Justin Morneau had two baseball careers.
In one, he was the player he had envisioned himself to be.
In the other, he was the player he was forced to become.
He was, in his first career, one of baseball’s most dangerous hitters, able to hit the ball 440 feet on pitches up in his eyes or around his ankles. He spun his bat helicopter-style during his follow-through, adding a dash of bravado to the brawn that made him the 2006 American League MVP.
In the second he was a very capable player, even winning a batting title in 2014 with Colorado. But the power numbers weren’t the same. And Morneau didn’t feel the same.
Morneau played 14 years in the majors after breaking in with the Twins in 2003. He should have — could have? — added more honors and accumulated loftier numbers than the 247 homers and 985 RBI with which he finished his career.
Ten years ago last week, on July 7, 2010, he was 29 years old and headed toward another MVP season when a slide into second base during a game in Toronto split his career into two parts.
It’s dangerous to wonder, “What if?” Morneau, now 39 and a Twins analyst for Fox Sports North, knows that. But sometimes it happens.
“I do occasionally go there,” he said. “And I try to get out of that place as fast as I can because it doesn’t do any good.
“It’s a bad game to play. You play the game of ‘what could have been’ that year and the years that followed. Who knows what would have happened after that?”
Morneau’s experience intersected with his enormous talent during the first half of the 2010 season — and the results were scary.
“He was having a great year,” said good friend and former teammate Joe Mauer, the 2009 AL MVP. “He was seeing the ball as well as I’ve ever seen him. And just highly productive.”
Morneau hit .347 in April, and by May 31 he was up to .377 during the Twins’ first season in Target Field. He reached base by a hit or walk in 50 of his first 54 games. By mid-June, Morneau had homered in consecutive games five times.
“That was a really good offensive team, and he really took to Target Field,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “I don’t think there was any doubt he would have been a contender for the AL Most Valuable Player Award, maybe even the favorite, considering the success of our team.”
Grounder to short
Morneau had been voted the American League’s starting first baseman for the All-Star Game, beating out Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera and the Yankees’ Mark Teixeira. Through 81 games, he was batting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBI. And, despite losing All-Star closer Joe Nathan to an elbow injury during spring training, the Twins were on their way to a division title.
“Everything was finally coming together,” Morneau said. “The mental. The physical. My approach. The preparation. I finally got to the point where my routine was unchanged and my preparation was good. I was confident. I was healthy. That was the challenge for me.”
Morneau never made it to that All-Star Game.
He singled to center off Scott Downs in the eighth inning of his 81st game. He took off for second base when Michael Cuddyer grounded to Blue Jays shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Gonzalez gobbled up the ball and fed John McDonald at second base as Morneau slid in hard.
“Looked like a play he’s probably done over 100 times,” Mauer said. “You go in there, you slide into second and try to break up a double play.
“And it kind of hit him the wrong way.”
It was a takeout slide, which is no longer allowed in the major leagues.
McDonald jumped to avoid contact, but Morneau’s head collided with McDonald’s right knee. The blow sent Morneau down, and he rolled over on his stomach with a bewildered look on his face. At regular speed, it looked routine.
“A pretty innocent play,” St. Peter said. “I remember watching it on TV. Watching the highlights, you can see the knee to the head.”
Morneau was down for a few moments before getting up and leaving the game.
“I remember walking off the field in Toronto and I remember someone yelling at me — it’s amazing I can remember these things right after it happened,” Morneau said. “I came off the field and one of my fellow countrymen yells, ‘I thought you were Canadian! I thought you were tough!’ I remember thinking, ‘OK, that’s how it is going to be.’
“I remember going back to the clubhouse. I remember the lights were bothering me and there was a table in the training room there, and I was kind of sitting on the table with some towels over my head. I just wanted to be in the dark.”
Dustin Morse, the Twins director of baseball communications, entered the room to ask Morneau if he would be able to speak with the media following the game.
“He just couldn’t do it,” Morse said. “I remember looking at Mornie and thinking that he did not look too good.”
Morneau figured that he would miss a few days and then return to the lineup. He was looking forward to the All-Star Game and wondering if he would be asked to participate in the Home Run Derby.
His brain had other plans. Morneau, born in British Columbia, figured he suffered concussions while playing hockey as a kid. And he was hit in the head by a Ron Villone pitch in April 2005, landing on the injured list for 10 days because of a concussion.
The collision with McDonald produced an injury that would linger much longer than that.
Morneau was out for the remainder of the 2010 season. He began seeing specialists, particularly Dr. Michael Collins in Pittsburgh. He leaned on his wife, Krista, for support. And Mauer. And two other pro athletes who suffered concussions: former teammate Corey Koskie and Wild defenseman Willie Mitchell.
The injury happened before head trauma became a bigger issue in the sports world. Doctors have told Morneau that with the information available today, he might have felt better sooner.
