Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of Sunday stories leading up to the All-Star Game.
DENVER – It bothers him still.
Nine months have passed, and everyone has gotten on with life. Justin Morneau’s old position has been filled by his oldest friend in baseball. His locker in the far corner of the Twins clubhouse, closest to the food as he once joked, is now occupied by Josh Willingham. Morneau himself has worn two different uniforms since the Twins traded him last August, and he has settled in just fine in his new home.
The Minnesota chapter of his life has concluded — for everyone but Morneau. Like a hallway light still burning, like a window left ajar, the Colorado Rockies first baseman has a nagging feeling, even all these months later, that he’s left something undone back home in Minneapolis. He’s left something unspoken ... with you.
“That was something I want to do — to go back,” Morneau says. “You know, I never really had a chance to say goodbye,” to the Twins, the team’s employees and staff, and especially its No. 33-wearing fans. “Being traded when we were on the road, it wasn’t like it happened during a homestand.”
No, he left abruptly, dispatched suddenly to Pittsburgh while the Twins were in Texas, exiled to the National League with no way to thank his supporters for their 11 seasons of encouragement. Morneau, whose bemused demeanor disguises his sensitive nature, wrote a heartfelt note to the city that day and distributed it to Minnesota reporters, but it felt unsatisfying and impersonal, like breaking up via text message.
Rockies fans have made him feel welcome and appreciated this season, but “I don’t know if I’ll ever have that relationship with anyone” like he did with Twins fans, Morneau says. “I was there for so long. They saw me grow up. There’s a special relationship there.”
The schedule-makers are no help. The Rockies and Twins are in different leagues, so Colorado has no annual appointment in the Twin Cities. By coincidence, the teams are actually scheduled to meet next month, but in Coors Field, a time zone away. A Colorado-Minnesota series in Target Field is probably three years away, at minimum.
What a shame. If only there was some event, some special occasion, that could reunite the Canadian slugger this summer with his adopted hometown. Some function that would provide him a stage to express his gratitude, and vice versa.
Hey, wait a minute ...
“That’d be something, wouldn’t it?” Joe Mauer says, grinning at the notion of his old pal, the other half of the Twins’ M&M Boys, standing along Target Field’s third-base line on July 15 and being introduced as a National League All-Star. “I’m sure he’d get some pretty amazing cheers, pretty loud, every time he stepped to the plate.”
Yeah, it’s occurred to Morneau, too. “It would be a dream come true,” he says. “It would be a really cool situation. I guess I’m the only one who can really control that.”
He’s doing a pretty great job of it so far. Morneau, whose age now matches the 33 on his back, has batted above .300 for most of the season, until a 1-for-18 slump heading into the weekend cooled him off. He remains almost exactly on pace, however, to equal the 30-homer, 100-RBI levels that he reached in 2009, the last time he played in an All-Star Game. The long uppercut swing, with the hands-over-helmet follow-through that became so familiar in the Metrodome, is back and connecting with errant fastballs again.
Morneau has the look of an All-Star once more, though he understands the field is a crowded one. “You look at the lineup of guys — [Paul] Goldschmidt, [Joey] Votto, Adrian Gonzalez — and you look at the years some guys are having already, it’s tough competition,” Morneau says, sizing up his chances. “To be up with those guys, it’d be a lot of fun. But if my whole goal is to put up numbers and get there, that’s when I’m going to get away from what I’m trying to do, and that’s just trying to contribute every day. Show up and do my job, and hopefully that will be good enough. We’ll see.”
His career marker
Showing up and doing his job, you see, is a victory unto itself. Morneau is one month away from the fourth anniversary of the day that changed his life and nearly swallowed up his career, and while he played 152 games last season, not until now has he begun to feel like something other than a depleted replica of the player he once was. When Toronto shortstop John McDonald’s knee collided with Morneau’s skull during a routine play at second base on July 7, 2010, the former MVP ceded control of his life to a concussion, and its detour into a ceaseless yet unpredictable rhythm of recovery and relapse.
