By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- The concussion outbreak in major league baseball just took down its biggest name to date. Six-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winning catcher Joe Mauer's career is not over, but his days behind the plate for the Minnesota Twins ended on Monday with the club announcing his permanent move to first base.
That it happened so quickly and so decisively, not quite three months after Mauer suffered a concussion against the Mets at Target Field, ought to give every other major league catcher and general manager pause. If this could befall Mauer, a three-time batting champion and former American League Most Valuable Player, who's next? Buster Posey? Yadier Molina? And can major league baseball do anything to prevent it?
"This is one of the tougher decision I've had to make, but also one of the easiest," said Mauer, 30, on a conference call early Monday afternoon. "I love catching and it's something I worked hard at my whole life, to become the best catcher that I can be. I'm just a little disappointed my catching career had to end like this, but I'm also thankful I could help my team any way that I can."
Mauer battled concussion symptoms for two months after an Aug. 19 foul tip by Ike Davis of the Mets clanged off his catching helmet and over the backstop. Mauer also took a foul tip in the mask that afternoon. The dual impacts led to headaches, irritability and sensitivity to light. He finished the game but never played another inning the rest of the season. Mauer said he is now symptom-free and has begun off-season conditioning.
In October, Twins general manager Terry Ryan met with Mauer and asked him to consider changing positions. "It got to the point where Joe wasn't behind the plate enough," Ryan said. "We were concerned about foul tips. We were concerned about longevity."
Since his major-league debut in 2004, Mauer has been on the disabled list seven times in 10 seasons with an assortment of ailments, from pneumonia to a balky left knee. Even before the concussion, Twins officials feared the physical pounding the 6-foot-5 Mauer takes behind the plate might shorten his career, a concern for a club that owes him $115 million over the next five seasons. Mauer acceded to Ryan when Mayo Clinic doctors warned him what the next foul tip might do.
"They told me if I were to receive another blow or concussion, the recovery time would be as long or even longer. That made the decision pretty easy," Mauer said. "If I said no, I'm catching and I'm coming to spring training, all it takes is one foul tip in pitcher's batting practice and I'll be out two or three months, or even more. I don't want to put my team in that position."
Or himself. Mauer's wife, Maddie, is a nurse. Last summer they became the parents of twin girls. That factored in heavily. Mauer's former teammate Justin Morneau, his own career ravaged by two concussions, suggested Mauer see his specialist, Dr. Micky Collins in Pittsburgh. But Mauer decided against that, and against scouring the country for someone to tell him what he wanted to hear.
"With our training staff, our doctors and the Mayo Clinic, they were the best around," Mauer said. "I didn't need to go anywhere else to gather more information."
Concussions by catchers are becoming alarmingly more frequent. Major-league teams used the seven-day concussion disabled list 18 times this season, according to USA Today. Ten involved catchers. Nine incurred foul tips off a mask or helmet, including Mauer's teammate, Ryan Doumit. Here's how one of the nine, Detroit catcher Alex Avila, described the impact: "It feels like you're getting hit in the face."
Last May, Mauer switched catching helmets to a Rawlings prototype after taking, by his estimate, 15 foul tips in the mask the first two months of the season, according to mlb.com. But concussion specialists say no helmet or mask can completely prevent concussions, and cumulative affects can add up. Mauer tried a hockey-style mask years ago but discarded it quickly. "I probably didn't give it enough of a chance," he said earlier this season.
Mauer, fortunately, is athletic enough to switch positions; as a high school quarterback, he turned down a football scholarship from Florida State to sign with the Twins. His .993 fielding percentage in 56 games at first base since 2011 should improve with more work. Free of the pounding his left hand takes from catching, Mauer may see jumps in his batting average (.324 last season) and power (11 home runs). And he should play more.
But it is still disturbing that two blows to the head in one day forced out the first American League catcher to win multiple batting titles. Mauer said he had one concussion as a child, and believes he suffered several undiagnosed ones after that. If nothing else, this reinforces the dangers of repeated brain trauma, and the importance of proper diagnosis and treatment.
We may be entering an era of shorter shelf lives for catchers, where eight or nine years is plenty, especially for someone who hits like Mauer. As recently as September, Mauer still viewed himself a catcher and broadly hinted he would have to be dragged kicking and screaming from behind the plate. But by accepting this move willingly, he showed refreshing wisdom and responsibility.
"I'm going to be a father and a husband a heck of a lot longer than a baseball player," Mauer said. "Even if I didn't have my family, it would still be the same decision. It was just probably a little bit easier to make, knowing I have them to worry about."
Catchers are a proudly rugged bunch. It took a lot for Mauer to shed that tough-guy veneer. Over the next few years, it will be interesting to see how many others follow his lead.
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.