Today, he feels like one of the fortunate ones. He recovered. While he never played again, he went on to become manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. At 46, he is in his seventh season on the job -- thankful for the chance to stay in the game. But he's also a prominent spokesman for the efforts of baseball and other professional sports to no longer shrug their collective shoulders at the issue of concussions.
Matheny discusses concussions and their impact on his life and the lives of others in this week's Q&A:
MLB.com: When did you realize the problem of the concussions?
Matheny: At the end. I knew I had more along the way, but [they weren't] a big deal. It [was] nobody's fault. To be honest with you, that's kinda how I wanted [it], as long as I got the cobwebs clear, could go back out and play -- whether it was football as a kid or in baseball. I never really understood the lasting impact or the damage that was going on until it went beyond the point where I could just keep playing.
MLB.com: So the concussions were what brought about the end of your career?
Matheny: Yeah, that was it. There were a series of foul balls -- which was the funny thing, because [they were] the least impactful of all the other incidents. The others were plays at the plate or football injuries. But none of them [were bad enough] where I'd ever really come out of a game. I was able to play through them, able to play the next day -- whether I should've or not. In hindsight, with modern medicine, that was probably questionable. But, at the time, there [were] no negative ramifications from just kind of pushing through.
But after the foul balls, I couldn't bounce back. I couldn't see, I couldn't think. I knew something was wrong. I think you start thinking about the brain and how little we do know about it. I had specialists from all over the world trying to run me through [a] battery of tests. It got to the point where they realized, after it was over a year, that I still was not able to function correctly or cognitively. They didn't believe the risk was worth the reward, and they weren't going to clear me to play.
MLB.com: Can you remember the foul balls?
Matheny: We were playing in San Francisco, and I had two in one game. After the second one, I was having trouble getting my focus back. I was foggy. The Giants were trying to be proactive, but I wasn't cooperating at all. Just a meathead. We jumped on a plane, flew to Miami and the next game I took a couple more [off my mask]. After the last one, I went up to bat. It was like swinging under water -- and I truly knew if a ball was coming at me, I couldn't get out of the way. I was forgetting what pitches I was calling. It was just a bad series of events to let me know that, "OK, time to stop trying to be a tough guy and realize that something major's going on." [The Giants] stepped in, got me out of the game and then sent me straight to Pittsburgh to some of the specialists in the concussion world.
MLB.com: When you talk about the competitive nature of athletes, a lot of times we do have to protect them from themselves, right?
Matheny: That is the kind of player I was. I wasn't a talented offensive player, I just did my job behind the plate. Little things like blocking the plate, laying down there and letting [balls] hit me. First of all, that was part of the fun of the game. You had that mix of the football business and it was a way for me to prove to my club -- especially my pitching staff -- that I was going to do whatever I could to help them and to help our team.
I was talking to the Commissioner's Office and the league president's office when we were going through the change of getting rid of the [home-plate] collision and I said, "Listen, I'd be the first guy to stand up and say this is the biggest mistake to ever get rid of collisions at the plate. And I'm going to tell you right now that my life was radically changed by the incidents." There was a period of about 18 months that I was wondering if I was ever going to be able to have a normal conversation. I couldn't speak right. I had words that I knew [where] they were hanging there, but I just couldn't grab them. [When] I was driving down the road every single time I'd head out, I didn't even know where I was going. Those things were letting me realize something dramatic had happened. I was trying to figure out if I could stay in this game in a positive way and maybe lessen the chance that something like this [was] going to happen to people in the future.
MLB.com: So when you think of what you've been able to accomplish since then, to be managing a successful big league ball club, you have to feel that's been quite an accomplishment.
Matheny: [I'm] very blessed. I'm proud of the fact that I was considered, proud of the fact that the guys have continued to compete and, I believe, display the kind of baseball that's expected from this organization. There was a period of time there with [the concussions when] I was just wondering, "What am I going to be able to effectively do here? Am I going to be able to use some of the abilities that I have? Am I going to be able to communicate the things that I know?" That wasn't very clear. It's been a great ride and I've enjoyed every single day of it.
MLB.com: Did you want to stay in the game?
Matheny: I knew [I wanted to be involved] at some level. I loved coaching kids, too. I was doing that even when I was still struggling through [the concussions]. Having five kids, I had lots of opportunities to jump in and help them -- and that was therapeutic. It was also something that showed me how much I do love teaching this game and trying to help players -- to help other coaches and just try to serve people through the game of baseball. I became very aware of kind of that life path.
MLB.com: Do you see the addition of the concussion disabled list a major step for baseball?
Matheny: I think it's huge. There's still so much more coming along, trying to figure out how to find a baseline. Every catcher now -- and most position players, too -- have a baseline test to go back to. We didn't have that, so they didn't know how much damage had happened to me because there was nothing to measure [against] when everything was fine. I think that's a great first step -- and then realizing that the second-concussion syndrome is something that affects kids. I get stories all the time -- sad stories from young kids playing soccer, baseball, riding their bikes, and something happens and then they don't take the precautionary measures and they have that second [concussion] before the first one's even healed. There are kids that are having to withdraw from school for years until they can get their mind going right. That's scary stuff, that's life-altering stuff.
I think baseball has been great about being proactive. [It used to be,] "Hey, follow my finger. Tell me what day of the week it is and what's your mother's first name? If you can answer those questions, you're fine to play again." That's not the science that we have anymore. We need to make sure these kids are healthy before we fire them back in there for the good of the game. For the good of the individuals themselves.