Tommy Joseph seeks to put concussions behind him

Catcher Tommy Joseph, clearheaded now, says "you have to take your time" recovering from concussions.
Catcher Tommy Joseph, clearheaded now, says "you have to take your time" recovering from concussions. (   DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 11, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - If things had worked according to plan, Tommy Joseph probably would be the Phillies' starting catcher, or fighting hard for the job, in this spring training. That was how the organization envisioned his progression when Joseph was acquired as the centerpiece of the 2012 trade for Hunter Pence.

It's easy to see why. Joseph, a second-round draft pick of the Giants in 2009, looks like the prototype of a big-league catcher: sturdy and strong with a good arm and plate presence, and enough offense to keep him in the lineup.

The Phils saw him as the logical transition after Carlos Ruiz, particularly since the farm system had produced very few catching prospects and the need would soon become apparent.

But plans in baseball are fragile things, even for sturdy catchers. The plan came off the rails last May when Joseph took a series of foul tips off the mask with Lehigh Valley that left him foggy and unsure of himself and turned his season of promise into something else entirely.

In the end, Joseph isn't even sure exactly how many concussions he suffered. He came back, had two relapses of the symptoms, took a rehabilitation assignment, and eventually played in just 36 games all season, landing on the disabled list three separate times.

"Would I have liked to watch Tommy Joseph develop and have a guy I feel I can live with for the next five, seven years?" general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Yeah, but the guy got concussed and we had to bring back the guy who we think is best-suited to help us with the transition."

Ruiz, 35, benefited with a three-year, $26 million contract, and the 22-year-old Joseph will begin another season in Lehigh Valley. The good news is he begins it with a clear head and another clear shot at becoming the future catcher of the Phillies.

"It's a 'what-if' to me," Joseph said, reflecting on what might have been without the concussions. "It's something I don't normally worry about. I'm happy with where I stand in the organization and happy with the organization I'm with."

He is still the heir apparent, as long as the organization is comfortable that he won't disappear again. A stint in winter ball, one in which he took some foul tips to the mask without incident, has helped.

"He's back doing everything and he's one of the catchers that gives us depth in the organization and could give us depth at the major-league level," manager Ryne Sandberg said. The concussions "are not something that's brought up or talked about that much. He's healthy and passing all the tests."

Joseph has gotten only limited opportunity in spring-training games as the Phils have worked to get Ruiz and veteran backup Wil Nieves ready. He will likely be reassigned to the minor-league camp when games begin there next week and he can build himself up for the coming season.

"Obviously, staying healthy is my number-one goal this season," Joseph said. "I've got to do my best not to worry about it. Just getting on the field and staying focused on the goal at hand that day. I do think a lot of the questions have been answered. I've been hit in the head a few times since the last concussion. That told me and the organization that I could still play after getting another blow to the head."

It will take time for Joseph to fully prove to the front office that he is back to stay. This season with Lehigh Valley is the test. Getting a concussion isn't like getting a broken finger. Once the injury heals, the specter of it takes a lot longer to fade.

"The only advice I would give a young player who gets a concussion is to take as much time as you need. It's your life. It's your health," Joseph said. "You really have to think about how you feel. It's easy to be an athlete and a competitor and say, 'I'm fine. I'm going to go out and play.' But you need to sit back and ask yourself some questions. It's a very frustrating thing and it was difficult for me, but this is your career and your life. You have to take your time."

Fortunately for Joseph, time is something he has on his side. Time, and the confidence that - so far - the concussions have not returned to steal another opportunity from him.

"It's scary," said outfielder Domonic Brown, who was out with a concussion for two weeks last season. "You're always thinking, 'Am I OK?' You just have to come back out and fight, because it's tough to go through."

Plans have to change and, last season, Joseph's life had to change, too. He's back now and trying not to worry. Every day, he's a little bit further removed from the last problem and a little bit closer to fulfilling the original plan. That still could change with any pitch, though, and no one knows it better than Tommy Joseph.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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