Justin Morneau: Back from the brink

He's scuffled lately, but Justin Morneau's strong start at the plate was a heartening development. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

Michael Cuddyer half-jokingly says he owed Justin Morneau a favor. Cuddyer, after all, was the guy who hit the double-play grounder that fateful day in July 2010 -- the one that led to Morneau taking an accidental knee in the head and descending into a spiral of uncertainty, stalled production and concussion-related self-doubt.

So when Morneau was searching for a landing spot through free agency last winter and the Colorado Rockies were looking for a veteran first baseman to replace Todd Helton, Cuddyer -- who moved from the Twins to the Rockies via free agency in December 2011 -- was happy to be a one-man sales force and a conduit for communication.

"From both sides," Cuddyer said, laughing. "I had to convince the Rockies to bring him in and convince him to come to the Rockies."

Cuddyer did not receive a piece of the action from Morneau's two-year, $12.5 million deal with Colorado, but his gratification comes in seeing his former Minnesota teammate enjoying a personal revival in the fifth spot in the Colorado batting order this season. Perhaps more important, Morneau wakes up each day feeling healthy and well-adjusted and looking forward to coming to the park.

As the Rockies begin a three-game series against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Coors Field, the promise of April has given way to a reality check in June. They've dropped seven straight games after being swept by Arizona, and have to hope rookie Eddie Butler's major league debut Friday night can provide a lift against a Dodgers team that's also muddling along behind San Francisco in the National League West.

Morneau, similarly, has been trending in the wrong direction since a monster April. (He was hitting .343 with six home runs, 22 RBIs and a .985 OPS on May 1.) He has eight hits in his past 48 at-bats, and he'll need to regain his stroke soon if he wants to stay relevant in fantasy leagues and make a push to return to Minnesota as an All-Star in July.

But in the grand scheme of things, Morneau still qualifies as one of the 2014 season's early feel-good stories. He ranks eighth among MLB first basemen with an .844 OPS, and time and hard knocks have taught him that "struggles" are all relative. He knows from experience that short-term fluctuations and slumps are mere blips in the narrative.

"It honestly feels like I've gotten a second chance," Morneau said. "When you're young and doing well, you expect to play forever and think everything will continue to go well. The perspective I've gained is that tomorrow isn't guaranteed, so why not just enjoy today? I appreciate being in the big leagues a lot more."

This is how Morneau's career was supposed to unfold when he won the American League MVP award in 2006 and hit .292 with an average of 29 homers and 117 RBIs over a four-year span from 2006 through 2009. But things changed suddenly when he took an inadvertent knee in the head from Toronto infielder John McDonald during a takeout slide on Cuddyer's double-play grounder just before the 2010 All-Star break.

In the ensuing months, and amid a constant stream of questions about when he would return to the lineup and begin to resemble his former self, Morneau lived through an odyssey of headaches, fatigue and general sluggishness that weighed on his emotions and put a major crimp in his production.

Concussions have taken a toll on the MLB fraternity in recent years, prompting Mike Matheny, Corey Koskie and Jason LaRue to retire and putting Jason Bay, Ryan Church and others through the wringer before they left baseball. Morneau's good friend and former Minnesota teammate, Joe Mauer, moved from catcher to first base this season in response to concussion issues that made it clear his health was at risk if he remained behind the plate.

The problem is significant enough that in March 2011, MLB announced the establishment of mandatory baseline neuropsychological testing for players, a seven-day disabled list for concussions and specific protocols for clearing players to return to the field once they've suffered a concussion. The issue gained further traction in December with the news that former big league utilityman Ryan Freel was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy when he committed suicide in 2012.

Morneau revamped his diet and tinkered with numerous workout regimens, but through experience he learned that patience was his biggest ally. The competitor in him told him to keep forging through his concussion symptoms when it was in his best interests to listen to the medical professionals and let nature take its course.

"The biggest thing you can do is be honest with yourself and the people looking after you," Morneau said. "There are certain things you can grind and press through, and [a concussion] isn't one of those things. The more you push it, the worse off you'll be in the long run.

"Fans and teammates get frustrated because you're not out there, but you want to remember what your kids did when they were growing up. You can play in the big leagues for as long as you want and make all money in the world; but if you can't remember anything when you're 45 or 50 years old, what's the point? You have to be strong enough to do what's right. Your brain is so important. If you don't take care of it, it's not going to take care of you."

Even when the concussion symptoms began to fade about 18 months after his collision with McDonald, Morneau was a magnet for bad karma. He underwent four surgical procedures in 2011 alone -- to relieve a pinched nerve in his neck, stabilize a tendon in his left wrist and remove a cyst from his left knee and a bone spur from his right foot.

"It's already deflating when you're hurt and you're on the disabled list," Cuddyer said. "You come around the clubhouse and you don't feel part of things. When you don't look injured and nobody can know how you're feeling, that adds a level that makes it tough. I'm sure if you asked [Morneau], he was probably very close to saying, 'Screw this.' If he didn't have that last year on his contract, maybe he would have said it's not worth it."

Morneau showed a glimpse of his old power with nine home runs for the Twins last August, and the Rockies watched enough video and heard enough raves from Cuddyer to take the plunge. They determined Morneau was an ideal fit to assume the first base job held down since 1998 by Helton, the franchise's career leader in hits, runs, total bases, games played, doubles, home runs, walks, RBIs and wins above replacement.

Helton was notoriously hard on himself and had a lovable grumpiness that Morneau can't match, but the two men share attributes as no-frills, low-ego baseball rats who are happy to stay in the background while somebody else gets the attention. Cuddyer told the Rockies that Morneau would be an asset to the organization regardless of how well he hit, and Morneau came precisely as advertised -- as a worker, a leader and a player who instantly meshed with the dynamic in the clubhouse.

"He's a baseball player in the truest sense of the word," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "It would have been tough for a young kid to fill Todd's shoes. But we're talking about an elite player, so I don't think that ghost looms as large."

Although the worst appears to be behind Morneau, a little piece of him wonders how he might respond if he goes slamming into a fence in pursuit of a pop fly or lands in the middle of another collision. He stays in touch with Koskie, his friend and former teammate, and they share personal experiences that fans, media members and even some fellow players don't fully understand.

"There are certain things that happen throughout a day where there's a checklist you go through," Morneau said. "I talk to Koskie and he'll be playing in the backyard with his kids, and they'll jump on him or head-butt him or whatever and he still thinks about it -- and he's done playing. When you go through such a lengthy process, I don't think it ever leaves you."

Morneau ultimately learned to rely on persistence and a strong will to compartmentalize the rough times and move forward. In the latest chapter of his career, he's perpetually mindful of what happened yesterday, grateful for today and vigilant about whatever may come his way tomorrow.