Elliott: Morneau from before draft day to retirement
By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The first time Mike Kelly, a coach with the North Delta Blue Jays, saw Justin Morneau hit, he was playing midget ball for a Vancouver Community team in 1997.
“He hit a home run against us ... well I don’t know if it has come down yet,” said Kelly who turned to head coach Ari Mellios and said, “We need to get this guy for next year.”
The next year, 1998, Morneau joined the BC Premier League with North Delta.
Dutch 3B Ruar Verkerk shaking hands with Twins international scout Howie Norsetter, who is now with the Philadellphia Phillies
1998 1998 1998
The first scout Howie Norsetter noticed Morneau was his junior year. The Twins scout was like a lot of scouts: a rare set of eyes to see into the future. And he was unlike other scouts working Canada in that he scouted Canada in the summer and Australia during Canada’s winter.
Norsetter had Morneau as his lead follow for the next year. He also liked Conrad Funk that was also a prospect at that time and thought that they were in the same boat.
* * *
Alex Agostino (Montreal, Que.) was scouting for the Montreal Expos in 1998.
Agostino said he saw Morneau hit “the longest home run he ever seen -- by an amateur -- in the midget championships. I think it was in Red Deer. He could flat out hit.”
Before the draft, he met with Morneau and his father George Morneau, along with North Delta Blue Jays coach Ari Mellios.
“My crosschecker crushed him, he saw him play on a cold spring day, a real rough day to hit,” recalled Agostino, now with the Phillies.
* * *
Scout Walt Burrows has seen a home run or two in his day. For example, his brother Bob Burrows hit 35 in five years with class-A Winnipeg, the rookie-class Royals, class-A San Jose, class-A Waterloo, double-A Elmira and double-A Jacksonville in the Kansas City Royals system.
Walt saw a bunch more evaluating Canadians for the Major League Scouting Bureau and now he scouts for the Minnesota Twins. One home run that stands out was the 1998 national midget championships at Great Chief Park in Red Deer Alta.
“One of the longest balls I’ve ever seen hit was Justin Morneau, using aluminum,” Burrows said. “He hit the ball over the right-field fence, over the light tower and the ball landed by the first base dugout by the Little League diamond. Do the math it was a long one.”
BC beat Windsor for gold that year in Red Deer.
Yet, basically the same BC team -- with Jeff Francis, Rich Harden, Brad Rodgers, Andy Rempel and Morneau, who helped make up one of BC’s best teams ever as they were all drafted -- was upset by Nova Scotia and RHP Steve Nelson beat BC in the Canada Cup in Stonewall, Man. Junior coach Greg Hamilton picked the first team out of the tournament.
1999 1999 1999
As coach of the Canadian Junior National Team, Greg Hamilton is often asked by scouts if a player is ready for the demands of minor league ball. The questions were asked in the spring of 1999, the team’s first trip to Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
“Justin loved to catch at the end of the each long day he was there, he wanted extra work, blocking balls or throwing to second,” said Hamilton. “People ask if a player is ready for the day-in, day-out grind of the minors. For him it was really clear ... being out on the field was his passion. You never ever had to ask. He wanted to play. He loved to play. Those are long days when you come out of high school.”
* * *
Ken Madeja of the Seattle Mariners and Twins scouting director Mike Radcliff were in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. to check out the Canadian Junior team in March of Morneau’s draft year.
“We saw Justin crush a homer at the Atlanta complex the spring of his draft year,” recalled Madeja. “A Latin kid threw 93 MPH fastball on the inside corner and Justin hit it over a palm tree like a missile. We were the only scouts there. I looked at Mike. He looked at me. We both knew we had seen something special. A couple months later I had our part-time scout get Justin down to our workout a few days before the draft.
“Our brain trust at the time weren’t enamored enough and Minnesota made a great pick.”
* * *
Walt Burrows also saw Morneau’s first at-bat with Hamilton’s Canadian Junior National Team in the spring of 1999.
“They were playing the Braves inside the (Cracker Jack) Stadium,” Burrows recalled. “In his first at-bat -- using aluminum -- against a pro pitcher, Justin hit a ball off the 385 sign in the right field gap.”
* * *
Mike Radcliff, the Twins top decision maker, saw Morneau play one game on the Canadian spring trip to Florida. He estimates that there were five scouts in attendance including Walt Burrows, who was then working for the Major League Scouting Bureau.
