A year ago, Justin Morneau was helping the Canadian baseball team earn
an Olympic birth, coming off a season that included his first taste of major league life. In the twelve months that ensued,
Morneau became the Twins regular first baseman, hit 19 homeruns in roughly half of a big league season, helped his team win
a division title, and played in the postseason for the first time.
How would he rate his performance in 2004 on, say, a scale of 1 to 10?
"I wouldn’t put a number on it; I’d like to be a little more consistent," Morneau explained while dodging the
question. "I’ve shown that I am able to play defense and my offense, I’ve been pretty happy with it. It’s
not as good as I think it could be, but good enough."
It’s safe to say that the Twins are happy with him too. Led by Morneau
and Johan Santana, among others, the Twins went on a second half surge that turned a hotly contested pennant race with the
Chicago White Sox into a blow out. On July 26, before a three game series in Chicago, just a half game separated the two teams.
The Twins went on to sweep that series and win the AL Central by nine games.
Unlike last year when he was a little-used September call-up, Morneau felt
like he had earned a right to celebrate the clinch with his teammates. "Last year I kind of felt like I was on the outside
looking in, wasn’t really part of the team, and didn’t feel like I really contributed much to it," the 23-year-old
said. "This year, I’ve been playing everyday from the All Star break on, I feel like I actually had something to do
with it. That celebration was celebrating the success that we had as a team, instead of celebrating what the guys did, like
He didn’t however, discount last year’s experience, "It helped
me a lot, I knew what to expect," the developing slugger commented. "Being around last year -- I know I didn’t play
much -- we were in the pennant race and stuff, seeing how everyone acted and the atmosphere and that kind of stuff helped
me be more relaxed this time around.
"I know that if I’m ever in that situation again where I am not playing
everyday, I know how to approach it."
While most in the organization expected Morneau to produce with the bat,
it was his glove that left them pleasantly surprised. Many in the media had portrayed the 6-4 Canadian as a lumbering oaf,
but he showed that he’s an above average athlete with excellent reflexes.
"I was waiting for a chance," Morneau said. "It’s tough when you
got a guy winning Gold Gloves (former Twin Doug Mientkiewicz), being compared to that. I’m a decent athlete; I was alright
at hockey and all that kind of stuff. Once I am around long enough, I can learn the hitters and gain the knowledge to understand
everything else that’s going on besides just fielding a ground ball -- knowing what pitch is coming, knowing a hitter’s
tendency, where to play and all that kind of stuff, that helps you a bit too."
Morneau, who played goalie through high school and was regarded as a pro
prospect, points to the similarities between the two positions. "In hockey you just try to knock (the puck) down. I guess
at first base, if you don’t think you can catch it, you just knock it down and keep it close, and you have the pitcher
covering anyway. It’s a little bit different at short or third, if you don’t field it clean, they are going to
Although he was dealt to a contender that went on to win the World Series,
Doug Mientkiewicz wasn’t very happy when he was dealt on July 31 in a move designed to clear the way for Morneau. He
would even say that move would "comeback to get them."
Morneau, to his credit, took the high road, "I don’t read that stuff
-- that stuff is all gone, all done," he said on October 1. "I’m here now and just happy to be playing -- they (the
Red Sox) are going to be in the playoffs, and we are too."
Most Twins fans expect Morneau to end the team’s embarrassing 16
year drought without a 30+ home run hitter. He however, downplayed such talk, "I don’t really set personal goals
for homeruns or anything like that," the British Columbia native explained. "However many I hit, I hit. If I’m making
consistent contact and hitting the ball hard, then I will hit homeruns."
-David Zingler, December 2004