Setback after setback
Recovery took a toll. Morneau would wake up feeling good, thinking he had turned a corner. By midday he would need to lie down for two or three hours in a dark room. He would have a couple of good days of moving around, but the third day would be a setback.
“There would be one moment when he would feel great, then, all of a sudden, something would trigger him,” Krista Morneau said. “Or he would wake up happy and then two minutes later there would be these mood swings where, I would find out later talking to the neurologists, it is all part of concussions when your brain starts to rewire. So I was trying to navigate that.”
Concussions have their own timetables.
“The physical is not fun,” Morneau said. “The mental is the thing that really wears on you over time, because it’s an unknown.”
He missed the playoffs after the Twins won the AL Central in 2010, and his teammates were swept by the Yankees in the ALDS. Still, he thought he would be OK in 2011, but in preparing, he never felt like the old Justin Morneau. And that lasted into spring training.
He was able to play on Opening Day but batted just .227 with four homers and 30 RBI in 69 games. He needed neck surgery in June and returned in August but played in just 14 games because of postconcussion symptoms.
Morneau, noting his run of injuries, switched to a gluten-free diet after the 2011 season. He played in 134 games in 2012 and 152 in 2013, when he was traded to Pittsburgh in an attempt to help the Pirates' playoff push. One problem: He hit just 36 home runs over those two seasons. Morneau went from being a dangerous hitter in the lineup to just … being a hitter in the lineup.
His 2014 season in Colorado — a National League-best .319 average, 17 home runs — would have been considered great for many other major leaguers, but Morneau knew he was a different player.
“There were times when it crept in when I stepped in the batter’s box, things I never thought about before,” said Morneau, whose last season was in 2016. “What if I’m facing CC Sabathia and he lets one go and he runs one up and in on me again — because it happened to me early in my career.
“So it is one of those things where it is always in the back of my mind that this could happen again and I would have to go through the worst time of my life again.
“It really had an impact that way. I never felt I was the same player after that, and it was really frustrating for me wanting to be a guy in the middle of the lineup everyone can count on and play every day and being healthy. It’s kind of hard to explain. It never felt the same.”
Is retirement what he imagined it to be?
“Not in the least bit,” Morneau said, laughing. “I never envisioned that I’d have a farm. I never envisioned I would have chickens. I figured we’d be traveling around the world, eating at different places.
“The reality is ... the kids have schedules.”
Life on the farm
Yes, Morneau lives on a farm in Medina with Krista and their five children — Evelyn, 9; Marty, 7; Estelle, 4; Maximus, 2; and Myles, 1. Evelyn was born while Morneau began his road to recovery. Now Morneau is coaching her and Marty as they start playing softball and baseball.
Lefthanded or righthanded hitters?
“Lefthanded,” Morneau said. “Did you have to ask?”
The Morneaus have 22 Scottish Highland cattle on their land in addition to the chickens. Morneau has a tractor that doubles as a Zamboni during the winter when he holds hockey games on a frozen pond on his property. One day last winter, Morneau, Mauer and Koskie beat a team that included former Wild players Mark Parrish and Ryan Carter.
The baseball guys have not allowed them to forget it.
With prodding from Krista, Morneau started filling in on Fox Sports North as an analyst in 2018. He was scheduled to do 80 games this season before the pandemic hit. Before that, Morneau spent hours analyzing games from his sofa, so much so that Krista told him to find a job in which someone would listen to him.
“I told him that if he gets the broadcast Emmy, he better say that the Emmy goes to his wife,” Krista said.
Morneau has seen McDonald a few times since the collision, and each time McDonald apologizes.
“He feels bad about it,” Morneau said. “It could happen to anybody at any time. It’s just one of those weird things that happened. I don’t hold any ill will toward him. He was just playing the game. He was trying to turn a double play, I slid in late and that’s what happens.”
Four years before that slide, Morneau won the 2006 AL MVP, batting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBI. And in 2008, he finished second in voting to Boston’s Dustin Pedroia. He was selected to four All-Star Games and won the Silver Slugger award twice. He won the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium.
His career took a hard right turn 10 years ago when he tried to break up a double play. He carved out a productive career, but … what if his slide had missed McDonald?
Morneau only occasionally wonders: “What would have happened the rest of my career?”
“Would I have been on the field with Joe for his last game [in 2018]?” he said. “Would I have ever been traded?
“More than anything, it was frustrating because of the team we had. We had a complete lineup. We were playing in front of a sold-out stadium every night. There was a buzz about the team. It was almost like a playoff atmosphere because everyone was so excited for outdoor baseball.
“On top of it, I was having the most consistent year of my career. There were so many things that were going right that year.”
“I do occasionally go down that road and there’s no point to it. But … you can’t help it.”