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A sometimes-irreverent look at Detroit's Boys of Summer, the Tigers, as they try to return to the top of the American League Central.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Joking Avila cleared to return, but situation was no laughing matter

DETROIT — It was a laughing matter.

It also was not.

When Alex Avila ran into teammate Prince Fielder’s elbow, both chasing a foul pop-up in Cleveland on Sunday, he went down like a sack of potatoes. His manager said he looked “like a prize fighter” who’d gotten knocked out.

Friends teased Avila a bit.

“I got a few phone calls, texts saying ‘What are you doing running into a tree?’ ” the catcher admitted Thursday morning, when he’d been cleared to play again after missing three games with a sprained jaw and what were termed “mild concussion symptoms,” including headaches.

Even Avila, always quick with a self-deprecating joke, was willing to laugh at himself a little bit.

“Ask him how his elbow feels,” the catcher said with a grin, jabbing his sore chin in the direction of the seated Fielder in the locker room, when a reporter had started to ask a question about the norm for a collision like that, where both players get staggered.

Someone asked him if he’d seen the replay yet.

“Yeah. Yeah,” he said, watching someone in the circle of reporters shudder at the memory. “That was exactly my reaction.”

Someone asked him if he’d take an extra peek at his surroundings, when chasing any future pop-ups on the first base side, what with Fielder roaming around over there, too.

“I will be taking ... a FEW more looks,” he laughed.

All in all, he was in a far better frame of mind to be fielding the questions Thursday, after he’d gotten the medical clearance to play. He’d scored basically the same on the SCAT (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool — a grouping of questions and balance and coordination checks) the two previous times it was administered since Sunday, but scored better in his last try.

“Yeah, no. Much better. Everything was just better across the board. I just feel better, mentally, feel more normal. Everything’s good, no more headaches, nothing like that. Just the jaw’s going to be sore for a few more days,” he said. “But a little pain’s not going to hurt me.”

Umm ... channeling Yogi Berra much?

Playing through pain is certainly not a new phenomenon for the tough-as-nails Avila, though. Yes, he got dinged up repeatedly in the few games leading up to the collision, but no, that part’s not concerning.

“It’s nothing new. I feel fine, physically. Yeah, I got hit a few times, and stuff like that, but that’s just ... I mean, how many times have you asked me that question?” Avila said. “A lot. It’s just part of the job.”

It’s common enough that his wife, Kristina, did not flinch when she was called by her parents, telling her he’d come out of the game. She did not see it live.

“When someone tells her, ‘Your husband got hit,’ she’s like ‘OK, well? Is he OK? That’s nothing new,’ ” Avila recalled. “Then obviously, when she heard how bad it was, concussion and all that stuff, she was concerned.”

That’s where the not-so funny stuff comes in.

As Tigers manager Jim Leyland said the other day, when you’re talking about “upstairs” — his words — it’s no laughing matter. It was something he was not messing around with. No chance.

“They have rules on this stuff, with concussion symptoms. You can’t do certain things. You’ve gotta be cleared. I don’t want to fool with that stuff,” the skipper said. “I don’t want that on my plate.”

Or on his conscience.

And concussions are no laughing matter, as Major League Baseball — like all of the major sports — have come to realize. When Avila plays next, he’ll likely be able to look across the field to see someone who can relate to that.

The Minnesota Twins, who visit Comerica Park Friday to Sunday, went without first baseman Justin Morneau for 174 games — more than a full season’s worth — over the last two years, after he suffered several concussions. The first came in July 2010.

Even as recently this spring training, he was concerned that his career was in jeopardy.

Those are the thoughts that went through Avila’s mind, as well.

“Once it happened, obviously, all the concerns from the trainers and the doctors telling me what it could become, if I didn’t take care of it. And obviously, hearing stories from guys like Morneau, and talking to them over the last couple of years, and seeing what they’ve gone through — a few (Twins) guys have gone through those concussion symptoms and missed a lot of time. That’s something I didn’t want, especially in my position, knowing that I’m going to get hit in the head a few times,” he admitted.

“It’s something that, in my position, could cut my career short. Obviously, I had to think about not only myself and my career, but the quality of life after that, and making sure that I was right before I got back in there.”

No laughing matter.


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