Morneau knows his iron-man days are in the past
History with concussion symptoms means first baseman needs to be handled with care
DENVER -- This is not how Justin Morneau envisioned his career.
With Sunday marking the 20th anniversary of Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive games player streak, Morneau was out of the Rockies' starting lineup after playing in back-to-back games.
It's not the way Morneau envisioned his career path.
Expectations and reality, however, rarely coincide.
With Morneau having just returned to the lineup after being sidelined since May 13 with concussion symptoms and whiplash sustained diving for a ground ball -- a routine part of playing first base -- the reality is the Rockies know they have to handle him with care.
The sports world has undergone an awakening in dealing with concussions.
"You have to be careful," admitted Morneau. "Junior Seau should have been a wakeup call to everyone. Obviously, football is a different sport. But you are talking about, arguably, the best player in his profession. He did all anyone could do on the field, and he was not able to enjoy what he had done."
Seau retired after the 2009 season. In 2012, Seau, 43 at the time, committed suicide.
"You make sacrifices with your family all the time, and we are paid well," said Morneau. "But if you can't remember your kid's name when you are 50, what's everything you have accomplished worth?
"It's something not everybody is going to agree with, but you have to trust the strides [sports medicine] has made in an effort to take care of people. As an athlete, you have to come to terms with it. It's not what you expect when you start [playing sports], but you have to come to terms with it."
Morneau was not a guy looking for a day off when he got to the big leagues.
Seven seasons ago, Morneau played in a Major League-leading 163 regular-season games -- the scheduled 162 plus a one-game showdown for the American League Central title. From 2006-08, he played in 477 games -- fifth among Major League players -- only seven fewer than Ichiro Suzuki, who was No. 1 on the list.
Times are changing.
Prince Fielder has the longest consecutive-games played streak since Ripken, with a 547-game stretch that began on Sept. 14, 2010, and ended May 16, 2014.
From 2002 through 2008, there were 44 players who didn't miss a game -- including 10 in 2005 alone. Over the last six seasons, there have been only 16 times a player appeared in every regular-season game, and this year, Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado is the only player who has not missed a game.
Machado has the longest active consecutive games played streak -- the 136 games the Orioles have played this year.
Ripken's Major League streak ended with him having appeared in 2,632 consecutive games -- 15 full seasons and parts of two others.
Morneau has accepted the changing times.
"I played with sore body parts," he said. "There is a difference between soreness and injuries. An everyday player rarely runs out there feeling great.
"It's a grind. You know that. You get a lot of at-bats, you're going to be hit by pitches, jam fingers, and twist ankles. You play through those things."
Some things, however, aren't the kind of things you play through.
Morneau's 2009 season was cut short in mid-September, when an examination revealed a stress fracture in his back. During the next season, he had to withdraw from his selection to the All-Star team because of a concussion sustained in a July 7 game after he went into second base trying to break up a double play.
"We were in first place," said Morneau. "I slid late to make sure the second baseman didn't get the throw off."
Six years later, the incident lingers. It was the turning point in Morneau's career. Oh, he's still had success. But it hasn't been anything like what he enjoyed during his prime years with the Twins.
During an injury-riddled 2011 season that included a battle with the flu, a sore wrist, bruised foot and neck surgery, Morneau also missed two months with mild concussion-like symptoms after he suffered a left shoulder injury.
Then, there was the lengthy absence from the active roster this season.
"I took a lot of pride in being able to go out every day and be counted on to contribute to helping a team win," said Morneau. "It becomes frustrating. ... I feel I have taken better care of myself the last five years. Better nutrition. Better sleep habits. I have dedicated myself to doing everything I can to be healthy."
He wants to be as healthy as possible today, as well as 10 years from now and beyond. It has forced him to make concessions, like so many other players.
Morneau accepts that, even if he doesn't necessarily enjoy it.