By: Aj Mansour | KFAN.com
Minneapolis, MN - After spending the first ten years of his professional career with the Minnesota Twins, nobody expected that Justin Morneau’s return to Target Field would have come under the cloak of a Home Run Derby, part of the celebration of All Star Week.
While the week will surely be filled with celebration for Morneau, the road back to Minnesota has not been an easy one.
Having won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 2006 as a member of the Twins, Morneau ripped off a streak of four straight All Star Game appearances and was in the midst of solidifying himself as one of baseball’s young, powerful stars. But in 2010, with his team visiting the Toronto Blue Jays, Morneau’s career to a fateful twist.
Sliding into second base to break up a routine double-play, Morneau’s helmeted head came into contact with the left knee cap of Jays second baseman John McDonald. In the midst of his best season as a pro, Justin laid on the ground at second base, literally dazed and confused.
What came next, Justin can best describe as cloudy.
Good days were few and far between with bad days leaving the 29 year old professional athlete, motionless on his couch at home.
“It was a really frustrating time,” Morneau said Monday afternoon from the media center in Minneapolis. “There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was every going to be able to get back [on the field]. When I just wasn’t getting better, I’d feel better for a couple days and then kind of go backwards. It was a really frustrating time.”
Morneau’s career took a sharp left turn after that day. Going from his most dominant career as a pro, to struggling to make the lineup became an everyday struggle.
As symptoms lingered, his production on the field began to dip. Then, in 2013 with the revelation that star Catcher Joe Mauer (also suffering from concussion symptoms) was going to move to first base in 2014, Morneau became an expendable asset. On August 31st, 2013 Justin was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Finishing the year with the Bucs, Justin appeared in only 25 games. Batting only .260 with zero home runs, Morneau was granted free agency at the end of the season.
During the last offseason, Morneau signed with Colorado and through 89 games with the Rockies he appears to have gotten his groove back. Batting .321 with 60 RBI and a OPS of .846, Morneau has become a big part of the offensive attack in Denver.
“I never really stopped believing along the way that I could get back to contributing to a baseball team and driving in runs and being productive,” Morneau said Monday. “Obviously it’s been a long road the last couple years. I really appreciate it a lot more now.”
Justin’s early season success caused a stir when the All Star votes were tabulated and his name was added to the “Final Vote” campaign to claim the final spot on the National League All Star roster. Leading the #VoteMorneau campaign via his website and Twitter account, Morneau led the vote going into the final weekend before Cubs phenom Anthony Rizzo pulled in front and won the election.
Missing out on the final vote, Morneau had one final chance to return to Minnesota to take part in the All Star festivities and thankfully, the odds seemed to be in his favor.
Justin’s teammate in Colorado Troy Tulowitzki is serving as the National League’s team captain for the Home Run Derby and was granted one final choice to fill out his team of five for tonight’s hitting showcase.
And to nobody’s surprise, Tulo chose Justin.
“There were some other guys in the NL that wanted to participate,” Tulowitzki explained Monday afternoon during the derby press conference. “All along my choice was going to be Morneau because of how great the story was and he’s very deserving… He very well could be on this All Star team and I think he should have. I think for him and everything that he’s been through, getting a chance to compete in this home run derby, it’s going to be very special for his fans and his family.”
So now, in between a home stand in Denver against his former team the Twins, Morneau returns to his former home at Target Field, before heading to Pittsburgh to face his other former team the Pirates after the break.
“It was crazy how many Twins fans were in Denver this weekend, it was probably half and half,” Justin explained. “Getting introduced before the first game, I got a pretty nice ovation there. It will be hard to see how it’s going to be tonight…It’s always good to see those guys, especially Gardy and the other coaches. They watched me grow up as a baseball player and as a man.”
“When you’re young and you’re doing well, you just kind of expecting yourself to keep doing well,” Morneau continued. “You go through and you look around and you appreciate being in the room with Jeter and with Ortiz Ichiro and all those guys and all of the sudden it just doesn’t happen for a while. When you get back there, you appreciate it all that much more.”
In 2008, Morneau won the Home Run Derby as a member of the American League team. Tonight, he will be batting as a member of the visiting team, yet he will feel more at home than he has in a very long time.