Souhan: Morneau's tale is about transformation

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 31, 2013 - 4:59 PM
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Minnesota Twins Justin Morneau hit a double to right field in the first inning as the Twins took on the Cleveland Indians at Target Field, Wednesday, August 14, 2013 in Minneapolis, MN. (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) ELIZABETH FLORES � eflores@startribune.com

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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I first met Justin Morneau by accident, in the Twins’ offices in the Metrodome, shortly after the team drafted him. This was in 1999, when the Twins were casual enough to allow a writer to occasionally wander into the wrong place at the right time.

Someone introduced me to Morneau, a third-round pick. He looked overwhelmed. He seemed to have trouble forming sentences. He was tall, rawboned yet skinny. He looked much more like the former hockey goalie he was than the future big-league star he would become.

His story in Minnesota is that of two transformations, one the result of determination, one the result of hard luck.

The first transformation changed him from an awkward kid and unpolished prospect, the kind of guy Torii Hunter wanted to punch, into a mature star, the kind of guy Hunter still praises. The second transformation prevented Morneau from becoming one of the five greatest Twins of all time.

In the wake of the trade that sent him to the Pirates for a mediocre prospect, Morneau should be remembered more for what he did for the Twins than for what one knee did to his career.

By midsummer of 2010, Morneau had made himself into one of the best players in the game. He had been named to four straight All-Star games, had won the American League MVP award in 2006 and finished second in the voting in 2008.

As good as he was in ’06, Morneau was better in 2010.

On July 7 of that year the proud Canadian was enjoying his usual hero’s welcome to Toronto. He had earned it. He was hitting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBI. In ’06, his combined on-base percentage and slugging percentage (OPS) was .934. In 2010 it was a stunning 1.055. Last year Miguel Cabrera, the best hitter in the game, won the MVP award and the Triple Crown with an OPS of .999.

That day in Toronto, Morneau slid hard into second base, trying to break up a double play. The play was typical of his career. He swung the bat like a slugger unconcerned with the health of his lower back. He ran the bases and fielded like a utility player grateful for the playing time.

During that slide, Blue Jays infielder John McDonald accidentally clipped Morneau’s head with his knee. Morneau did not play again that season. The man who took pride in playing in 163 regular-season games in 2008, thanks to the Twins’ one-game tiebreaker, and who averaged 159 regular-season games a year from 2006-2008, played in only 69 games the next year.

His OPS in the last three seasons: a career-low .618, .773 and .741.

From 2006 through 2009, Morneau averaged about 30 homers and 118 RBI. In 2010, he became a more complete hitter, as willing to slash a double to left-center as pull a pitch into the right field stands. One of baseball’s best hitters was still getting better.

Had he avoided McDonald’s knee, Morneau might be nearing 300 home runs at the age of 32, might own a streak of seven straight All-Star appearances. Maybe he would have won another MVP award in 2010. Babe Ruth won only one. Only 10 players in history have won more than two.

Early in his career, Morneau often swung and missed by a matter of feet, and he could turn a routine ground ball into a spontaneous game of hackey-sack. He learned discipline at the plate, and, with the help of an early-morning spring training regimen with former Twins manager Tom Kelly, turned himself into an excellent fielder.

Morneau shed his shy persona and endeared himself to fans and Twins employees with his humility and thoughtfulness. He was the guy in the clubhouse you wanted to talk to about Joe Mauer’s swing or Harmon Killebrew’s passing.

Morneau was a self-made star undone by a bump to the head.

This is a good time to remember the good times, and to hope there are more ahead.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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Washington - WP: S. Strasburg 2 FINAL
Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 1
NY Mets - WP: J. deGrom 10 FINAL
Atlanta - LP: E. Santana 2
Boston - WP: J. Kelly 3 FINAL
Baltimore - LP: M. Gonzalez 2
Milwaukee - LP: W. Peralta 0 FINAL
Pittsburgh - WP: V. Worley 1
Chicago WSox - WP: J. Danks 10 FINAL
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Cleveland - WP: C. Kluber 7 FINAL
Minnesota - LP: A. Swarzak 2
Detroit - LP: R. Porcello 2 FINAL
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Houston - WP: C. McHugh 8
Los Angeles - WP: C. Perez 8 FINAL
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Texas 2 Top 9th Inning
LA Angels 1
Philadelphia 6 Top 7th Inning
Oakland 6
San Francisco 2 Top 7th Inning
San Diego 5
Arizona 2 Top 8th Inning
Colorado 8
Cincinnati - A. Simon 7:05 PM
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Buffalo 10
Dallas 34 FINAL
St. Louis 31
Washington 34 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
Houston 17 FINAL
NY Giants 30
Minnesota 9 FINAL
New Orleans 20
Tennessee 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 33
Baltimore 23 FINAL
Cleveland 21
Green Bay 7 FINAL
Detroit 19
Indianapolis 44 FINAL
Jacksonville 17
Oakland 9 FINAL
New England 16
San Francisco 14 4th Qtr 9:57
Arizona 20
Denver 3 3rd Qtr 3:41
Seattle 17
Kansas City 21 3rd Qtr 2:38
Miami 15
Pittsburgh 7:30 PM
Carolina
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NY Jets
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Washington
Columbus 4 FINAL
Carolina 3
Buffalo 0 3rd Prd
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(12) Georgia 66
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Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
(23) East Carolina 70
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Virginia 33 FINAL
(20) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
SMU 6
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Navy 24
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Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
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FIU 3
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Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
(14) Miss State 34 FINAL
(17) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(13) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
UNLV 14 FINAL
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(21) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
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Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
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Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(25) Kansas State
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(12) Georgia
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Kentucky
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(9) Michigan State
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Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
SMU
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Rutgers
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
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Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
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Indiana
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Pittsburgh
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Massachusetts
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
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Virginia
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
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Louisville
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UAB
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
California
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
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Kansas
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Connecticut
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
Washington
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
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(22) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
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Clemson
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
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Miami-Florida
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Iowa State
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(21) Nebraska
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(18) USC
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Toronto FC 3
Toronto 40 FINAL
Brt Columbia 23
Edmonton 23 FINAL
Hamilton 25
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Montreal 31
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