MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau measures his words carefully, speaking with a purpose when a question is asked of him.
The Minnesota Twins first baseman had to pause briefly when asked this week about the concussions he suffered in each of the previous two years, one that cut his 2010 season short and another that hampered him during 2011.
Was there ever a thought that concussions could threaten his career?
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“Of course there is,” Morneau said, sitting back in his chair at his corner locker in the Twins clubhouse, taking a moment to ponder the question before continuing. “It’s just a reality of the situation. If a guy has arm surgery and he can’t throw the ball, obviously, it’s going to be a possibility. It wasn’t something that I really entertained as something that I was thinking about. It was a realistic possibility. If I don’t recover, I’m not allowed to play.”
By most accounts, Morneau, 31, has recovered. It certainly has been a long road back, though, and he’ll admit he’s not all the way there.
After he suffered a concussion while sliding into second base against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 7, 2010, Morneau missed the remainder of the season. Before the injury, the 2006 American League MVP was on an All-Star pace, batting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBI in 81 games.
In 2011, Morneau’s concussion symptoms came back after he dove for a ball at first base. That, plus several other ailments — including neck surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment and wrist surgery at the end of the year — limited Morneau to 69 games all season.
Last year, Morneau’s good friend and teammate Joe Mauer also dealt with injuries and appeared in only 82 games. The two former MVPs shared frustrations over not being able to stay on the field. Mauer could tell the time missed weighed heavily on Morneau, who is regarded as possibly the hardest worker on the Twins.
“It was just a lot of frustration, just trying to do everything you can to get back on the field, and it didn’t work very well,” Mauer said of Morneau. “. . . Obviously, (his concussion) lingered for a long time. You never want to see anybody have to end their career for something like that, or anything really, injurywise.”
Morneau entertained doubts that his career might be over, but he didn’t want to believe that could happen. He underwent rigorous offseason regimens to overcome the concussion symptoms.
After missing more than half of the 2010 season, Morneau returned to the Twins’ Opening Day lineup on April 1, 2011. It has been a slow, steady climb since then.
So far in 2012, Morneau had one brief stint on the disabled list, missing time in early May because of a sore left wrist. Since his return, he has batted .240 with six homers and 24 RBI in 27 games through Saturday. On the season, his average sits at only .236.
The key for Morneau, however, has been his ability to remain healthy. Manager Ron Gardenhire has been able to plug him into the lineup almost every day the past month — and regularly at first base lately after he was the Twins’ designated hitter to start the year.
“I really don’t talk to him too much other than about DH or first base, but he really likes playing first base more than anything else,” Gardenhire said. “Every once in a while, I know I’m going to give him a DH day. . . . He’s going along pretty good, and he’s healthy.”
But simply being on the field every day isn’t good enough for Morneau, who is probably his own harshest critic.
“I’m not somebody that’s ever been happy just to play. I want to play well,” Morneau said. “I haven’t played how I expected myself to play. Hopefully, I’ll continue to get better and get more comfortable and just play the way I feel like I’m capable of playing. And I think I’ll be a little bit more content than I am right now. . . .
“Even when I’m at my best, I’m still trying to get better.”
Morneau will be the first to admit that his approach at the plate is still a work in progress. He’s third on the Twins with 10 home runs and second in RBI with 33, but he’s also second in strikeouts with 41.
He has struggled against left-handed pitching. After hitting into a rally-killing double play Saturday against Milwaukee Brewers reliever Manny Parra, Morneau is hitting only .095 (6 for 63) against lefties this season.
“At this point, it’s just trying to be more consistent, have more consistent at-bats, have a better approach every at-bat and not give away at-bats,” Morneau said. “I think I’ve been extremely inconsistent. I think that’s the key to this game is being consistent with your approach and your plan and everything, and I don’t think I’ve done that the way I’d have liked. I think I’ve been too mechanical at times — and trying to break that habit.”
The Twins need a healthy — and productive — Morneau in the lineup to help make the offense go. Despite everything he has gone through, all the hurdles he has climbed and the obstacles he has overcome, Morneau is an important cog in Minnesota’s lineup. He knows that, and so do his teammates.
“He’s swinging the bat pretty good,” Mauer said. “When he steps into the batter’s box, other teams know what he’s capable of doing. I don’t think that’s changed.”