Concussions occur regularly in football, hockey and other contact sports, but while they're less common for baseball players, they're just as scary and unpredictable.
"One of the weird things was just randomly I would get a sharp pain, like a migraine but it wasn't," Curve second baseman Jarek Cunningham said of his concussion last year. "It would just come into my eyes, and it was a weird thing I couldn't get rid of.
"I'd just be sitting there, or I'd be lying in bed and it would hit me. It would last for 10-15 minutes, then go away and I'd be fine."
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Jarek Cunningham was hit in the temple by a pitched ball last July.
Cunningham was hit by a pitch in the left temple on July 15 last year while playing for high-A Bradenton. He remembers dropping to his knees, then going to sit in the dugout the rest of the game.
"I was just kind of stunned by the whole thing," Cunningham said.
The next few weeks brought a weird mix of feeling fine at times, then a sudden onset of symptoms, which is typical for concussion sufferers.
"I was dazed for a few days," Cunningham said. "Then once I started feeling good, I got a headache when I started to ride the [exercise] bike. So I had another week, and when I got onto the field I had another headache, and it was just kind of a long process getting rid of them."
Cunningham wound up missing the remainder of Bradenton's season, cutting short what had been a superb year with the Marauders. He had gotten off to a blistering start with seven home runs in April and finished with 15 homers in 80 games, an impressive number for a second baseman.
The concussion prevented him from being able to participate in any physical activity, so Cunningham said he "would just sit at home all day and hope to feel better."
He traveled to Pittsburgh to see specialists, and luckily there was no serious damage. Still, they didn't have many answers for him.
"Just wait it out," Cunningham said of the doctors' advice.
Waiting didn't used to be the way concussions were handled.
Curve manager P.J. Forbes recalls playing quarterback in high school, suffering a concussion and going back out to the field a few plays later.
"Back then you just didn't think about it," Forbes said. "You took a shot to the head, you went back out there. It wasn't thought of in any other way. I just figured I took a shot to the head and rung my bell, and I had bad headaches for a few days.
"Now, knowing what the impact to the brain does, they're taking it very seriously."
The Pirates, like most pro and college teams, administer the ImPACT baseline test to all minor league players before the season. If a player is believed to have suffered a concussion, he is placed through the same battery of tests for comparative measurements until the symptoms disappear.
There's often no rhyme or reason for why concussion symptoms disappear, and in Cunningham's case, he said, "One day I woke up, and I was fine.
"It was just good being able to live a normal life again," he added.
With the symptoms gone, Cunningham was able to play two rehab games with the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates on Aug. 24-25. He wasn't able to return and finish Bradenton's season, but he was finally healthy, and the Bucs decided to send him to the Arizona Fall League in early October.
Cunningham called that "a great experience," and he put up good power numbers in Arizona with three homers and 16 RBIs in 25 games while batting .222.
Despite playing only 80 games at high-A, Cunningham impressed the Pirates enough to earn a promotion to the Curve this season.
"He came into spring training I think a little out of sorts in terms of hitting position," Curve manager P.J. Forbes said. "We got that cleaned up, got him back to a little more upright, I think where he was early last year."
The 23-year-old second baseman hasn't had trouble adjusting to the higher level in the early going. He smacked two hits in each of his first two games and had another in the third, making him 5-for-13 (.385) with two doubles and three RBIs.
"It's nice to see him swing the bat," Forbes said.
The Pirates know Cunningham can hit. What they will need to see is a major improvement at second base after he committed 22 errors in just the 80 games last year.
"For me it's about everyday defense," Forbes said. "I know he's going to hit. One of his things was not being there every pitch on defense, so that's a big point of emphasis with us with him this year."