NEW YORK (AP) — Planted in right field, hands resting tenuously on his unsteady knees, Ryan Church felt as though the stadium was spinning.
He was nauseous and dizzy following a pair of concussions, and one repugnant thought filled his sleep-deprived brain: Don't vomit.
"I wasn't right," Church said. "I still don't know how I played. I don't even remember any more. Trying to think back, I don't even want to talk about it. It makes me sick."
Still, he pressed on last year, even as his batting average dropped. Determined to help the New York Mets any way he could during the pennant race, Church tried to play through a series of debilitating symptoms caused by two concussions in less than three months.
Looking back now, he knows it was unwise.
"I would be trying not to throw up. Standing in the outfield, just spinning like no other. Just trying to take those deep breaths, like just trying to relax myself, don't get all panicky," said Church, traded by the Mets to Atlanta last month. "It went on and off the whole year, but mostly the bad stuff was when I first came back. It was way too soon."
Church is grateful he didn't sustain a third concussion — he says his doctor told him such an injury could have ended his career. But it's no wonder he'd take exception to anyone questioning his toughness.
After Mets slugger David Wright was hit in the head by a fastball last weekend, causing a concussion, New York manager Jerry Manuel said Wright was a "different animal" than Church, who was in and out of the lineup last season following his second concussion.
Church was bothered by that statement, inferring that Manuel doubted his tenacity.
"It just felt like a low blow," Church said Tuesday before the Braves played the Mets. "I saw it. I wasn't happy. If he had a problem with me or anything like that, you'd think he'd tell it to my face. I had plenty of opportunity to talk while I was wearing that uniform. It just was like, all right, now that I'm wearing another one, why would he come out and say that?"
Manuel said he meant no disrespect. He said he was simply trying to explain that the players involved were different, just like the concussions.
Manuel and Church appeared to have a strained relationship during the outfielder's 1½ seasons in New York, though publicly they both disputed that perception.
"There's no ill intent," Manuel said. "I don't mean to take a shot at him. If that's how he felt, I apologize to him. I like Ryan Church."
Church sustained his first concussion during spring training last year, when he collided with teammate Marlon Anderson on March 1.
The Mets were criticized for rushing Church back from his next concussion May 20, when he took an accidental knee to the head in Atlanta while sliding into second base trying to break up a game-ending double play.
He was used as a pinch hitter two days later and didn't go on the disabled list until June 10. In the meantime, he endured a miserable flight with the team to Colorado and its thin air, exacerbating his post-concussion symptoms.
He came off the disabled list June 29, then went back on from July 8 to Aug. 22.
Why did Church keep playing? He wanted to help his club, which collapsed in September and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season. When asked by the Mets whether he was OK, Church said his normal response was, "I'm good."
He said that sort of stubborn attitude is in a ballplayer's DNA. That's why he didn't go on the DL immediately after his second concussion.
"From the outside looking in, the smartest thing to do obviously was to go on. But for me, I was trying to just get back and play. I mean, they were telling me if I would have went out there and got another one, my career would have been over. And that didn't really sink in. And it wasn't like anybody was telling me, no, don't do it, go on the DL," Church said.
Church contacted Wright to offer advice and support to his former teammate soon after the All-Star third baseman was diagnosed with a concussion last weekend.
"That's what I told him: 'Don't be a hero,'" Church said.
Wright said he appreciated the gesture and was encouraged that he hadn't experienced many of the symptoms that troubled Church, such as nausea and sensitivity to light. Wright was placed on the 15-day DL the day after he was beaned, even though he lobbied team executives not to make the move.
Manuel acknowledged that he and Church didn't communicate very well about the injury last season.
"We didn't have clarity on the message that we were getting from him," Manuel said. "I'm as much to blame as he is."
But Church said he doesn't fault the Mets for how they handled the situation.
"It was a whole learning process. We all went through it," he said. "I'm just thankful that I can still play."
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