Justin Morneau plays in game
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- This was one thing Justin Morneau didn't expect, he said, in his first at-bat in a scheduled game in eight months: Boston Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester throwing him consecutive curveballs, the second called for a third strike.
"I was surprised," said the Minnesota Twins first baseman. "I should have hit the first one. He probably knew I was taking. I don't think he usually doubles up on his curveball, from what I remember."
What made this moment worth remembering is not the whiff but that Morneau, out since early last July with post-concussion symptoms, was back in a Twins uniform, playing in a game. On Tuesday, he had played in a "B" game here; this, however, was the next step in a progression that he hopes will result in the resumption of his major league career.
"When I got hurt, I didn't think I was going be out that long, going to be hurt that bad," he said. "It was a while, but hopefully this is the first big step towards Opening Day and being in the lineup for the regular season."
There are no guarantees. At this stage of his recovery, he is eager to see how he responds to the increase in activity and whether he remains symptom-free. In the interim, he said, he has had to learn patience.
"It's one of those things, the best way to describe it is like being on an island," he said. "Nobody can really know what you're going through every day, what you're feeling every day, and it's got its own timetable.
"It's not up to you," he added. "You can work hard to come back from injury, do everything right, like [Twins reliever] Joe Nathan did with his elbow. Now he's back. He missed a year, the time they predicted, and he's back.
"With this, it might be a couple of months, it might be three or four, and you never know what it's going to be. You try to be patient with it, try to do everything right, and hope it comes back to normal. Believe that it will," he said.
On Friday, Morneau batted cleanup and played first base. After striking out in the first, he reached safely with no outs in the fourth when Boston left-fielder Carl Crawford dropped his wind-blown flyball for an error. He was lifted for a pinch-runner.
Morneau, who sustained the concussion when he was struck in the head by the knee of Toronto Blue Jays infielder John McDonald on a play at second base, said he plans to take Saturday off, play again Sunday and then take another day off on Monday. The Twins have a scheduled day off on Tuesday.
"For me to look more than a few days ahead is something I've tried not to do," he said. "With this four innings today, four or five, next time go through our regular progression and hope it's the same way as you do in spring training, hope by the end of it you're playing seven, eight, nine innings and you're ready to go by the time the season starts."
Will the symptoms return?
"The only way to find out is by going through game situations," Morneau said. "As far as all the tests we've put ourselves through, taking BP, live BP, taking 100 times as many ground balls as I will during the game, I think we put ourselves through every kind of test to be ready and let it heal.
"I feel like we're in the right place. The only way to do it now is to get in game situations and hope your body adjusts to that. The good thing is they haven't put any pressure on me to feel rushed. The only pressure I feel is what I put on myself, to wanting to be out there on Opening Day. We're going to take it as it goes and hopefully it continues to progress the way it has," he said.
Morneau received a warm greeting from the crowd of 8,214 in Hammond Stadium, many fans coming to their feet for the 2006 American League MVP.
"It felt great," Morneau said of the ovation. "Until you go through something like this, it's hard to understand, but you know, it's nice. I don't know if the fans appreciate me back out there or whatever it is, but it's a good feeling they're behind me and they're happy I'm out there and just as happy as I am that I'm out there."
When you're on the disabled list as long as he has been, Morneau said, it's hard to feel part of the team, able to take part in the daily clubhouse give and take.
"You feel like you're on the outside looking in," he said.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Morneau is a lifetime .286 hitter who has hit 30 or more home runs three times and driven in 100 or more runs four times. He was batting a career-best .345 with 18 home runs and 56 RBIs, with a career-high OPS of 1.055, when he sustained his concussion.
Morneau was asked Friday if he had doubts about whether he would be able to become the same player again. He said it reminded him a little of that first day in spring training, stepping into the cage for the first time and the pitcher looks like he's throwing 120 mph.
"Obviously, this is a little different from that," he said. "We have the data from before, the reaction time with the concussion tests. Everything is back to normal. Now it's going to take reps to feel the data's right, and you can be the same player.
"I don't feel like the doctors and the team would put me out there if they didn't feel I could be the same player and play the way I play, play hard," he said.
Morneau said it has been very helpful to be able to talk to other athletes who have experienced post-concussion syndrome, citing former Twin Corey Koskie, Jason Bay of the New York Mets and NHL player Willie Mitchell as people he has talked with.
"The first time [Mitchell] took a big hit and felt OK, he knew he was back to normal," Morneau said. "He said, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to be OK.' To have those guys who have been through it is important. Sometimes you get stuck. You can talk to doctors, you can talk to everyone, and that's great. But to talk to other athletes who have been through stuff like that is very helpful."
Still, he said, he has had to recognize that each case is different.
"That's why this is so weird, why there is still so much research needed, so much be figured out with concussion stuff," he said. "Why some people recover quickly than others, what dictates how long it's going to take. There are so many things, so many factors. You learn patience. Everyone is different. You see a guy miss a week with a concussion, you see a guy miss a year with a concussion. You never know what it is."
Morneau said he is still too focused on his own recovery to give much thought to what impact his case might have on the broader discussion of concussions in sports.
"I believe everything happens for a reason," he said. "Hopefully kids see this, that [you can] miss a significant amount of time and life goes on.
"There are things more important than sports," he said. "Obviously, I love the game, I love to play but you want to function as a 40-year-old, 50-year-old, 60-year-old man. You want to do that, you want to play with your kids. Hopefully kids see that you don't have to rush back, or when they have problems not be afraid to tell someone, that they're not afraid to feel like they're not tough and all the rest of the things that go along with it.
"You can play with a sore knee with toughness, but your toughness is questioned when it's a head injury because you can't see it. Maybe kids will see [Morneau] went through it and he got better and now I can do the same thing and not be afraid," he said.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.