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Updated: April 4th, 2012 4:35pm
Mackey: Denard Span adjusting well so far to complicated health status

Mackey: Denard Span adjusting well so far to complicated health status

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As the Minnesota Twins prepare to leave Fort Myers for Baltimore, not many people are talking about Denard Span.

Maybe that's a good sign.

Span experienced some dark times in 2011 after a June 3 home-plate collision in Kansas City caused whiplash and a concussion. The lingering effects of the incident sidelined Span for all but 15 games the rest of the season, and he spent his entire winter trying to get back on track.

Upon reporting to spring training in mid-February, Span called his symptoms "manageable," adding "Some days are better than others. But I have been smart about it. I know my body and it's nowhere near where it was last year."

Within one week of full-squad workouts, Span crashed face-first into a chain-link fence on one of the side fields while trying to track down a fly ball. He came away feeling fine.

As spring training progressed, the conversations with Span's injury-plagued teammates Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer evolved from "How do you feel?" to "How does your swing feel?"

Span's health status is still somewhat complicated.

On one hand, he played every game he was asked to play this spring and batted .317/.400/.383 with nine walks and only five strikeouts. The only time Span missed a beat was a three-day stretch in mid-March where he sat with a stiff neck.

On the other hand, staying in the lineup every day is a process. Span has implemented changes to his diet, supplement intake and workouts to help keep a clear head, a healthy body and high energy levels.

"I had a couple bad days that maybe nobody knew about. But I got through it," Span said.

"I think I'm definitely over the concussion. There's no question about that. I ran into three or four walls during spring training. So I don't think it's the concussion. But I guess when you have a neck injury you don't pay attention to certain things.

"I've just got to do little stuff that I didn't have to do before, which is weird. Before I had this injury I had never went to a chiropractor, I had never had to get adjusted, but now after this happened I have to. I have to get adjusted every week, or else I do feel a little different."

Span's difficulties with head-related symptoms go back to 2009 when he was diagnosed with an inner-ear condition called vestibular neuritis. Unlike elbow surgeries and pulled hamstrings, vestibular issues are not common in major league baseball, and the symptoms can be both fleeting and difficult to explain.

To be clear, Span said he doesn't believe vestibular neuritis is still a lingering issue, "But when I do have a bad day it kind of wakes that up a little bit. ...

"Bad days don't necessarily have to be concussion symptoms. If I get thrown off a routine, for example. Last year the concussion stemmed from a neck injury -- from the whiplash. So I've got to make sure I see a chiropractor weekly to get adjusted, and take certain supplements and vitamins, and get my proper sleep. If one of those things is thrown off, then it might cause a day where I don't feel as great."

Aside from teammate Morneau, Baltimore Orioles infielder Brian Roberts might be the most notable example of a player currently grinding through post-concussion issues. Roberts has suffered two concussions over the past 18 months -- once in September 2010 after tapping a bat against his helmet following a strikeout, and again while diving back into first base in May 2011.

According to an ESPN Outside the Lines report, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that Roberts' post-concussion symptoms had a significant vestibular component to them.

Roberts was placed on the Orioles' 15-day disabled list to start the season, but he will head north with the team to get used to traveling, stadiums and other possible challenges.

But during his struggles last season, Roberts told ESPN he felt "a major sense of uncertainty with everything. ... Dizziness, walking down the dugout I couldn't walk a straight line."

His main symptoms were fogginess, dizziness, and constantly feeling tired.

"I've felt that," Span said. "Yeah, I've felt that. Just my instincts, even in the outfield, I wouldn't get as good of a jump on a tough ball and have to dive. ... In this game, that split second. ... If you're off by a quarter of a second it's going to affect your game. ...

"For him, he went from being an All-Star player to being an average player. I went from being an average player to maybe being below average. ...

"But yeah, I can relate to him exactly."

Span's self-assessment is a bit too modest, because in his first two seasons he asserted himself as one of baseball's best leadoff hitters, batting .305/.390/.422 with 41 stolen bases, 63 extra-base hits and almost as many walks as strikeouts in 1,087 plate appearances.

Those numbers dipped in 2010 and fell off the planet in the second half of 2011 when Span tried to come back from his concussion. In those first 10 games back, Span reached base just five times in 42 plate appearances. He was then shut down again until late September when he played in the season's last five games.

Asked how often he still feels spacey or dizzy when playing, Span said, "once in a blue moon."

He added, "Just take it one day at a time. Just because I don't feel good on Monday -- after Monday night's game I might try to get more sleep, or I might try to do something to make sure Tuesday is a little bit better.

"Even this spring I've had a couple days where it wasn't that great, but I'd make a few adjustments and I feel different the next four or five days. It's just one day at a time, and you're staying on top of things."

As the regular season begins, Span will be forced to adjust once again -- to things most of us don't think twice about.

"There's a lot of unknowns," he said. "Now we'll start traveling more on airplanes, sleeping in different beds in hotels, so there's a lot of unknowns. But I'm not going to allow myself to think that I won't be OK. I mean, I think half of it is mental and thinking positive and not thinking the worst. Even coming into spring training I knew it was an adjustment period, going from the offseason coming into camp.

"So I'm pretty sure at the beginning of the season it will take me a little bit of time to get used to finding the perfect routine -- day game, night game, when to eat, whatever. (But) I've put forth a lot of hard work this offseason in trying to come up with the plan, and trying to surround myself with knowledgeable people to help me get through the season."

For now, Span can find comfort in knowing he has found a way to navigate through some "bad days" while still being productive on the field, even though he still isn't able to wake up every morning without thinking, "Am I 100 percent today?"

And for the Twins to have any chance at all in a stacked American League this year, they'll need Span to be the catalyst he was prior to 2011.

"I feel great, man. I'm excited about this season. I've put forth a lot of hard work and tried a lot of new things, and I'm just ready to turn the page from last year. It was definitely tough, and I feel like I've had to overcome a lot of things to this point in my career, and I feel like it's just another chapter of me overcoming something after this season."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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