Mike Matheny remembers one summer in the minors when six awful collisions -- "just train wrecks" -- rattled his brain enough to prompt a team staffer to make repeated wakeup calls to his room in the middle of the night. "Every three hours, they'd check up," he said. "My roommates hated it because they'd have to make sure I was awake and ask me questions."
He took it all for granted at the time, as an understood hazard of a catcher's job. "As long as I woke up, I was in the game the next day," the Cardinals manager said.
That monitoring has become considerably more sophisticated now, in part because of the multiple concussions that drove Matheny into early retirement six years ago. The train wrecks, if Matheny has any say, will soon become history, too. In spring training, he took up the cause of ending collisions at the plate, joining a campaign started by Bruce Bochy, the Giants' manager and a fellow catcher emeritus.
The logistics still need to be negotiated, but Bochy and Matheny both envision plays at home conducted like those at second and third base, with catchers barred from blocking the plate and runners precluded from playing linebacker. They'll have to sell the details, while emotionally prying the game from its most primitive and exhilarating ritual.
When Bochy first introduced the idea, immediately after the collision that tore apart Buster Posey's lower left leg and destroyed his 2011 season, I saw it as reactive and impractical. But as the effects of brain trauma come under more scrutiny and the NFL satirizes itself in an attempt to build a kinder, gentler bloodsport, the gratuitous nature of baseball's most violent play becomes plainer.
"They have no choice," Matheny said of brutal contact in the NFL. "We have a choice."
Matheny's personal history makes the most compelling case for change, or just expediting the debate about change. By themselves, shredded ankle ligaments and shoulder separations seem like ample reason to eliminate an unnecessary risk. The hundreds of millions tied up in contracts for Posey and Joe Mauer seem doubly persuasive, if less compassionate.
But the stories of Matheny's fogginess, and the fact that he uses the word "scary" to describe his 18 months in cognitive limbo, render the status quo unconscionable.
Matheny is reluctant to make his experience the centerpiece of the debate. As a player, he once said, learning he had a concussion would have been no more distressing than hearing someone say he had a bad haircut. Now, he understands that the threat of brain trauma trumps any other consideration.
Over those 18 months, he routinely had to call his wife, Kristen, from his car to remind him of his destination and directions. He had to wear a heart monitor, because if his pulse approached 120 beats per minute, his mind would spin. Fatigue, headaches and dizziness. His five kids would walk with him, and "when we'd go up a set of steps, they'd have to stop and wait with me, because I'd get completely lightheaded and had to hold onto the rail for a minute."
He'd pull into gas stations, fill up the tank and forget the nozzle was still inserted as he drove off, pulling the hose off its base.
"That happened about three times in a matter of a month after the last concussion," he said. "Twice it happened at the same gas station in Half Moon Bay, and they weren't too happy with me."
It was 2006, and he played for the Giants, a year ahead of Bochy's arrival. A series of foul tips off his mask in a short period of time produced the concussions. Matheny believes that they had such a dramatic effect because they compounded the damage from multiple collisions.
"I hate telling people about the foul tips because I don't want people worrying about their kids [playing catcher]," he said. "At that point, they said I'd had over like 25-30 concussions."
Matheny kept thinking everything would clear up if he just kept working away. On May 31, catching his friend and longtime teammate in St. Louis, Matt Morris, he realized he was hurting himself and the team. He went to the mound in a tough inning, with runners on, and called for a fastball during the conference to prevent the man at second from reading a sign and relaying it to the batter.
"By the time I got back behind the plate, I kind of forgot what we talked about," Matheny said. "So I knew I was in trouble at that point. And I guessed the wrong way."
He went down to block an expected breaking pitch. The fastball hit him in the chest. "Runners advanced, runner scored," he said.
Back in the dugout, Morris vented his exasperation, subjecting Matheny to the kind of passion he adored when it was directed at an opponent.
"He couldn't understand what had happened; he didn't know what was going on in my head. I wasn't talking about it because I was scared," Matheny said. "It was funny because on SportsCenter they caught me throwing my shin guards at him because he was barking at me."
It's funny now. Back then, he was repeatedly flying to Pittsburgh to meet with a brain-trauma specialist, and having people constantly ask for updates on a condition that he couldn't really explain. He knew he looked healthy, but a short spin on a stationary bike would send him off-kilter.
"I took a lot of pride in playing with broken bones, and then I had this invisible injury," he said.
The Giants' trainers finally told him to go home to St. Louis, escape all the questions, stop trying to work his way out of brain trauma and do virtually nothing. Someone on the club also arranged for him to call former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who retired in 1999 after a series of concussions and a terrifying knockout blow on Monday Night Football.
"He just offered some encouragement," Matheny said. "Very few people at our levels have gone through the same things."
At times, he said, he wondered whether things would ever improve. "Is this just going to be what I get used to and not know it?" he said.
Even after he retired, he didn't think his experience reflected potential hazards for other players. "I just assumed I had a soft melon, and I was kind of an outlier," he said.
But football players with a history of masking concussions have now come forward to say they have long-term damage that they attribute to the violence of their profession. Catchers have not reported the same effects, but since Posey's collision Bochy has routinely pointed out that the speed and size of today's players has increased dramatically, upping the risk accordingly.
The first time Bochy decided that the rules required reform was 2003, when he managed the Padres and Posey still attended high school. The Dodgers' Brian Jordan wiped out Padres catcher Gary Bennett, causing a sprained knee ligament. The damage didn't bother Bochy so much as the sight of Jordan -- who moonlighted as an NFL safety -- bearing down on his catcher.
"I went to Gary and told him we needed to change the rules," Bochy said. "They can hit these guys anywhere. They can hit them on the head. If we don't change the rules, we're going to end up carrying a catcher off paralyzed."
With support from his training staff, Bochy hopes to present data on catcher injuries to former catcher and manager Joe Torre, now an executive with the MLB in charge of baseball operations. He is also hoping to win over more managers, many of whom played catcher.
The leaders on this issue really should come from the Players Association. But that lineup is stocked with lawyers, and while they may muster passion for the issue, none of them has the credentials to make the case. Matheny has too many for his own good, but more than enough to help the next generation.