A glimpse inside Dr. Micky Collins’ office at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center leaves little doubt about his baseball allegiances.
Player jerseys, batting helmets and other autographed memorabilia all pay tribute to his beloved Boston Red Sox, a lifelong affiliation forged from his upbringing in Hermon.
“The Red Sox are in my blood,” said Collins, now an internationally renowned expert in sports-related concussions and director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program.
“Like with almost every kid who grows up in New England, it’s a rite of passage.”
Collins followed the Red Sox’s recent six-game World Series victory over the St. Louis Cardinals closely, and watching Boston catcher David Ross smash an RBI double during the seventh inning of Game 5 produced an extra special reaction from Collins, himself a former baseball player at Hermon High School who went on to compete for the University of Southern Maine in the 1989 NCAA Division III College World Series.
Not only did Ross’ hit drive home the winning run in the Red Sox’s 3-1 victory, it was just one more sign of how far the 12-year veteran had rebounded since being sidelined twice earlier this season by concussions, a rehabilitation process Collins facilitated.
“It was just very special to see David Ross having success on that stage, knowing where he had come from,” he said.
Collins — also one of the co-founders of the ImPACT neurocognitive testing model now used with student-athletes in high schools throughout Maine and at numerous levels across the nation — has treated hundreds of high-profile professional athletes ranging from Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins to NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Ross was one of two Red Sox players aided by Collins this season.
Shortstop Stephen Drew was referred to Collins during spring training after being hit in the head by a pitch and diagnosed with a concussion.
Drew came off the disabled list April 10 and went on to be a defensive stalwart for the Red Sox throughout the summer and fall.
“Stephen came to me during spring training after he had been hit by a pitch, and it was a six- to-eight-week process with him because he had some issues,” said Collins. “But to see him now playing the way he has at shortstop has been just great to see.
“And when he hit that home run in Game 6, that was a very special moment.”
The troubles for Ross — a 36-year-old journeyman who has played for six Major League teams, including a previous eight-game stint with the Red Sox in 2008 — began during a May 11 game.
Twice he was struck in his catcher’s mask by foul tips within a 10-pitch sequence during the ninth inning. While Ross finished the game, those blows led him to Major League Baseball’s seven-day concussion disabled list.
He returned to the Red Sox on May 25 but struggled offensively.
Then during a June 14 game against Baltimore, Ross was struck in the mask by yet another foul tip. Four days later he was back on the disabled list, this time for two months.
“They did some tests and kind of concluded I wasn’t right,” said Ross during a news conference after Game 5 of the World Series. “Then I tried to come back fast, not giving enough credit to really what a concussion is. As athletes we feel like we can get through anything, and I couldn’t. I stunk for a good two weeks, three weeks, and my wife finally was like, ‘If you don’t tell the doctors, I’m going to.’”
That June episode led Ross to Collins.
“The sent me to see a specialist in Pittsburgh, Micky Collins, whom I have a tremendous amount of respect for and probably wouldn’t be sitting here if not for him,” said Ross during the news conference.
“[I had] headaches and dizziness and all the symptoms, couldn’t ride in a car, couldn’t be in crowded places,” he added, “but I did all the exercises Micky put me through and slowly came back. And thank goodness my hitting has come around, because I stunk there for a while.”
Collins said catchers face the most frequent threat of concussion among baseball players because of the immediate environment they play in — the threats of home-plate collisions, getting hit in the back of the head by a batter’s follow-through or absorbing foul tips to the facemask.
“There’s a lot more trauma in that position than at any other position,” said Collins, who in 2006 treated current St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, a 13-year major league catcher who ultimately ended his playing career in 2007 due to lingering concussion symptoms.
But no two concussions are exactly the same, requiring individualized treatment plans for each case.
“There are many different subtexts of concussions,” said Collins. “There are 30 different types of knee injuries; why would anyone think it’s any different with concussions?”
Treating baseball-related concussions involves approaches that take into account many factors involving the player’s exact duties.
“The rehabilitation process with an athlete is very targeted,” said Collins. “You’re working to help them get back to doing the specific functions they need to do to play their position.”
For catchers, such exercises may involve eye movement, head movement and even the mere act of rising from the crouched position.
Sometimes the concussed player also must avoid the locker room altogether.
“With David it was just way too busy for him in the clubhouse environment,” Collins said.
Ross did not return to Boston’s active roster until Aug. 20 but batted .270 during the final five weeks of the regular season.
He then hit .240 in eight postseason games, but it was two home-plate collisions during Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against Detroit that convinced Collins that Ross was all the way back.
“Right after that happened I texted David and told him, ‘That’s the last stage of concussion rehabilitation,’” joked Collins.
Ross, who backed up starting catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia throughout the season, played a more prominent role as a defensive specialist and handler of pitchers during the World Series — starting in all four of Boston’s victories.
“The trip I’ve taken this year, I never thought I’d be here. There were times I was questioning whether my career was over,” Ross said during the news conference after Game 5. “But thanks to a lot of positive people and good doctors, I’m here.”
Collins, who attended Game 1 of the World Series with one of his four daughters, Brooke, at Ross’ invitation, was glad to help make it possible on multiple levels.
“Today,” he said the afternoon after the Red Sox won the World Series, “is a very, very special day for me.”