“Justin took one swing in that game that I have since considered one of the best amateur swings I have ever witnessed … off a young pro pitcher for the Braves throwing in the low 90s, Justin drove a ball to right centre with authority,” Radcliff said. “I made eye contact with each of the other scouts watching and realized that one scout in particular was going to be a threat for Justin’s services — Ken Madea of the Mariners.
“We both nodded and went our separate ways realizing that Justin was a special young hitting talent that deserved our attention for the draft ... special pitches/swings/plays stay with you when you are working in the highly subjective amateur evaluation market and that was one swing that impacted me. We were enamored with his swing and bat potential despite limited looks.”
* * *
At the request of Blue Jays Canadian scout Bill Byckowksi, Tom Hinkle, Jays West Coast cross checker, flew in from California to see Morneau and the North Delta Blue Jays at the Parksville tournament in the spring of 1999.
“The other team walked Justin three times in a row, then in his last at bat he hit a pop-up a mile high to second baseman,” Byckowski said. “Tom said ‘That’s it. I got it. I like the swing. Second round.’”
Byckowski was then off in a cloud of dust taking Hinkle, a heavy hitter in the Jays organization with a busy schedule, off to the Nanaimo Departure Bay ferry, on to the Horseshoe Bay ferry, then Vancouver International Airport and on to the next stop.
On draft day, the Twins chose Morneau in the third round (89th overall). The Blue Jays took 6-foot-5, 240-pound third baseman Mike Snyder, a high schooler from Chino Hills, Calif. with the 70th pick. Snyder played at rookie-class Medicine Hat, class-A Hagerstown, class-A Queens, class-A Charleston, class-A Advanced Dunedin and double-A New Hampshire peaking in 2005, Morneau’s first full year as the Twins first baseman.
Byckowski also saw a talented catcher, who arrived late. He asked “Why so late?” Hockey was the reason. “You know son you have a pretty future. Are you any good in hockey?’” And the catcher answered “They tell me I’m supposed to go in the first round.” Byckowski told Jarome Iginla: “Ohh OK.” Iginla played for the Kamloops Blazers of the Western Hockey League and went 11th overall in the NHL draft to the Dallas Stars.
“If Pat Gillick was still the general manager at that time, we would have drafted Justin,” Byckowski said. “Pat really loved Canadian players.”
Byckowski told of Bob Engle and Gillick flying from Salt Lake in 1993 to scout Joe Young (Edmonton, Alta.), who was drafted in third round by the Blue Jays. Young peaked at double-A Knoxville in a six-year career. On the same trip they saw a right fielder name Mike Johnson (Edmonton, Alta.), who they drafted in the 17th round and he pitched 81 games in the majors with the Baltimore Orioles and Montreal Expos,
“Could you imagine what kind of career Justin Morneau would have had if he had played in Toronto?” Byckowski said. “He might have been Prime Minister by now.
“Heck I might have been Prime Minister.”
* * *
Scouts swing and miss like people in any other profession. Tim Wilken, now of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a higher batting average than most and its why he won the Scout of the Year. He was inducted into the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame in Fort Myers, Fla. in 2016 and was named East Coast Scout of the Year by the Scout of the Year Foundation in 2006.
One player he did not connect on was Morneau, who was a catcher his draft year in 1999, when he saw him play with the Canadian Junior National Team at Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
“I’m still upset how bad I was on his evaluation because I should have graded his bat before his defence (catcher), plus he beat out Josh Harrison for a batting title,” said Wilken, who worked with the Chicago Cubs and drafted Harrison in the sixth round in 2008 from the University of Cincinnati Bearcats.
“So, Morneau haunts me.”
* * *
When Norsetter saw Morneau in the spring Parksville tournament, it was clear that his boat had taken off.
“I left that tournament with the belief that Justin was one of the best high school bats I had ever seen,” Norsetter said. “His improvement was astounding. He ticked just about every box, tools wise and makeup wise for me. He tells the story of me pacing off the distance of his home runs in the home run derby (which he won — of course.) I like to tell the story of how he was working on blocking drills up against the fence long after the game was over and most everybody had already left.
“Something about the way he went about it, like it was as familiar as brushing his teeth. You could tell he loved to work, and do whatever he needed to get better.”
Norsetter was worried about the catching aspects of Morneau’s game.
“I worried if the catching part was going to take,” Norsetter said. “I knew, partly because his bat was so far ahead. I remember telling him early on, there weren’t many No. 3 hole hitters in the majors who were catchers. His ticket was his bat. It’s almost impossible to be an everyday catcher and a great hitter. I thought he had a chance to be a great hitter. I loved his swing, I loved his approach. And I loved the fact that he had tremendous work habits ... he loved to work...All that was going to allow him to become a great hitter.
