Simply Baseball Notebook cover stories July 2003

 The Start of Something Big...

On June 9, the Minnesota Twins made their most anticipated call up in a decade when Justin Morneau was promoted to replace injured infielder Chris Gomez.  The 22 year old first baseman had begun the season at AA New Britain before gaining a promotion to AAA Rochester on April 29. Possessing a compact, left-handed power stroke, he excelled at both stops, belting 19 home runs in 57 games.


Day 1: June 10, 2003

As Morneau prepared for his first big league game against the Colorado Rockies at the Metrodome, he discussed the whirlwind of events that led to his arrival in Minneapolis.  "We (Rochester) were playing in Buffalo and I was in the batting cage doing some hitting," he explained.  "(Manager) Phil Roof came in and said 'I've got some good news for you; (Twins GM) Terry Ryan wants you up in Minnesota.'  As soon as I got done in the cage, I ran and got my cell phone, but I couldn't get a signal anywhere.  I ended up out on the street in my uniform in Buffalo talking on my cell phone."

From there Morneau jumped into a car and headed back to Rochester to prepare for his flight to Minneapolis.  Nervously excited, he spent most of the night staring at the ceiling before getting out of bed at 4:00 a.m. to catch a flight to the Twin Cities.
At approximately 8:20 am on Tuesday, June 10, Justin Morneau landed at Twin Cities International Airport ready to embark on his major league career.  He found Twins' General Manager Terry Ryan waiting for him there.

"I think he is very anxious; he wants to do well just like almost every player that gets a promotion," Ryan said of Morneau.  "Like a lot of younger kids, I am sure he's wondering how he's going to fit in.  It's always a transition about whether or not you get to play.  Any kid that goes through the process of the draft and the minor leagues and, ultimately, the promotion -- it's a big day not only in his life, but also for those around him."

After signing the papers that made his transfer to the big club official, Ryan took the prized prospect to his hotel where he got some rest.  Later that afternoon Morneau headed to the Metrodome to introduce himself to his new teammates and meet with Twins manager Ron Gardenhire.

"(Gardenhire) told me just to do what I've been doing and not to look at the baggie and think I just have to hit it over that," Morneau explained.  "He told me to use the whole field." Gardenhire also informed him he was in the lineup that night against the Rockies, playing designated hitter and batting clean up. "I smiled; it's much better than just sitting around here and thinking about it -- I want to get out there," the wide-eyed rookie said.

At 7:32 p.m. he got his wish.  Leading off the 2nd inning, Morneau stepped into a major league batter's box for the first time against Rockies' right-hander Jason Jennings.  After taking a ball outside and going too far on a check swing, he fouled the next pitch off the Metrodome roof causing the crowd to buzz with excitement.

Morneau, calm and focused, took the next pitch high for a ball, and then lashed a line drive, foul down the first baseline.  With a 2-2 count, Jennings went back to his fast ball and Morneau made him pay, lining it straight up the middle for a solid base hit.

"It helped me relax more, it took a weight off of my shoulders -- it felt good," Morneau said of his first major league hit. The newly energized crowd responded by giving the baby-faced rookie a rousing, standing ovation.  "I had to smile (after the ovation)," Morneau commented, "normally I don't smile out there."

Morneau's next at bat, however, was a reality check.  With one out in the 4th, he took a ball outside, and then watched a called strike before flailing feebly at two straight sinkers that ended up in the right-handed batter's box.  But, the rookie didn't ditch his aggressive approach in his third at bat against Jennings.  With two outs in the 6th, Morneau jumped on the second pitch, lining to right for a sharp single.

Morneau wouldn't get another shot at Jennings.  With Luis Rivas on second and Corey Koskie on first in the 8th, the Rockies brought in left-hander Brian Fuentes to face the Twins' rookie phenom. The eager Morneau jumped on Fuentes' first offering, bouncing it straight back to the Rockies' hurler for an easy putout.   The Twins lost 5-0.

After getting two of the team's three hits in his major league debut, Morneau found his locker surrounded by reporters.  With the ball used for his first hit in a zip-lock bag, and the tags still hanging from the gear in his locker, the rookie began his first post-game press conference with an uncomfortable innocence. As he calmly and politely answered the reporters' questions, the mob surrounding him grew larger.


When third base coach Al Newman returned from the shower, he immediately ordered the rookie to the middle of the clubhouse because the throng of media members had made his locker, and several others, inaccessible.  Morneau, knowing his place, quickly accommodated him.  Newman then yelled, "Hold your ball while you are talking," and tossed the baggie containing his first hit ball to the embarrassed youngster.

While Morneau continued to field questions, the teasing and razzing kept going. With Newman, Jacque Jones, Dustan Mohr, and Torii Hunter leading the way, the ribbing continued until Latroy Hawkins capped it off by stuffing a towel full of shaving cream into the unwitting rookie's face.

Morneau, to his credit, never lost his composure, wiped the mess off his face and continued answering questions with bits of shaving cream hanging from his chin and ears.  When the questions finally ended, he showered, spent a moment with his visiting father, and returned to his hotel for some well-earned rest.

Day 2: June 11, 2003

With Father's Day less than a week away, you didn't have to look around the Metrodome very long to find the world's proudest pop.  One minute, George Morneau was receiving an autographed line up card used in his son's first game from Ron Gardenhire -- the next he was talking to Rockies outfielder Larry Walker, who had the Rockies sign it.  After a pre-game meal  at the Dome, he chatted with fans who had already begun to adore his son.