“It’s sort of like a hangover that never goes away,” Morneau says. “You can do one thing one day and feel fine. And do the same thing the next day, and all of a sudden, it sets off something. It’s a very frustrating process.”
Over and over, and especially every offseason, Morneau told himself, even convinced himself, that his symptoms were gone for good. He came to Twins’ training camp each spring optimistic that his brain had healed, that the home runs would come in bunches once more. And each time, it wasn’t true.
“You feel good one day, you go out there and run around, and all of a sudden you feel terrible for four or five days. And those four or five days are all spent constantly thinking about what you did to make yourself feel bad,” Morneau says. “It’s just like a never-ending cycle.”
How did he break that cycle? By admitting he can’t.
The symptoms don’t bother him now, or hardly ever, but Morneau no longer clings to the concept of “cured.” He is a concussion victim, present tense. So he has learned to cherish, but not presuppose, his symptom-free days.
“I wouldn’t say [I’m] 100 percent healthy. I haven’t been 100 percent healthy in a long time. But I feel good. Today I feel good,” Morneau says. “It’s changed my perspective. I was always one of those people that looked forward. I don’t think I was ever able to appreciate stuff as I was going along, and I’ve tried to slow it down and just enjoy every day. Some days aren’t a lot of fun, but when you can go from being one of the best players in the game, and to have it turn that quick, and you wonder if you’re ever going to be able to play again, I mean, you’re able to put [things] in perspective pretty easily.”
That perspective helped him deal with the disappointment of being traded — “Terry [Ryan, the team’s general manager] told me it was the hardest thing he’d ever done,” Morneau says, making it clear he felt the same way — and the bitterness over an impotent month with the Pirates. Touted as a difference-maker during Pittsburgh’s first pennant race in two decades, Morneau was a dud down the stretch. He provided no home runs for Pittsburgh, and only three RBI, and wasn’t surprised when the Pirates looked elsewhere for a first baseman last winter.
“It was a good experience. It let me know I can go to a new team and fit in,” Morneau says. “But it was unfortunate I couldn’t do more to help the team win.”
A new start
His old Twins teammate Michael Cuddyer was certain he still could, though. Cuddyer campaigned on Morneau’s behalf with Rockies officials, who were looking for a veteran to step in for their retiring icon, Todd Helton. Eventually, Colorado offered $12.5 million over two years, or less than he had made in each season since 2010. But Morneau was grateful for the job — and has repaid their confidence, both at the plate and in the field.
Helton’s departure left “some big shoes to fill,” Rockies manager Walt Weiss says. “But Morneau has been on top before. People who are surprised that he’s hitting well — just look at his track record. I mean, we’re talking about an MVP.”
Morneau has lived up to that billing in the clubhouse, where “he’s already provided tremendous leadership, quiet but respected, from our young guys,” Weiss says, and at first base, where “some people think you can just put anybody,” the manager says. “First basemen are expected to hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs, and defense can be an afterthought. But he takes tremendous pride in his defense. I know our infielders appreciate having him over there, because he makes everyone in that infield better. ... When this guy is healthy, he’s an All-Star.”
That same description occurred to second baseman DJ LeMahieu, too, especially when he considers his occasional errant throws to first base. “I never played against him, didn’t know anything about his defense. But he’s been unbelievable out there,” LeMahieu says. “He’s got such great hands, and he’s so smart. He’s very serious about knowing where to play guys. You can see why he’s been an All-Star.”
Yes, he has been. And wants fiercely to be again. He would even welcome an invitation to the Home Run Derby, an event he won in 2008, despite his misgivings at the time about the effect it had on his swing afterward.
“If I was asked to do it, I would. Obviously, we’re a long way from that, but it would be fun,” the former-and-perhaps-future Minnesotan says. “I’ve got to take care of business first.”
If he does, maybe he can take care of some unfinished business next month in Minnesota, too.