* * *
Mike Radcliff was scouting director of the Twins in 1999. In those days, MLB Scouting Bureau provided all 30 teams with VHS tapes of prospects.
“Mike gave us a speech about the tapes, how we should watch them,” said Twins scout Billy Milos. “We were to use them as a supplement and still going to rely on our own scouting reports, Basically, his message was ‘Let’s not get too emotional over the videos.’
“So, when we watch the tape of Morneau ... all of us in the room goes nuts ... Morneau goes flying up our draft board.
“Basically we did what Mike told us. But he agreed with us. We had info from Howie Norsetter (who covered Canada in the summer and Australia in the winter). Earl Frishman saw Justin a bit in Florida. But that was all we had. That video lit up the draft room. It truly got him in position.”
* * *
The way scouting works is that if an area scout sees someone he likes, he asks the scouting director to send in a cross checker or a supervisor.
Murray Zuk (Souris, Man.) of the San Diego Padres did that after seeing Morneau hit.
“I had a cross checker (now retired) come in to see him and his response was ‘He will never hit.’ In fact, the scout said ‘he wouldn’t even turn a report in if it wasn’t that I had him in so high.’
“My response was that ‘Not only can he hit, but he has upper deck power.’ Guess it proves that everybody can have a bad day.”
Zuk spoke to that same cross checker a couple of years ago and didn’t say “I told you so” however ... he did mention Morneau.
The cross checker’s response was “I wondered ... how many years it would take for you to bring that up.”
* * *
Norsetter saw Morneau as a first rounder heading into the first round. He had him rated ahead of catcher Rob Bowen, a high schooler from Fort Wayne, Ind. The Twins chose Bowen in the second round and Morneau in the third.
“I had confidence in my projection, I had him ahead of Bowen, whom I saw and liked, who would eventually be taken ahead of Justin,” Norsetter said. “Justin still had to be seen by our scouting director and cross checker. Mike Radcliff saw him take one swing for Baseball Canada against a pro pitcher on their spring trip to Florida, and was convinced. One of our cross checkers, Earl Frishman, saw him great, and of course my supervisor at the time, Mike Ruth, had seen him improve over the previous year and was convinced as well.
“When I told Mike Radcliff that I liked Morneau ahead of Bowen, he said, ‘You might want to keep that to yourself for the time being.’ Bowen was a profile guy from the States, Justin was a Canadian kid that most other teams had in the eighth round. I was considered a whacko.”
* * *
The 14-year employer-employee relationship between Twins general manager Terry Ryan and Morneau began in the summer of 1999.
As was the case with all newly-signed Twins, Morneau flew into Minneapolis, worked out at the Metrodome on his way on to Fort Myers to suit up for the rookie-class Gulf Twins. Scout Howie Norsetter had drafted and signed Morneau in the third round of the June draft, after the Red Sox chose LHP Rich Rundles (who pitched nine games in the majors) and a pick before the Montreal Expos picked C Drew McMillan (who peaked at double-A Harrisburg in 2005).
“First time I saw Justin Morneau, he came through the Twins Cities which, a normal stop on the way to Fort Myers,” said Ryan. “We put him in a uniform, he got into the cage and he must have to put 20 balls into the upper deck. He put on a display that day as impressive as any young hitter I’ve seen. Howie did a good job.”
The next time Ryan saw Morneau was during Gulf Coast League play.
“He could catch, the only thing was his elbow -- his elbow couldn’t handle the stress of the constant throwing,” Ryan said.
Brett Lawrie (Langley, BC) and Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) were drafted as catchers, but were moved to other positions to keep their bats in the lineup. Morneau did not fit into that group. Only a tender elbow prevented him from catching in the majors.
Ryan said Morneau forced his hand to create playing time for him, since Doug Mientkiewicz was ahead of him. Morneau started two games at first and 23 at DH in 2003. Then, at the non-waiver trade deadline in 2004, Mientkiewicz was part of a four-player deal and was sent to the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox moved Nomar Garciaparra and Matt Murton to the Chicago Cubs. The Montreal Expos traded Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox. The Chicago Cubs sent Francis Beltran, Alex Gonzalez and Brendan Harris to the Expos. The Cubs sent Justin Jones to the Twins.
* * *
Of the 15 players who signed in the third round of 1999, who Baseball America has the signing bonus money for, Morneau ranked 14th.