"He called me at 4:00 p.m. on Monday (June 9), and said, 'Dad, I got the call to the Big Show,'" George Morneau said.  "I was just tickled pink; I just about started crying, I was probably more excited than him.  I told I was coming, but when I found out the price of the plane tickets, I just about went nuts, but I came anyway.  Yesterday just about made my whole life -- seeing my boy up at bat, getting a hit his first time up, and everybody giving him a standing ovation, I started crying."

George beamed taking the line up card, which is the latest edition to the shrine he has created in honor of his son's baseball career.  "I have his first hit ball (in the minors), his first bat he used for a home's all his stuff, even though he gives it to me," he explained.  "I got his first hit ball from last night. Coach Al Newman gave it to me."

George, who lives in Kelowana, British Columbia, is "good friends" with Larry Walker Sr., the father of the Rockies star and British Columbia native, that Justin grew up idolizing.  Walker Jr., who has sent Justin autographed bats in the past, chatted with his admirer before the game.

"I got tears in my eyes again, when I saw my son talking to his idol, Larry Walker," George Morneau said.  Justin was less visibly moved about the encounter, simply saying it was "cool."  He did, however, acknowledge that the multitude of events that occurred a day earlier had taken their toll.  "I think yesterday kind of caught up with me," he admitted. "I was real tired, but I am sure when the game starts I'll be all right."

Unlike the previous night, he was able to sleep. "I went to sleep at midnight, which is early for me; usually I am not asleep until two or three," Morneau explained.  "Normally I get about eight hours of sleep, but last night I got a eleven and a half."

During batting practice the rookie hazing continued.  After taking a couple of cuts in the cage, Morneau was set to step out and let Jacque Jones take his turn.  Jones, however, informed the rookie had three more swings.  The unsure Morneau hesitated, and Jones yelled out again "you got three more," which finally prompted the rookie to get back in to the cage.  Jones, laughing, asked, "are you from Canada?"  Doug Mientkiewicz, who was standing nearby, said "only give him one (pitch); it took him a year to get in there."

In the lineup as the DH, batting clean up once again, Morneau continued to wield a hot bat.  He stepped to the plate against Rockies' righty Aaron Cook, with one out and Koskie on first base and Cristian Guzman on second in the bottom of the first inning. After working the count to 2-2, Morneau hit Cook's next offering to right field for a base hit.  Guzman scored on the play, giving the Twins a 1-0 lead and Morneau his first RBI.

When he came to the plate in the 3rd with runners and second and third, the Rockies decided to walk the left-handed hitting Morneau, and pitch to the right-handed hitting Torii Hunter.  To many in attendance it seemed strange to intentionally walk a rookie with five major at bats to get to an established hitter, who was an All Star last year. "They were playing the percentages," Morneau explained, "even though it was Torii (Hunter) hitting behind me, and he's a pretty good hitter."


Morneau's next at bat came with 1 out in the 5th and Koskie again on first. With Nelson Cruz pitching for Colorado, Morneau fell behind 0-2 before placing a base in the hole between first and second base.  After moving to third on back-to-back singles, Morneau scored his first run on a wild pitch by Cruz.

In the 6th, with Cruz still pitching, Morneau nearly hit his first major league home run.  After working the count to 2-2, he smacked Cruz's next offering to the warning track in left where Rockies left fielder Jay Payton had just enough room to bring it in.

"I was a little out front of it; he threw me a change up -- I looked stupid on it earlier in the at bat, and I figured he was going to throw it to me again," he commented. "I wasn't sitting on it with two strikes -- I don't usually guess with two strikes.  I just got out in front of it enough where I was hoping it might carry, but I didn't think I had enough of it."

During Morneau's next at bat, the baseball gods smiled on him. With two down in the 8th, Morneau stepped to the plate with a runner on second and Justin Speier on the hill for the Rockies. After working the count full, he hit a check-swing bouncer about 55 feet down the third base line that settled in fair territory. Speier, who watched hoping the ball would roll foul, had no play, giving Morneau his third hit of the night,

After two major league games, Morneau was hitting .625 (5-8), with a RBI and run scored.  "I keep saying, 'there's no where to go but down, now,'" he joked.  "It's fun, but not every day is going to be like that."

"I always try to go out there and get a hit at every at bat, but I didn't think I'd be doing this well my first couple of games."

Day 3: June 12, 2003

On the third day he rested.  With the Rockies starting veteran left-hander Darren Oliver, Ron Gardenhire decided go with the right-handed Matthew LeCroy at DH.  "They pretty much told me that is how it's going to be -- at first anyway-- I go against the righties," Morneau explained."  They told me to be ready to pinch hit in the 8th or 9th."

Not being in the lineup didn't stop Morneau from putting on an impressive display during batting practice.  With a few media types looking on, he launched several balls over the large blue tarp known as the "baggie" in right field.  The last of which prompted longtime Twins television broadcaster Dick Bremer to say "love it", before walking away.

Now that Morneau has had a taste of the major league lifestyle, he doesn't plan on going anywhere. "My first goal is to say up here up for the rest of the year and hopefully be in the playoffs," he said.

Coach Al Newman, who was Morneau's first minor league manager in 1999, sees continued big league success for this youngster. "I'll just say that he has a tremendous amount of potential," he commented. "His potential is unlimited, and with his work ethic, I am sure he'll continue to progress."

Only time will tell whether or not Justin Morneau fulfills that potential, but no matter how his career turns out, the fond memories of his first days in the major leagues will remain etched in his memories forever.
-David Zingler

-photos by Sebastian Vannavong

The Morneau Chronicles

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