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.