He was behind Tigers’ Neil Jenkins ($900,000), the Devil Rays RHP Doug Waechter ($500,000), Pirates OF Aron Weston ($500,000), Marlins Josh Wilson ($450,000), Red Sox’s Rich Rundles ($425,000), Mariners SS Willie Bloomquist ($425,000), Mariners SS Sheldon Fulse ($420,000), Phillies C Russ Jacobson ($415,000), Expos C Drew McMillan ($400,000), Rockies C Josh Bard ($387,500), Brewers RHP Ruddy Lugo ($375,000), Reds RHP Brandon Love ($360,000) and White Sox RHP Jon Rauch ($310,000).
Morneau was ahead of Athletics Jorge Soto ($270,000) after signing for $290,000. But draft day was never about life-changing money. In later years when Canadians had not signed he’d shake his head and ask “Do they not understand you make your money in the majors -- not on draft day. Sign, get out and get into the system.”
After Morneau signed, other teams congratulated Norsetter with the rejoinder, “I can see why the Twins overdrafted him, you saved a lot of money on the pick.”
The next year, those same scouts were telling me, “You guys screwed Morneau, he’s worth way more than you gave him.”
Morneau earned roughly $96.73 million according to baseball-reference.
2001 2001 2001
Former coach Mike Kelly called Morneau in 2001, when the first baseman was in camp with the Twins minor leaguers at Fort Myers. The North Delta Blue Jays were on the way to Florida. Morneau asked Kelly to provide everyone’s shoe size.
“When we got there he gave everyone a pair of Reebok shoes,” said Kelly. Coaches Ari Mellios, Bob Burkmar and Kelly were given new swag too. And after the game, Morneau took the 22-man party for diner and picked up the tab.
“The kids were over the moon, a kid from New Westminster showing us around the facility and taking us to diner,” Kelly said. Morneau took the coaches into the empty clubhouse and Kelly took a picture of some lockers.
“No, you can’t take pictures in here,” Morneau teased Kelly.
2003 2003 2003
On June 10, 2003, Morneau made his major-league debut as a DH. The visitors were the Colorado Rockies and Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC). Prior to the game, Walker sent over a jersey, with good wishes and it was autographed with the notation: “Make Canada Proud.”
Morneau received a standing ovation when he came out on deck and another one when he fouled a ball off in his first at-bat against Jason Jennings, leading off the second. Morneau lined a 2-2 pitch to centre for a single. He struck out in the fourth and singled to right in the sixth facing Jennings. In his final at-bat, he bounced out against Brian Fuentes in a 5-0 loss to the Rockies.
* * *
In the eighth inning of his seventh game and his 23rd plate appearance, Morneau pinch hit for Doug Mientkiewicz with the Twins trailing the Kansas City Royals 13-5. Morneau hit an 0-1 pitch off Albie Lopez for his first home run, before 16,359 fans at Kauffman Stadium.
* * *
In August of 2003 Mike Kelly was in Windsor as chef-de-mission for Team BC at the nationals. On the off day coach Bob Burkmar and Kelly grabbed a rent car -- made a couple of stops: peanuts before the border and a case of Molson’s at the border duty free stop -- heading for triple-A Rochester where Morneau was playing.
“Really? Peanuts and beers for the boys? How much do I owe you?” Morneau asked. The coaches shook their heads no and headed for lunch.
Morneau went to pick up the tab for lunch and Kelly said, “No, I’m buying lunch because I always want to be able to say I bought Justin Morneau lunch.”
* * *
Baseball returned to the Olympics in 2004 in Athens, but to get there two countries would advance from the 2003 qualifier in Panama. Expected to be lead-pipe cinches to advance were Team USA and Cuba.
Hold on a second ... in round-robin play Canada edged Puerto Rico 8-5 in the opener, then knocked off Mexico 8-2, before losing 7-2 to Cuba. They took their 2-1 record into the quarter finals against Colombia.
“We were struggling against Columbia, Pete LaForest and Justin picked us up with a couple of homers,” recalled Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont.). “They stuck them into the side of the hill behind the right-centre field fence. Literally! That was the lift we needed,”
Canada beat Columbia 14-6 while former Wyoming Cowboy Rigo Beltrán edged USA 2-1. Canada thumped Mexico 11-1 to advance to Athens along with Cuba.
“He could hit and played the game hard,” said Clapp, who was also part of the Canuck team which lost 8-5 in the semi-final at Athens. “We definitely missed him in the 04 Olympics.”
Clapp is now the manager of the triple-A Memphis Redbirds.
