PHOENIX -- Cardinals manager and former catcher Mike Matheny has been following the recent controversy involving head injuries to National Football League players with particular personal interest. It wasn't that long ago his playing career ended abruptly because of them. "My perspective on it is that it's pretty scary stuff," Matheny told MLB.com in a candid interview before the Cardinals defeated the D-Backs, 7-2, at Chase Field on Wednesday night to sweep a three-game series. "It hits pretty close to home." Matheny stopped and then quickly abridged the statement.
"Actually, it hits really close to home," he said. "A lot of things these guys are talking about, I experienced firsthand. I understand that there's still a chance of repercussions because of all the concussions I've had in my career. I feel for these guys. I hurt for them. I hurt for their families. I'm hoping that the medical community can continue to gain information to lessen the risk of long-term repercussions from the concussions." At 41, Matheny is just beginning his second career as a manager. In his opening two months after replacing the retired Tony La Russa, the Cardinals are playing like the defending World Series champions they are. With a 20-11 record, they lead the National League Central by 3 1/2 games over the Reds. It wasn't so long ago that Matheny couldn't think about doing any job, let alone managing a team he played for from 2000-04 before signing as a free agent with the Giants. It was in San Francisco that a long history of head injuries caught with him. By a count later documented by the Giants training staff, Matheny said he suffered as many as 25 concussions as a catcher, the last one knocking him out for good after a series of six foul tips deflected off his mask during a three-game period early in the 2006 season. Matheny was left so stunned after the last one that he couldn't concentrate. It was May 31, 2006. He didn't know it at the time, but he had played his last game. "They all were to different levels of seriousness," Matheny said about his multiple head injuries. "Lots of collisions at the plate. Almost all of those resulted in some sort of concussion. The term was used very loosely back then. But the more concussions you get, the more susceptible you are to getting another concussion from a lesser impact." And then there's the grim reaper that accompanies repeated head injuries: post-concussion syndrome. "That really didn't begin to clear up for about 18 months. So it was a long time," he said. How did he cope during that gray period? "It was more cognitive issues I had to deal with: loss of memory, everyday mental functions," he said. "Those are things you just take for granted. It was extremely obvious to me that there were things I couldn't do that I normally could as far as daily operation and thinking. It was obvious that there was damage to the brain that wasn't healed up." In those years, when Matheny regularly incurred the injuries, Major League Baseball was light years away from where it is now in evaluating concussions and how to treat them. These days, every player undergoes baseline mental exams during their pre-Spring Training physicals, and last year, a new seven-day disabled list was instituted for players who are even suspected of having suffered a concussion. Those who are subjected to that list are not allowed to resume play until the symptoms completely clear up. In 2006, there was so little institutional information about concussions that then Giants head trainer Stan Conte took it upon himself to evaluate how often catchers were incidentally struck by foul tips. Matheny played 181 of his 1,305 big league games in 13 seasons for the Giants, and Conte went back to review video of every game Matheny caught after he signed with San Francisco. Conte left the Giants for the Dodgers after the 2006 season and remains in Los Angeles. "We changed the way people looked at sports medicine," Conte said at the time about his work involving Matheny. Matheny agrees with that and believes that all sports -- baseball in particular -- are now more proactive about head injuries. The shocking suicide last week of former Chargers All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau just puts further necessary emphasis on the issue whether, in fact, Seau's sad fate was tied to multiple concussions. "I think baseball has been more proactive, trying to make a difference and doing things differently," Matheny said. "I've been excited to have been a part of it. A lot of the results and testing and information that was gathered when my injury came around I think has helped other players avoid further injury." That doesn't take away the lingering concern about long-term ramifications as Matheny grows older. He knows much of this is uncharted territory and that the damage already irrevocably has been done. Matheny is certain he must avoid further complications. "The one thing you do is stop getting hit in the head," he said. "That's a lot easier when you stop playing contact sports. You just don't get hit in the head a lot in normal life. As far as the long-term repercussions, I don't think anybody knows. The brain is so complex. Because of the head injuries that I have documented in my past I know that I'm not immune to anything else that might potentially happen to me in the future. "What can you proactively do? There isn't much. I will just keep my eyes and ears open in case there are any more symptoms." Matheny has been symptom-free since 2008, he said.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.