Morneau returns to Rogers Centre where 2010 season ended

* Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC) former AL MVP winner.  

By Bob Elliott

Justin Morneau headed towards the batter’s box at 7:56 Friday night at Rogers Centre.

The walk-up music was not “Welcome Back,” theme from the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show.

It was not Kathy Mattea’s “Where Have You Been?”

It could have been either.

Morneau dug in 120 feet from where his season ended July 7 as he slid hard into second trying to break two and was clipped by John McDonald’s knee at second, The result was a season-ending concussion.

No August ball. Nothing in September.

And zero at-bats against the New York Yankees in post-season play.

Who knows what would have been without the concussion?

There were four consecutive days early last season when Etobicoke’s Joey Votto, who won the National League MVP, and Morneau led batting races in their respective leagues.

“I had about 50 at-bats this spring, counting the minors, I’m close to getting back to fully normal,” said the former America League MVP. “I played six days in a row, even got hit twice by double-A left-handers from the Baltimore Orioles.

“It was good to get that out of the way.”

Baseball people understand Tommy John surgeries or pulled hamstrings.

Concussions are almost as knew as third base coaches wearing helmets.

When Aaron Hill missed four months of the 2008 season he was often queasy and light headed.

Morneau moved towards health when he no longer felt “foggy or light-headed” and didn’t have to lie down for a three-hour nap.

Some days he wondered if he’d ever play again.

What fellow members of the concussion club preached was patience.

Patience ranks about 112th on a big leaguer’s list of traits.

Morneau talked to Willie Mitchell of the Los Angeles Kings (“he married a Minnesota girl and he used to play in Minneapolis”), former Twin and ex-Jay Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) who saw his career end due to a concussion and Jason Bay (Trail, BC) of the New York Mets, who had his 2010 season ended by a concussion.

“They were helpful,” Morneau said. “I may have helped Bay then he helped me. I’ve been through a few things before.”

Morneau, drafted and signed as a catcher by Twins scout Howie Norsetter as a third-round pick in 1999, missed the 2009 Twins post-season due to a back injury. He played for Ali Mellios and Mike Kelly with the North Delta Blue Jays and learned a work ethic.

It puzzles him to see young Canadians being drafted and not signing. "You make your money in the majors, not on a signing bonus," said Morneau, in the fourth year of a six-year, $80 million contract.

During batting practice Morneau wore a batting helmet which we’ve only see John Olerud do.

But wait ... the rest of the group Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome all did the same.

Morneau one of three Canadians to win an MVP award still hears from Larry Walker, including a recent photon of Walker golfing at Pebble Beach, asking “how is YOUR morning?”

He has grown into Walker: proud, patriotic and Canadian. It was Morneau who asked where was Walker when the Vancouver Olympic committee not overlooked Walker at the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, but also the torch run.

This spring Morneau hit .152 (5-for-33) in major-league games with three doubles, one RBI, two walks and six strikeouts.

McDonald, who phoned the Twins’ trainer’s room the day after the collision at second, also checked on Morneau throughout the winter via Koskie.

“Morneau plays hard, hits for power, runs everything outs, slides hard on a double play,” McDonald said. “When I phoned him in the trainer’s room I told him I wished I’d jumped a little higher, we talked about Aaron Hill and I told him he would need patience.”

During pre-game introductions Morneau received applause -- matching Pat Hentgen on the ‘clapometer’ -- from the sold-out crowd welcoming him back.

“We’re all part of a family in baseball,” McDonald said. “If you do well or fail, you’re out there trying your best.

“But when someone can’t get onto the field due to another reason -- say an injury or Justin’s concussion -- well no one likes to see that. No one.”

Welcome back.

The left-handed hitting Morneau faced the Jays ace lefty Ricky Romero and lined softly to centre on the second pitch of the at-bat, the start of a hitless night, his first night back.

But he's back.

Welcome back.