SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The message from Joe Torre shown on the video board at AT&T Park was clear and direct: “When in doubt, sit it out.”
From the World Series to the NFL, from hockey to youth sports, concussions are a major topic at all levels of athletics. They shaped part of the postseason for the San Francisco Giants — first baseman Brandon Belt returned from one, backup catcher Hector Sanchez didn’t.
Torre, the former catcher and Hall of Fame manager who’s now a Major League Baseball executive, taped public-service announcements that appeared at ballparks in October, reiterating that head injuries need to be checked.
The wild-card Oakland Athletics lost catcher John Jaso and outfielder Craig Gentry before the playoffs because of concussion effects. All-Star catcher Alex Avila got hit in the mask by a foul tip in the AL Division Series and his season was over.
Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez takes his share of shots to the mask and helmet, too.
“I like to get hit,” Perez said the day before the World Series started.
That’s not the advice Torre advocated during his short spot played on the board in San Francisco during the early innings of Game 5 Sunday night.
“One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in baseball is you’ve got to take care of your brain,” Torre says. “Wearing a helmet that’s in good condition and fits properly will reduce the risk of brain injury. This is important because no helmet is concussion-proof.”
In a year when MLB added a rule about home-plate collisions in an effort to improve safety, concussionsremained prevalent.
For Belt, his injury was a serious case of bad luck.
During batting practice in July before a game at Miami, two Giants accidentally threw balls to Belt at the same time. One of the throws hit him in the face.
Belt experienced nausea, headaches and dizziness in the aftermath, and feared his season might be done. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy had his doubts, too, especially when Belt’s symptoms returned for a second time.
After an encouraging examination from renowned concussion specialist Dr. Micky Collins at the University of Pittsburgh, the 26-year-old Belt regained some hope he might be able to contribute down the stretch.
Belt is 5 for 18 with two RBIs in the World Series, helping San Francisco take a 3-2 lead over Kansas City. He contributed a surprise bunt single and an alert play in the field during a 5-0 win in Game 5.
“That was one of the reasons why I was so determined. I just wanted to get back and play with this team again,” Belt said. “It’s so fun running out there and playing with these guys every day. That was a huge inspiration for me.”
Belt played five games in August after coming back, then missed six more weeks when the symptoms recurred.
He was OK to play in the last two weeks of the regular season, and Bochy kept him in the lineup, seeing whether Belt could regain his timing.
“Well, at first it was painful watching him, watching his at-bats,” Bochy said. “We all had hope and belief that with more at-bats he would come around.”
“Major league pitching is tough to hit, and when you’ve had a long time off like Belt did, I expected him to be rusty. But we needed him. I really felt for us to have success in the postseason, he had to be on this club somewhere and playing first base and having that bat in the lineup,” he said.
Belt got two hits in the NL wild-card win over Pittsburgh, and had the go-ahead home run in an 18-inning win at Washington in Game 2 of the Division Series.
Belt wanted to do all he could — with medical clearance, of course — to take part in his second postseason.
Sanchez isn’t getting that chance. A week after Belt was injured, Sanchez got hit in the mask by a foul tip and wound up out for the season.
Belt realizes how fortunate he is to be playing this month. His trip to see Collins made all the difference.
“He said, ‘Hey, if you really tackle this the way we want you to, I think there’s a chance you could get back on the field this year and play baseball,’” Belt said.
“When he told me that, it took a lot of stress off of me. There wasn’t as much anxiety at that point,” he said. “I was determined at that point, determined to do what they told me to do and get back out there and play baseball.”