Justin Morneau, in Minneapolis for his 3-month-old daughter Estelle’s baptism, had plans for Thursday morning. When he heard what was going on at Target Field, he cancelled them.
“I said, ‘I have to be there,’ “ the former Twins first baseman said after surprising Torii Hunter by showing up, along with another Twins MVP, Joe Mauer, for his retirement news conference. “When you leave this game, World Series or not, it’s the relationships you carry with you [that matter]. Obviously, this is like a family here.”
This family eventually scattered, with Hunter departing for Anaheim in 2008, and Morneau sent to Pittsburgh in 2013 before moving on to Colorado. But Morneau came to honor his ex-teammate on Thursday, and said he wouldn’t mind filling a leadership role for a playoff contender similar to the one Hunter embodied here.
“The knowledge that I’ve gained along the way, the lessons learned, if you can [use them to] help the guys around you, that’s the way the game works,” said Morneau, who turned 34 in May. “It’s a role that’s actually a lot more fun than I ever thought it’d be. I love to talk hitting. Being around young guys, being in that role has been a lot of fun for me, really opened my eyes to possibly coaching — hopefully a long ways down the road — or managing. That part of the game is enjoyable, giving guys little lessons, hints, little tips, whatever.”
Hey, Hunter retired and Morneau has no contract for next year, his $9 million option for 2016 declined by the Rockies last week in favor of a $750,000 buyout. Could Morneau make a similar return to Minnesota?
“Well, I’m a free agent, so I’m open to pretty much anything,” he said, smiling coyly. “Obviously, the biggest thing as you move along in your career is the chance to win. … I’m open to whatever opportunities come my way. Obviously there’s a very familiar situation here, but I can’t really say much else about that.”
Neither could general manager Terry Ryan, who declined to discuss the Twins’ third-round pick from 1999. Morneau, who won the NL batting championship with the Rockies in 2014, suffered a concussion and then a neck injury last season, limiting him to just 49 games and three home runs. But he staged a strong return in September, batting .382 over the final three weeks to prove to himself and, he hopes, potential employers, that he is healthy and ready to be productive again.
He would be an awkward fit for the current roster, given that Mauer inherited his position at first base and Miguel Sano is the designated hitter. It seems unlikely Morneau is ready to accept a bench role, not with batting averages above .300 and on-base percentages above .360 each of the past two seasons.
Wherever he lands, though, Morneau said he will continue to use Hunter as a role model. “He gave a lot to this team, and a lot of people are better off for being his teammate,” Morneau said. “A lot of people have an impact on your career, and he’s one of those guys who saw me come up as a young kid, as a 22-year-old. He knew what it meant to come up at that age. Just to be around a guy like that, a professional guy who will literally run into any wall for you — when you have those guys set the example, it’s easy to follow.”
The irony, of course, is that Morneau and Hunter were once known for conflict, for a 2005 incident in the Metrodome clubhouse where Hunter, upset that Morneau took offense at a joke, took a swing (and a miss) at his young teammate.
“When you spend as much time as you do here together, you become like brothers, and sometimes brothers don’t always agree with everything. We talked in the offseason, and it was almost completely forgotten before we got to spring training, and once we saw each other, everything was great. When you have a desire to win, a desire to be great, a desire to do good things, sometimes you don’t always agree,” Morneau said. “Both of us, looking back on it, probably would handle it differently, but sometimes that stuff brings you closer together. It doesn’t define our relationship, it doesn’t define how we feel about each other. It was one of those learning moments for both of us, and we were both better for it.”