Justin Morneau was taking a lunch break from New Westminster, British Columbia, Secondary School on June 2, 1999, when the home phone rang with the thrill of a lifetime. It was Howie Norsetter, international scout for the Minnesota Twins, calling with the news that he had been chosen in the third round of the Major League Baseball draft.
Eleven years and 178 big league home runs later, Morneau has a confession to make.
"I didn't go back to school that afternoon,'' he said.
#33 First Baseman
The people best acquainted with Morneau's work routine might tell you that's the last time he slacked off, even a little.
Morneau, 29, has a certain star glow as the non-Joe Mauer half of Minnesota's "M&M'' boys. His résumé includes three All-Star Game appearances, two Silver Sluggers, an MVP award and a six-year, $80 million contract extension in 2008 that told him all he needed to know about his place in the organizational plan. Home Run Derby enthusiasts will also remind you that Morneau won the contest two years ago after Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton exhausted himself taking aim at low-flying air traffic in the Bronx.
But in most respects, Morneau is still the son of George and Audra and the younger brother of Geordie -- just an earnest baseball and hockey rat who had to be dragged away from the batting cage and the rink in his native Canada. He grew up following John Olerud in the summers and Patrick Roy in the winters, learning that the best way to stay happy was to keep busy at all times. The only thing Morneau finds more distasteful than losing is sitting around a hotel room wasting time when he could be at the park watching video, taking ground balls or beating the heck out of a pitching machine.
"I heard a story the other day,'' Morneau said. "Some guys in Seattle were cleaning out their lockers two or three days after the season, and Ichiro [Suzuki] was in there taking BP. His season was over, and he still goes in there and hits every day. There are very few people who have the God-given natural ability to take 10 to 15 swings in the cage and feel great every day. It's one of those things you have to work at.''
Nothing accentuates the value of hard work more than the grind of a 162-game baseball season.
Morneau, Mauer and the Twins are taking a circuitous route from Point A to Point B in their quest for an American League Central title. They lost All-Star closer Joe Nathan to an elbow reconstruction, and double-play partners J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson have both spent time on the disabled list. The schedule hasn't done them any favors, either. While the Twins were contending with the Braves, Rockies and Phillies in interleague play last week, Detroit was beating up on Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona to narrow the gap in the division.
Target Field, Minnesota's new home, has been great for pitchers and disconcerting to hitters. The Twins rank 12th among the 14 American League teams with 19 home runs at home this season. But they're 23-13 at the new yard compared to 17-16 on the road, so it would be very un-Twins-like for them to raise a public stink.
Amid the injuries and other stumbles, Morneau has been a monument to consistency in the cleanup spot. Even though he's hit only two of his 15 homers at Target Field, he leads the majors with a .448 on-base percentage and ranks second to Detroit's Miguel Cabrera in slugging at .622. Through the latest round of All-Star balloting, he's in first place with a narrow lead over Mark Teixeira and Cabrera.
Morneau is also faring well in the Fielding Bible's plus-minus rankings, which measure a defender's ability to save runs. A "zero'' score is neutral, and Morneau's plus-11 is third best among big league first basemen, trailing only Oakland's Daric Barton and Cleveland's Russell Branyan.
"He's been the guy carrying us, getting the big hits and driving in runs,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. "And he never gets talked about with the glove, but his defense has been unbelievable. It's to the point where you're like, 'Wow, he's a Gold Glove-type guy over there.' Just ask the other infielders how many errors he's saved by picking balls in the dirt.''
Morneau takes pride in his glove work and the steady improvement that he's made. But once an offensive player, always an offensive player.
"Hitting is the reason why everyone plays defense,'' he said, only half-jokingly.
The numbers suggest that Morneau is more patient and polished than the player who won the 2006 AL MVP award. He is averaging more pitches per plate appearance (3.82) than at any point in his career, is hitting .333 against lefty pitchers and has 48 walks to go with 47 strikeouts. As Albert Pujols shows every year, it's a feat for any power hitter to amass more walks than whiffs.
Morneau continues to show admirable restraint at a time when opposing staffs are inclined to take the bat out of his hands. According to FanGraphs, Morneau is seeing fastballs only 51.4 percent of the time this season. Other than Ryan Howard in Philadelphia and Hamilton in Texas, there's not a left-handed slugger in the game who sees a wider array of junk on a more consistent basis.
The delicate balance, for Morneau, comes in knowing when to expand his zone and take a whack at a pitch to drive in a run, and when to stow his aggressiveness and let Michael Cuddyer, Delmon Young or someone behind him go for the RBI.
"He realizes as a hitter there are situations where he's not going to get anything to hit,'' Gardenhire said. "When you're younger, you want to force the issue and take swings and you go outside the zone. He's learned to stay inside the zone and understand situations, and that's why his walks are up.''
Morneau's impressive start came as a relief to both him and the Twins after his medical ordeal last fall. He shut it down with a back injury in mid-September and was on the shelf when Minnesota lost to the Yankees in the division series. The back checked out well over the winter, but the Twins didn't take any chances in spring training. Gardenhire gave Morneau a reprieve from long bus trips, and Morneau has since learned that a few less swings in the cage and a few more hours studying video can be a boon to his production. He's also worked on more core conditioning to help enhance his durability over the long haul.
The Twins acquired a big buddy for Morneau when they signed future Hall of Famer Jim Thome to a one-year deal in January. Thome worked through his own back issues a few years ago, so the two sluggers held the equivalent of a sacroiliac summit in the Grapefruit League. Morneau and Thome now hit in the same group each day with Mauer, and they've developed a bit of a brotherly dynamic.
"Like all the other guys here, he's just a wonderful kid,'' Thome said of Morneau. "We've enjoyed being around each other since Day 1 of spring training.''
[Justin Morneau's] been the guy carrying us, getting the big hits and driving in runs. And he never gets talked about with the glove, but his defense has been unbelievable. It's to the point where you're like, 'Wow, he's a Gold Glove-type guy over there.'
”-- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire
No matter where Morneau is playing, he's energized by the sights, sounds and feelings he gets at the ballpark. The Twins drafted him as a catcher, and a little piece of him still misses being in the middle of the action on every pitch. He derived the same sense of enjoyment playing goalie for the New Westminster Royals in minor hockey.
"I love catching,'' Morneau said. "You have the whole game in front of you, and you have to think along with the pitcher and try to get the other team out. I caught from the time I was 6 years old with my older brother's team. It's a great position.''
Given that Mauer is a three-time batting title winner and on his way to the Hall of Fame, the Twins don't have many at-bats available at catcher. But when Gardenhire was asked who might fill in as Minnesota's emergency catcher, he mentioned Nick Punto, Cuddyer and a certain slugging first baseman as the leading candidates.
"Morneau would be right in the fight,'' Gardenhire said. "I know he's looking for the day when he can go back there. And I'm looking to keep my job.''