Justin Morneau’s return to Target Field did not last as long as his Minnesota fans had hoped.
First, there was a feeling that Morneau could be named as a National League All-Star when the rosters were announced on July 6. Then, there was an expectation that Morneau — benefiting from the electorate of Canada, Minnesota and Colorado — would win the “Final Vote” competition against four other NL candidates.
When that failed to happen, Morneau was convinced to accept a place on the NL’s five-man squad for Monday night’s Home Run Derby.
Morneau had been a Derby champion in 2008 for the Twins, after Texas’ Josh Hamilton wore himself out hitting bombs in the first round at Yankee Stadium.
The presence of Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Bautista and defending champion Yoenis Cespedes, to name three, made Morneau a long shot to repeat, but then Minnesota’s weather took a nasty turn (what a surprise) that seemed to favor a lefthanded hitter.
Morneau was the only lefthanded hitter among the 10 in this Derby field. He had spent his past four seasons here fighting injuries and, when healthy, dealing with Target Field’s distant dimensions and 23-foot-high wall in right-center field.
Morneau did not wait long Monday to check out what he might be facing. He discovered that the wind was blowing in from his home province of British Columbia, making the breeze in from left field and toward right field.
“Obviously, it’s a better park for righthanded hitters …” Morneau said. “The wind is something I checked when I woke up this morning. I was hoping it was blowing out to right.”
It seemed to be blowing harder from the northwest at midday. By late afternoon, it was swirling around as rain came, went and returned. The main agitation with the Home Run Derby is that it takes too long, and here in our weather paradise it was delayed for an hour by rain.
There was one other major detriment to this Home Run Derby:
Well-struck baseballs get their best carry in hot and humid conditions. On Monday, the temperature started in the low 60s and fell from there.
If this were a golf tournament, they would have moved up the tees on the par-5s. You can’t do that with home plate.
It was close to 8 p.m. when the hitters were finally introduced. This was the chance for Twins fans to show their appreciation for Morneau, both for enough excellence that he was an MVP in 2006, and for what he went through to come back after suffering that debilitating concussion in July 2010.
The full house of customers started cheering when Morneau’s turn for an introduction arrived, and it became a standing ovation when his name was called.
Morneau flashed that winning smile of his, but you also could detect that the emotion of this homecoming was getting to him.
“That was pretty amazing,” he said later. “I came close to getting tears in my eyes.”
The ovation lasted through several waves to the crowd, and a couple of touches of his cap to his heart.
“The reception is something I’ll never forget,” Morneau said. “The fans here always treated me well, even these last few years when things were tough here for everyone.”
Asked the source of this bond, Morneau said: “I think it has something to do with the fans knowing that I never quit, that I ran out every ball, that I gave it every bit I have …”
Morneau had taken out a newspaper ad to thank Twins fans when he was traded to Pittsburgh last August. And now he was hearing the fans’ “you’re welcome” in Target Field.
Unfortunately, the Morneau homecoming was merely a glimpse. He made seven outs with two home runs in the first round. That put him in a tie with Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier, who then won what in Derby-ese is called a “swing-off.”
That was it. Morneau was out of the competition. When the All-Star Game is played Tuesday, he will be at a cabin on a Minnesota lake, “celebrating a 2-year-old’s birthday,” he said.
Yeah, it was over quick for Morneau and Twins fans, although the ovation will not be forgotten — and maybe not the first home run he hit Monday, near the stairwell beyond the bleachers in right field.
“That’s probably the longest ball I’ve ever hit here,” Morneau said.