When the Twins dealt Doug Mientkiewicz for a minor
league pitcher on July 31, it sent a clear message: the Justin Morneau era is officially underway. Gone are the days
of shuffling between the majors and minors, splitting time between first base, DH, and the bench, Morneau is now the Minnesota
Twins everyday first baseman and cleanup hitter.
Shortly after learning of the trade, Morneau was asked if it will be nice to not have to check the lineup card everyday
to see if he is playing. While his reply was a simple “Yeah”, the beaming smile on his face spoke volumes.
Despite the professional tension, Morneau was quick to point out that
Mientkiewicz was a class act. “Doug’s always been great to me,” the 23-year-old explained. “He’s
always helped me out when he’s noticed something out there. I worked out with him last winter, he’s always
The Twins need for power hitter has been well documented. Even
in today’s era of inflated offensive statistics, the franchise has not had a player reach the 30 homerun plateau since
1987. Enter Justin Morneau. Already tabbed the "Paul Bunyan" of the team by manager Ron Gardenhire, Morneau spent the first
half of the season abusing Triple A pitching. The slugging first baseman hit .306 with 22 homeruns and 63 RBI in 72 games
The 6-4, 230
lb., left-handed hitter possess a smooth but violently powerful stroke that has already produced several awe-inspiring homeruns.
Of the four blasts he hit at the major league level in 2003, three were the longest hit in that park. His 460 foot shot at
Miller Park in Milwaukee, the longest ever hit in that stadium at the time, remained lodged in the scoreboard.
his major league debut in June 2003, and got off to a blazing start. Soon however, he began to struggle, which resulted in
decreased playing time and eventually, a demotion.
"I'd get in
there, and think I'd have to hit a home run every at bat," he said of his first taste of major league life in 2003. "I started
chasing at pitches I wouldn't normally swing at. I'd start thinking -- if I hit a home run here, I'll be in the line up tomorrow.
"Now if I
go 0 for 4 one day, I know it’s not the end of the world."
strong showing in Spring Training, Morneau was unable to crack the Twins 25 man roster and began the season at Rochester.
He received a brief promotion in late May and hit .292 with 2 homeruns in seven games, but was shipped back to Triple A when
Joe Mauer was activated from the Disabled List.
"I came up
here and did pretty well," the quietly confident first baseman said. "I knew there was a roster move (being made) and they
didn’t have a spot (for me). I struggled a little bit when I first got down (to Triple A), but then I got it going again."
"Got it going,"
was an understatement. Morneau was named the Triple-A Mid-Season Player of the Year by Baseball America magazine while
Red Wings manager Phil Roof called him the best first baseman he’s ever managed.
"I don't expect
to see Justin Morneau back here this season," Roof told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle upon hearing of his
prize prodigy’s promotion on July 15.
justified delaying Morneau’s arrival to the big leagues this season because of his perceived inadequacies with glove.
A popular local newspaper columnist wrote that the team’s brass was "horrified at his first base play."
they say that? Two years ago?" Morneau responded when learning of the criticism. He seemed genuinely surprised to learn that
it appeared in print on June 8, 2004.
"I think my
defense is fine," he explained. "I’ve made only four errors this year (at Triple A) -- one was on a throw, one was on
a rundown -- I don’t think it’s been too bad, I feel comfortable over there."
Part of the
problem is that the team is comparing his defense to that of Mientkiewicz, a former Gold Glove winner. "We’re not the
same player," said Morneau, who began his professional career as a catcher. "Doug’s been playing over there a lot longer."
lacks on defense, he more than makes up with his bat. Considered the top power hitting prospect in baseball, the Canadian
hit 4 homeruns in his first 43 at bats at the big league level in 2004. In contrast, it took Mientkiewicz over 250 trips to
the plate to reach that same number.
Morneau helped his native Canada clinch an Olympic birth by homering in five straight games during the qualifying tournament
in Panama. "It was an awesome feeling," Morneau said of the experience. "As of right now it doesn’t look like I am going
to get to go with them, but it was good to just be part of that experience down there -- we had a great team and had a lot
of fun. It’s one of those things that I’ll probably never be able to duplicate."
however, didn’t earn him any special treatment at home, "They don’t pay attention to baseball in Vancouver in
the winter, (it’s all) Canucks," Morneau, a British Columbia native, explained. "It was the start of hockey season --
they had a little thing about it in the paper, but it wasn’t a big deal."
The fact that
players on a major league roster on July 31 are not eligible for the Olympics may have influenced the Twins to recall the
young slugger. "I think it might have forced them to make a decision, if they want me around for August in case someone got
hurt and that type stuff," Morneau said of his call up. "I wouldn’t have been back until August 27, so it worked out
pretty well for me."
loss is Minnesota’s gain.