Giants first baseman Brandon Belt missed the rest of the 2017 season after he was hit in the head by an Anthony Banda curveball on August 4. The injury marked Belt’s fourth concussion. For many sports fans, injuries like a strained hamstring are easy to sympathize with because one can see a player limping. Concussions have not garnered the same kind of sympathy from the general public, which is why this Andrew Baggarly column for The Athletic is so important.
Baggarly describes the ways in which Belt’s life was adversely affected following his concussion last year. He was sensitive to light and sound and slept all day. He had mood swings. Belt said, “Small things would make me angry, and that’s not me.” Belt was less social and, in Baggarly’s words, “lethargic, frustrated, and irritable.” Describing his overall mental state, Belt said, “Depression is a good word for it.”
Baggarly cited some interesting studies. One, from the Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington, showed that a history of concussions is correlated with more than a threefold increased risk of depression. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had a study that showed that patients with clinical depression and patients with multiple concussions shared unique white matter injury patterns located near the brain’s reward circuit.
The NFL has garnered almost all of the attention when it comes to traumatic brain injury. But baseball has had a problem with it as well. Former Reds outfielder Ryan Freel committed suicide on December 22, 2012 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. A postmortem examination revealed that Freel had been suffering from Stage II chronic traumatic encephalopathy. As CNN noted in December 2013, Freel was the first baseball player to be diagnosed with CTE. As CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed postmortem, no one really knows how many baseball players are dealing with it at the moment. We just know that if they have had head injuries, especially multiple concussions, there’s a very real risk.
Belt made a two-hour drive each way twice a week to see a specialist at Stanford for vestibular therapy to improve his balance and visual acuity. When he went home to Texas in late September, he continued to see a specialist in Houston for vision therapy.
Fortunately, Belt is no longer dealing with concussion symptoms and is looking forward to his eighth season in the majors. Had his 2017 campaign not ended early, he certainly would have set a career-high in home runs and might have also done so in RBI and runs scored. Those are goals he may be able to accomplish this season. Still, Belt’s wife Haylee worries about what happens if Belt suffers another concussion. “You definitely wonder, like, when are they going to say, ‘If you get hit one more time, we’ve got to stop.’ I’ve seen him come out of three before, so you always hope for the best. But you never know. There could be that one time,” she said.
Read Baggarly’s full column here. It’s worth the price of admission.