* * *
Justin Morneau was Canada’s best hitter in Panama.
He was the best hitter in the whole tourney when it came to home runs and RBIs.
At the closing ceremonies the MC announced that Cuba and Canada had advanced to the 2004 Olympics in Greece. And then he proceeded to announce the award winners from the qualifier.
“I think Justin has five home runs in the tourney, immediately following our final game against Cuba they had a quick award ceremony,” recalls INF Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.). “When they announced top hitter for the tournament the Panamanian guy on the mike said “Justinnnnnnnnnnnn ...”
Morneau was standing with the rest of the Canadians a Canadian flag draped around his shoulders as his teammates cheered.
“Just as Morneau headed up to accept the award the announcer finishes “... Leone!!!!!,” said Orr. Justin Leone played third base for Team USA and had had a great tournament as well. “Justin was halfway up on stage ready to accept. Whoops!”
Morneau was calm, cool collected as he walked back to join his teammates.
2004 2004 2004
Before the first game of the 2004 American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium, we watched 3B Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) throw strikes across the diamond to 1B Morneau during infield practice. Besides both being Canadians they had in common the fact that they were both former goalies.
It just happened that we wound up walking up the tunnel and along behind us came Koskie. “Hey, let me ask you, when there is a ground ball to you during the game and you throw the guy out at first, do I mark it 5-3 or G-G as in goalie to goalie?” Koskie never broke stride as he said “No, it’s GG-to-BG: Good Goalie to Bad Goalie.”
That night Koskie had a single, as the Twins and Johan Santana beat the Yankees 2-0.
2005 2005 2005
Morneau loved wrestling as a teenager. North Delta coach Mike Kelly, a teenager at heart, loved wrestling.
Kelly’s pal Lunch McKenzie, coach at Concordia University-St. Paul obtained Kelly a field pass so Morneau’s ex-coach arrived on to the MetroDome carpet in Minneapolis in 2005 without the first baseman knowing.
“I walk up behind him and say, ‘Hey Morneau ... Keep the elbow up!’” Kelly recalled. “Justin asked, ‘How did you get a field pass? I can’t even get a field pass.’”
During their North Delta days, Morneau and Kelly would talk wrasslin’ and their favorite show was WCW Thunder featuring announcers Tony Schiavone, Bobby Heenan, Mike Tenay and Larry Zbyszko. Morneau would say “Pool Thunder, meet you there.” Kelly would accept the challenge by saying “I’m going to dummy you.” Of course there was never any wrasslin’ -- just a lot of talk. And laughs.
That night after batting practice Kelly followed Morneau up the 44 stairs to the clubhouse. Half way up, Morneau spun around and said “Metrodome Thunder! Let’s go right now!”
Kelly replied “How is Ron Gardenhire going to like it after I dummy you and you are too injured to play?”
Parksville Thunder. Beach Thunder. Last Ferry Ride Thunder.
Eyewitnesses say some exchanges were worthy of making a WCW Thunder telecast. If only head wrasslin’ boss Eric Bischoff had been watching.
* * *
On the second day of the 2005 season, the Twins were at Safeco Field. The Mariners were in the third base dugout. Morneau stood down the left field line with Michael Cuddyer during the national anthem after his sprints.
Being very superstitious, Morneau had to stand alongside his pal Cuddyer, before every game during the anthem.
Before each home game, Morneau would stop by the same Jimmy John’s Gourmet Subs, on Grand Ave. in St. Paul, Minn. to order the same sandwich from the menu: Turkey Tom with no sprouts. Later, he drank a slurpee from a slurpee machine in the Twins’ clubhouse made of one-half Mountain Dew, one-half red or orange flavor.
2006 2006 2006
For Team Canada, the first work out was supposed to start at 10 a.m. before the 2006 World Baseball Classic, one late-arriving American writer saw a cab pull up at 10:05. Out climbed Morneau carrying a half dozen hockey sticks, some tennis balls and some goalie equipment.
Later after the workout, the writer asked manager Ernie Whitt, “How prepared do you think you team will do when one of its leaders shows late carrying hockey equipment?” Whitt replied, “Oh, they will be ready.”
After three exhibition games and with two hours to spare before their charter left Tampa for Phoenix, the team headed to the in-line hockey rink behind the Bobby Mattick Training Facility to play our national game: shirts and skins on an Olympic-sized piece of pavement with regulation boards. Or Hockey Afternoon in Dunedin.
