Return to Target Field stirs emotions for Morneau

Heading into the All-Star break, Justin Morneau was batting .312 -- his best mark since 2010, his last strong season in Minnesota. During Monday night's Home Run Derby at Target Field, Twins fans showed their appreciation for the respected slugger.

Scott Rovak

MINNEAPOLIS — The Nov. 23, 2006 edition of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune showcased a 25-year-old version of Justin Morneau, beaming with youthful exuberance upon winning the American League MVP award.

It’s difficult to identify one, sterling moment that encapsulated Morneau’s meteoric rise to helping personify the modern era of Twins baseball. Maybe it was that late fall day in 2006, when a kid who hadn’t even been to an All-Star Game edged a guy named Derek Jeter for the AL’s top individual honor. Maybe it was one of the four consecutive Midsummer Classic berths thereafter. Or perhaps the five playoff appearances in Morneau’s 11 seasons with Minnesota say it best.

The start of his demise here, though, is much easier to identify.

Back at Target Field on Monday for the first time since being traded away by the franchise he helped rejuvenate, Morneau didn’t look 25 anymore. The MLB Home Run Derby participant looked, acted and sounded 33.

His face is a little more worn these days, his gait a little less animated.

But the smile was back.

"You know," Morneau said "I have been able to appreciate being able to come back to things like that, or just to have good days out there and feel good playing."

Said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, the man in charge throughout Morneau’s Minnesota tenure: "I know what he went through the last two years.

"Real happy, to see him smiling again."

The fall

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Morneau’s not yet far enough removed to forget the pain.

Not just the sensation when he collided head-first with Toronto second baseman John McDonald’s knee midway through the 2010 campaign. Not just a second concussion suffered a year later. Not just the neck, wrist, knee and foot procedures that further plagued his 2011 production.

It was the constant seesaw. A good day here, followed by another day in the dark as he sought to bounce back from one of sport’s most damaging and nationally prevalent injuries.

"It’s just such a rollercoaster going through all that stuff," Morneau said. "You’re feeling good and doing something and you’re trying to slowly make your way back, and then you do the same the next day and you’re not feeling good.

"Frustration would be the easiest way to sum it up."

Grappling with the pair of concussions and numerous other injuries, the Twins’ one-time luminary batted a pedestrian .263 with a .324 on-base percentage during his final two seasons in the Twin Cities. There were many days when Morneau grappled with the idea of retirement.

"There was times when I wasn’t sure if I was gonna be able to get back here," Morneau said. "I just wasn’t getting better."

Then he wound up in the mountains.

The rise

There was talk of re-signing Morneau as a free agent after general manager Terry Ryan dealt him at last year’s waiver deadline. The regal first baseman was sent to Pittsburgh rather than be allowed to walk away as an unrestricted free agent the following offseason.

But the Twins decided to move their other cornerstone, Joe Mauer, to first base, and neither Ryan nor Morneau saw him shifting into a strict designated hitter’s role.

So after 11 years one state south of his homeland of Canada, Morneau hit the open free-agent market.

"It was sad," Gardenhire said, "because I think as a manager, you have a few things that make you comfortable, and he was one of them. . . . I didn’t have to run to him and tell him what to do. He would look at me and tell me ‘I got it’ when something would go on the field."

Morneau signed a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Colorado, unsure of the implications that would come with stepping in for retired Todd Helton.

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Through half a season, they’ve treated him just fine.

Heading into the All-Star break, Morneau was batting .312 and slugging 50.2 percent — both his best marks since 2010, his last good season in Minnesota. He’s a perfect 1.000 fielding at first base, too.

That wasn’t quite enough to see him voted in on this year’s All-Star final ballot, but Rockies teammate Troy Tulowitzki added Morneau to the NL’s Home Run Derby slate to ensure him some face time in front of Twins fans again.

"I picked him as an easy choice," said Tulowitzki, the shortstop for a Colorado team that’s 40-55 and in fourth place in the NL West Division. "He’s meant so much to the fans here in Minnesota.

"It’s a great story."

The return

So that grin was back Monday night.

It was back as Morneau returned to Target Field but got lost on his way to the visitors (National League) clubhouse, one door inside the pristine ballpark he’d never stepped through. It was back as his old walk-up song, AC/DC’s "Thunderstruck," blared over the loudspeakers. It was back when former teammates Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier wiped the sweat off his brow with a towel and handed him a Gatorade during his first-round appearance in the derby’s new, bracketed competition format.

And it was there when 40,558 fans rose to their feet on three separate occasions to applaud their former hero.

Some tears were almost present, too.

"You can’t prepare yourself for something like that," Morneau said.

Even when Morneau was knocked out by Cincinatti’s Todd Frazier in a first-round tiebreaker, the smile was there, his moment back in this particular spotlight stretched out for three more swings of the bat.

One final curtain call.

"I think Twins fans are more excited about that than anything, just what he’s meant to the organization," said Dozier, who batted in the American League bracket and also was knocked out in the first round. "He’s been the guy for so many years now."

Rather than stick around for the All-Star Game itself Tuesday, Morneau planned to duck out of town with his family, possibly to the house on Lake Crystal he still owns.

There’s no need to prolong the ceremony. Morneau has made it back.

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