From Sun Magazine: After concussions shattered a season, Brian Roberts sees recovery ahead

Orioles infielder calls his long absence from the team one of the darkest points of his life

  • Baltimore Orioles' Brian Roberts talks about his time away from baseball due to the concussions he had while playing.
Baltimore Orioles' Brian Roberts talks about his time… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
November 22, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

Just over a year ago, on Sept. 27, 2010, the Orioles were leading the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-0, in the ninth inning of a largely meaningless road game when second baseman Brian Roberts came to the plate.

He felt prepared for the at-bat, and believed reliever Joaquin Benoit would throw him a changeup. With the count 2-2, the right-hander did.

Roberts still swung and missed.

"Sometimes the pitcher could tell you what's coming and you still wouldn't execute your plan right," he says, clearly still miffed.

On his way to the dugout, he did something he has done countless times: in frustration, he thwacked himself on the helmet with his bat. All of Tropicana Field began to whirl. And so began a tailspin that would sideline the two-time All-Star for 145 of the next 168 games.

He had given himself a concussion — an injury that proved more severe and complex than Roberts or anyone watching the game could have understood at the time. He would return briefly in 2011 and sustain a second concussion, an extension of the first that would sever him from his team — and send him into a time of pain and uncertainty he calls the darkest months of his life.

Back in Baltimore last month for the first time since June, Roberts, who turned 34 last month, said he had just experienced his first pain-free two weeks since the concussion. Friends were telling him he looks completely different from the way he did as recently as September. He and his doctors say he'll be recovered by spring and in the Oriole lineup for 2012, all but good as new.

"We're still taking it slow and steady, but we're definitely hopeful," he said.

Asked why he'd have taken such an at-bat so seriously in the first place, Roberts answered quickly and forcefully.

"Baseball is a game of failure, where you make an out way more often than not," he said. "But people don't understand this: You still want to succeed every time. It's hard to find that balance. If you're not the kind of person who wants to be out there competing every second, you're not the kind who's going to make it to the big leagues."

Concussion test

It requires no cast, no bandage, no surgery. It's invisible to the naked eye. There's no set timetable for recovery, and even you, at times, wonder whether it's all in your head.

Experts and victims alike say it time and time again: A concussion is an injury like no other.

After the Tampa Bay incident, when Roberts returned to the dugout, he found the bench spinning. When he headed back on the field for the bottom of the ninth, it felt as though he was walking sideways. And when teammates tossed the ball around the horn, he was amazed he caught it.

"I have no idea what happened, but I am messed up," he remembers thinking.

He couldn't sleep that night for the jumpiness, dizziness and nausea, but he got up the next day, went to the ballpark and took ground balls and batting practice as always.

"I'm thinking, 'It's all right. I can get through this,' " he says.

But it wasn't. Roberts approached team trainer Richie Bancells just before game time.

"I think I have a concussion and can't play," he said.

There were many reasons the switch-hitting infielder resisted his self-diagnosis.

Plagued by back and abdominal injuries, he had already missed 97 games in 2010 season, the first year covered by a four-year, $40 million contract extension he'd signed in 2009.

In addition to the responsibility he always feels toward teammates with whom he has endured so much, Roberts says, he owes his good financial fortune to the faith owner Peter G. Angelos and then team president Andy MacPhail — men he holds in high regard — showed in him.

"Before I signed that [extension], people told me, 'Whatever you do, don't let it affect the way you think or how you approach the game.' But [the money] comes with responsibility, and certainly, you have a tendency to ask yourself, 'Am I living up to expectations? Are they getting what they thought they were getting?' You have to let go of that eventually, but it's not easy."

In addition, according to those close to Roberts, he has a distaste for inactivity.

"My husband goes crazy when he's not able to play baseball," says his wife, Diana C. Roberts.

That evening in Florida, though, there was no escaping the facts. The O's sat Roberts down in the clubhouse for a computer-based test that Major League Baseball uses to measure concussion symptoms.

Called ImPACT (Immediate Postconcussion Assessement and Cognitive Testing), it assesses reaction times, multitasking, the quality of one's memory and more — functions typically affected by concussions but that don't show up on MRIs or CT scans.

"The data was indicative of someone who's having a hard time," says Michael W. Collins, assistant director of the Sports Medicine Concussion Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where the test was developed.

"I nearly threw up at the computer," Roberts says.

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