Span just latest Twins star to battle effects of a concussion
Denard Span said he still has bad days but thinks he'll be ready to play this season
Former AL MVP Justin Morneau has suffered concissions the past two seasons
The Twins also must get Joe Mauer, another former MVP, back to full health
Thanks to what seems like a never-ending battle with a foggy brain, outfielder Denard Span breaks away from his routine winter workouts one day a week for special treatments that he hopes fix concussion symptoms.
He goes to a yoga class to help with relaxation and flexibility. Then, it is off to the chiropractor to get adjustments for everything from his hip to his neck. After that, he gets a cranium massage that makes him feel like a million bucks.
"Then I go home and say, 'This is living, this feels great and this is the way life is supposed to be,''' says Span, who lives in Tampa. "After those treatments, I feel like I can conquer, maybe not the world, but at least Major League Baseball.''
The Minnesota Twins hope that the questions about Span's concussion will dissipate and the million-dollar feeling will hold up when Span, their leadoff batter and centerfielder, reports to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., the final week of this month. Span is confident he'll be fine, but the real test comes when he spends six hours a day on the practice fields at Lee County Sports Complex.
"I can say that I am definitely coming along,'' Span says. "I'm feeling pretty good. I can say I'm good enough to play. I can say that I feel better than I did last year. It's the best I've felt in two years.''
The Twins have a long list of injuries, and Span, along with their two former AL MVPs -- catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau -- are huge keys to reversing the 99 losses that dropped them in the basement of the American League Central a year ago.
Mauer, 28, a former batting champion who hit .227 in 82 games last season, says he's ready to go after a season in which he had an injured knee, bilateral leg weakness, neck stiffness, a viral infection and an upper respiratory problem that led to pneumonia.
Morneau, 30, arrived in camp last year with concerns how about how long headaches and dizziness would linger from a concussion that cost him the final three months of the 2010 season at a time when he was hitting .345. Instead, Morneau, who has battled injuries throughout his career, was beset by a plague of maladies that included a cyst in his left knee, a pinched-nerve in his neck, a bone spur in his right foot and surgery on his left wrist. He missed two months from early June to mid-August and suffered another concussion diving for a ground ball on Aug. 28 at Target Field and says his head is still not perfect.
So, of all the injuries that Twins are watching, the ones that bring the most concern are mysteriousness of concussion symptoms of Span and Morneau.
"Bones heal,'' Twins general manager Terry Ryan says. "But concussions, you don't know. You can't gauge them. You can't see their progress. Right now, in February, both players are in a good frame of mind.''
Span, 27, had a .300 average on June 3 in Kansas City when he tried to stretch a triple into an inside-the-park home run. In what seemed like a minor collision, Span suffered a concussion when he slid into Royals catcher Brayan Peņa at the plate.
"It wasn't that violent, but it caught me off-guard,'' Span says. "There was a whiplash effect and my neck jerked violently. I remember everything about the play. But, I also remember two innings later, I felt winded, like I had no energy.''
He did pass the memory tests that trainers gave him in Kansas City, but Span didn't play for a couple of days until he got to Cleveland, when he took early batting practice and hoped that toughness and adrenaline of being in the lineup would make a difference.
"I didn't think it was anything serious,'' Span said. "I had no idea. I thought I would snap out of it.''
But there was no way. His head wasn't clear. "I was just spaced out. I remember a coach asking me about a pitcher and what he threw. I honestly couldn't remember. I couldn't remember the pitch sequence or how he set me up or anything like that.''
Later, after he went on the disabled list, headaches started coming on. He felt better when he was lounging at home, but when he got to the Twins' clubhouse, the commotion made him feel dizzy. He was sensitive to bright lights.
One day, when he went to the batting cage to find out if he could see the ball, he took a few bunts and was so fatigued, he had to stop. "I was out of breath,'' he said.
Span, limited to 70 games, played in five of the Twins' last eight games and he went into the offseason with a positive feeling. He went 5-for-18 (.278) including a double, a triple and a sliding catch in one game.
He didn't have any steals, but he also only struck out once. In the final game of the season, he had a pinch-hit double and scored the winning run in a 1-0 victory against the Royals.
"That was a good way to end the season,'' Span said.
When he got home in October, he eliminated caffeine from his diet and began his workouts. Every Wednesday, he went for his massage, did yoga and visited the chiropractor.
He started hitting in November. He does eye exercises on a computer three or four times a week. Sometimes, when symptoms return, he puts the letter "X'' on a piece of paper and moves his head around to focus on the letter. It's like a jump-start.
"I do that once in a while,'' Span says. "I don't know the science behind it, but that snaps you out of it. It's like warming up your brain. It's like running sprints down the leftfield line. It loosens you up. It takes about 30 seconds, a couple of minutes and everything is fine.''
Span, though, is prepared to learn how to cope with days when he doesn't feel his best. He's not sure if he'll ever get back to normal.
"I've had days where I don't feel my best and I just have to find a way to get through,'' Span says.
"I spent most of last year asking God, 'Why now?''' Span says. "I was playing well, even though we were struggling. Whatever the plan, it wasn't meant for me to play the whole season.''
Span is happier talking baseball and he's motivated by proving wrong the prognosticators who say the Twins have no chance to contend in the AL Central.
He says there's been so little mention of the Twins in the division, he thought maybe they had switched to a new one.
"I definitely believe that we all get between 400 and 600 at-bats each this season, we're going to be all right,'' Span says. "I've been praying to get through this. I won't know for sure until I get to spring training, but I'm confident that I'm going to be ready and that we can play the way we know we can.''
Mel Antonen, a baseball writer in Washington, D.C., is an analyst for Sirius-XM Radio.
Behind the scenes: 'Boston Strong' cover shoot, one year later
NHL playoff preview: Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings