Frazier on 2nd concussion: ‘I kept things to myself'


MESA, Ariz. — By the time last season started, the recurring headaches were back. Along with the dizziness.

So was the occasional blurred vision, which made it tough enough at times to track fly balls that Clint Frazier started getting criticized for diving when it looked like he didn’t have to.

The Yankees left fielder at the time knew what was wrong.

But also this: “I knew what would happen if I didn’t play,” he said.

So he told no one about the second concussion — the one he suffered when he hit the wall in a September 2020 game against the Blue Jays. The one that affected his play through the postseason. The one that continued to impact his career, and his personal life, seven months later when he opened the season as the Yankees everyday left fielder.

“I obviously kept certain things to myself in 2020,” he said. “They weren’t really made aware until I pulled myself from that game in 2021.”

That was June 30. The last game he played.

The Yankees released him after the season.

AFTER VOWING TO publicly “clear up” inaccuracies and misinformation about his struggles and health with the Yankees over the past year, Frazier — who signed a one-year contract with the Cubs hours ahead of MLB’s lockout — sat down with NBC Sports Chicago for his first interview of the spring, describing frightening details of his efforts to play through and recover from two concussions in the past four seasons, an ordeal that by last year he called “fighting for my life.”

“It was basically like a hangover every day,” he said. “Except I felt slowed down, one step behind. Fortunately I’ve had the opportunity to get past that.”

According to CDC estimates, athletes across all levels of sports in the United States suffer between 1.6 million and 3.8 million concussions per year, many going unreported or undetected. Symptoms and recovery time can vary widely.

While football accounts for most reported concussions in the U.S., they are common enough in baseball that Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward was forced to MLB’s concussion injured list twice in the past four seasons, including last September, and Cubs manager David Ross spent time on the same list twice during his catching career, including once as a Cub in 2015 and another time for two months with the Red Sox in 2013.

The concussion list in major-league baseball was created only 11 years ago.

“I don’t think people really understand what it’s like until you experience it yourself,” Frazier said. “People would say, ‘Oh, he’s just having a headache.’ It’s not a headache. Your quality of life is certainly hindered whenever you go through a brain injury.”

Never mind trying to hit baseballs with 90-plus-mph velocity and bend or tracking one at 95 mph slicing toward the corner.

“Baseball’s already hard, but it made it extremely hard,” he said.

CUBS GENERAL MANAGER Carter Hawkins was the assistant farm director in Cleveland when his club drafted Frazier fifth overall out of Loganville (Georgia) High School in 2013 — three spots behind Cubs pick Kris Bryant.

“The physical tools were pretty clear,” said Hawkins, who left Cleveland to join team president Jed Hoyer’s front office in October. “The bat speed, the quick hands, the ability to play multiple outfield positions, the power — those were things that kind of jumped off the page.”

Frazier showed those skills as a Cleveland minor-leaguer, earning top-50 rankings on prospect lists by the time he was traded to the Yankees at the 2016 trade deadline as the centerpiece of a four-player package for Andrew Miller.

“His bat speed is legendary,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said at the time of the trade.

The Cubs reached out to Frazier as soon as the Yankees released him, in part because of Hawkins’ history with him — which, in turn, was also part of Frazier’s decision to turn down bigger offers and sign with the Cubs for $1.5 million barely a week after his release, just under the wire to assure his 2022 place of employment before the Dec. 2 lockout.

Knowing the Cubs might have experience in-house with his specific health history, if not a support system, was another reason to sign with the club.

“That wasn’t the full reason,” he said. “I guess if you zoom out, it’s part of it. But there’s a lot of opportunity here. There’s a lot of reasons why I signed here, and the people that I ultimately get to work with every day here, they’re impressing me.”

In his first three games this spring, Frazier is 2-for-6 with three walks and made a sliding catch in left field in his first game. Make that 3-for-7 after bouncing a double off the right-field wall in his first at-bat Wednesday.

“You try not to put limits on guys, either on the floor or the ceiling,” Hawkins said when asked about Frazier’s upside for the Cubs if he can stay on the field and stay healthy this year. “But he’s been an above-average major-league outfielder when he’s had consistent at-bats. That’s something he’s going to have earn here, and he’s certainly capable of it.”

WHEN FRAZIER BROKE into the majors with the Yankees in July 2017, he quickly delivered on the talent and promise under the most glaring spotlight in the sport — including a double in his second at-bat, a homer in his third and nine extra-base hits in his first 14 games overall for the playoff-bound Yankees.

The only other Yankee with as many in his first 14 games: Joe DiMaggio (11).

Frazier made plenty of headlines that season for big quotes, bigger hair (in early defiance of the team’s strict hair-length policy) and a since-debunked report that he had asked for Mickey Mantle’s retired No. 7 (eventually choosing 77 as a retort to the broadcaster who unleashed Yankee nation’s ire upon him with the rumor).

But he also earned a place in the Yankees’ 2018 plans for their star-studded outfield.

Until his first collision with a wall, in spring training, triggered the first concussion, limiting him to 15 big-league games and 48 at Triple-A.

He recovered from that to get a quick callup five games into the 2019 season after multiple injuries to the Yankees outfield and performed well until the high-paid veteran starters returned. By 2020 he had established himself as a productive regular in the Yanks’ outfield rotation.

Until the second collision with the wall in September, and the silence about its effects while he pushed to stay on the field through the playoffs.

Then came a “bump” with the wall the following spring that aggravated the lingering effects he thought he had all but overcome. Followed by the most challenging, painful, confounding six months of his life.

“The biggest thing is that the time I wasn’t on the field, it was detrimental,” he said. “It didn’t really give me a chance to continue to build off of things that I had previously started to accomplish. I had a pretty bad concussion that definitely didn’t just affect my baseball life, but affected my personal life.

“If I didn’t have that concussion, I don’t know if I would be sitting here right now, because I feel like I would be playing left field for them.”

Instead, he was hitting .186 with a .633 OPS by the time he took himself out of that game in June, worked with the Yankees medical staff on finding effective treatment — all while hearing and reading reports of his condition that ranged from vertigo to an issue with contact lenses.

Even after he was non-tendered in November, one report out of New York called his second-half absence “due to mysterious dizziness that still hasn’t been explained.”

“It was ridiculous,” Frazier said.

“Ultimately it didn’t work out the way that [I wanted],” he said. “I feel like right now I’m in the spot I’m supposed to be.”

NOT EVEN FRAZIER can know if the effects of multiple concussions is completely behind him.

Studies suggest once somebody has had a concussion they can become more susceptible to them in the future.

But after an aggressive treatment program following his release, “I’m good right now,” he said.

“I don’t know if anyone is ever 100 percent, whether you’re an athlete or an everyday person,” he added. “But I feel like I’m about as close to 100 percent as I can get.”

With an experienced eye toward managing his body and his aggressiveness to stay that way.

And before anyone asks, yes, he knows about the brick behind the ivy at Wrigley Field.

“I was made aware very quickly after I signed,” he said. “There’s a lot of tweets of people saying, ‘Who the [hell] signed this guy to play for the only team with a brick wall?’ “

It’s something that comes with an easy laugh, basking in the promise and warmth of spring training in Arizona.

But what if that promise — and health — holds up for a full season? For the first time since suffering that first concussion.

Consider that Frazier is still just 27, and the Cubs have their gaze firmly fixed on building the core of their “next great Cubs team.”

“I think it’s fun to dream on what I can do. But I don’t think I fully know exactly what I’m capable of yet,” he said. “I think that if I get a full season under my belt and I stay healthy, there’s a lot of opportunity that I can do some damage offensively. I just need to get that opportunity.”

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