker room sat the team's great closer, Joe Nathan. A year ago this month, Nathan had Tommy John Surgery, and he is only now getting back to being himself. So in that sense, he's had to travel down a longer road than his first baseman. But the difference, Morneau said, is Nathan always knew how long that road was.

"Any injury, pretty much except this, you have a time frame," Morneau said. "With Joe Nathan, they knew in July exactly when he was going to begin throwing a baseball if everything continued to progress. You know if you break your wrist, it's six to eight weeks. They can put a time frame on pretty much everything. But you can't put a time frame on a brain injury. And that's tough."

So even this spring, even though he's back playing, Morneau still isn't sure what "normal" feels like anymore.

"I still take a nap every day," he said. "But I used to in spring training before. So it's like with everything I do now, I ask, 'Is this something I would have done before? Is this something I would have felt before?'"

And to whom does he ask those questions?

"Myself," he said. "Because nobody can see it. Nobody knows how you feel."

The baseball team around him wishes it could see it, wishes it could feel how he feels, wishes it knew the magic formula that would make all this go away. But this team has chosen the right course, even though it's not the easiest course. And that course is patience. Lots and lots of patience.

"When you're dealing with someone's health, it's challenging, but it's not hard, because I don't think there's any other decision we can make," general manager Bill Smith said. "I know there's no other decision we're going to make."

So the Twins have applied no pressure, set no goals. They've talked hopefully about Opening Day. But they understand Opening Day pales against the big picture.

"We've said all along we only want him to go through this one time," Smith said. "We do not want him to be on a roller coaster … either short term or long term."

But as patient as the management may be, as careful as they've learned to be, recognize this: There are no guarantees that Morneau won't ride that roller coaster.

Justin Morneau
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJustin Morneau is hitless in seven at-bats so far this spring.

He is back playing baseball. But he isn't interested, he said, in being a guy who is only able to "go out there and play two days and then have to take a day off. I don't think that benefits our team." His only goal is "to be an everyday major league player" again.

So there are more mileposts ahead than most people realize. He still hasn't played a night game. Or back-to-back games. Or three in a row. He hasn't even gotten a hit in a spring "A" game, for that matter. So no one has flashed that bright green light yet that says he can play a full season. He's still stuck on flashing yellow.

"Obviously, it feels good to be out there," he said. "But until I feel like myself out there and not thinking about, 'How does this feel? How does that feel?' and I'm able just to relax and enjoy the game, that's when I think I'll know. When there's still not any question marks left in my head, as far as 'What happens if I dive for a ball?' or 'What happens if I have a collision at second base again?' -- not necessarily with my head but just general contact."

And for now, with exactly two weeks left before Opening Day, his mind is still overflowing with question marks. Maybe he can resolve enough of those questions to be out there Opening Day. Maybe he can't.

But again, we have to remind ourselves: If our only concern here is Opening Day, we're forgetting what matters most when a 29-year-old man, with a wife and baby at home, suffers a significant brain injury. And baseball isn't it.

"I know how much I love this game," Morneau said. "But really, I think this has given me more perspective on stuff other than baseball, especially having a new baby and wanting to be able to do all that [family] stuff and not be detached and not have to come home and sleep for two hours and miss out on stuff like that.

"So it's made me realize that I love this game and I love playing it and I want to win a World Series more than anything. But there is other stuff.

"You know, you play sports for such a short period of time in your life. In the big picture, when you're done playing, you want to be able to function as a normal human being. Play with your kids. Do everything you really want to do."

So he'll keep working to get back out on that baseball field. And his teammates will feel thankful for every glimpse they get of him out there. But mostly, his team is determined to do what's right -- not for its lineup card but for the man whose name normally rests in the No. 4 hole on that card.

"It's been really tough," Gardenhire said. "But you know what? We're lucky, because I feel really comfortable that this organization has handled this really well. Missing time is the least of our worries, from the top to the bottom.

"This is all about his life."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Senior Writer, ESPN.com