Ryan Radmanovich’s Shirts swept the best-of-three series by identical 5-3 scores over Morneau’s Skins. Sebastien Boucher announced the three stars in both official languages. Trainer Tommy Craig asked, “Do you think this type of camaraderie could put this team over the top?” Morneau had been late on Day 1 because he had to stop by the Sports Authority to buy some gear.
And in one Canada’s most impressive victories ever, Morneau with 3-for-5 with two doubles and an RBI in an 8-6 triumph over Team USA. Adam Stern also had three hits, knocking in four runs, with a triple and an inside-the-park homer before 16,993 at Chase Field.
* * *
Justin Morneau led the Twins to 96 wins to take the AL Central in 2006.
Derek Jeter helped lead the New York Yankees to 97 wins to win the AL East.
At season’s end there was talk that this was Jeter’s last chance to win an MVP. Like most years there was heated debate. Morneau wound up with 15 first-place votes, Jeter had 12 and Twins LHP Johan Santana had one. Morneau finished with 320 points, 14 more than Jeter.
Morneau batted .321, as teammate Joe Mauer won the batting title hitting .347. Morneau also had 37 doubles, a triple, 34 homers, 130 RBIs and a .934 OPS in 57 games. Jeter was second to Mauer hitting .343 in 157 games. Jeter had 39 doubles, three triples, 14 homers, 97 RBIs and a .900 OPS.
2007 2007 2007
Morneau hit his 100th career home run to right field on July 6 off Gavin Floyd of the Chicago White Sox with two on in Chicago. In his next at bat two innings later he hit a solo homer off Floyd to centre. And in the seventh he hit a two-run homer to left. Three homers, one to each field. The Twins beat the White Sox 12-0 in the second game of the doubleheader.
Morneau went 3-for-5 with three RBIs in the opener, a 20-14 win.
And later that same month he played in his first of four consecutive all-star games at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
2008 2008 2008
If you ask most people who won the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium that year, the answer would be Josh Hamilton. Hamilton did put on a tremendous display of power.
Hamilton hit 28 homers in the first round, smashing Bobby Abreu’s opening-round record of 24 homers, set in 2005. Three of Hamilton’s homers landed more than 500 feet from the plate, the longest travelling 518 feet.
Morneau, homered eight times in the first round and nine times in the second before outslugging Hamilton 5-3 in the final.
And he also gave the Americans a 4-3 win scoring from third base on Michael Young’s fly ball in the bottom of the 15th -- saving both teams from asking position players to pitch, since each team was out of arms. The game took four hours and 50 minutes to complete.
2009 2009 2009
Scott VandeValk (Georgetown, Ont.) took his Christ The King Secondary School from Georgetown to Tempe, Ariz. The hockey team took a tour of Arizona State University, met legendary former football coach Frank Kush, were given tickets to Washington State Huskies-Arizona State Sun Devils at Ned Wulk Court/Wells Fargo Arena.
They were given a tour of Bobby Winkles Field-Packard Stadium at Brock Ballpark and since there were not any games going on, walked into the dugout. Students Matt Quinn and Justin Kaye noticed a man on the field posing for pictures and said as the same time “Oh my gawd! It’s Justin Morneau!” Morneau was doing a photo shoot for a sporting goods company.
Wearing a Baseball Canada T-shirt, VandeValk introduced himself, explained that the boys were an Ontario high school hockey team and asked if Morneau could say hello when finished. Later, his opening line “Don’t tell me that you guys are Maple Leaf fans?” The players were given the balls from the shoot -- three baseballs each. Morneau signed each and every one. And when someone suggested a team picture, Morneau insisted they move out to the outfield to get the scoreboard in the background.
* * *
The 2009 WBC had one of its pools at the Rogers Centre. Canada lost 5-4 to Team USA in an atmosphere that was better than any of the Blue Jays' 81 home games. The main reason is the place was jammed with baseball people. No one was coaching in March.
Before the game WBC officials had Tommy Lasorda throw out the first pitch. Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.) was also supposed to be there, but New York did not contact Jenkins, who was double booked with an event in Phoenix.
So, after the game Larry Walker and Morneau went to the Maple Leafs game to book their own first-pitch tosser: Donald S. Cherry (Kingston, Ont.).
2010 2010 2010
Morneau joined Larry Walker as the second inductee onto the Baseball Canada Wall of Excellence, presented by RBC Wealth Management at the annual fund raiser.
Former Twins C Rob Bowen,left, and Justin Morneau wore these outfits on New Year's Eve 2009. The inspiration was the movie Dumb and Dumber.
2010 2010 2010
On July 7, 2010, his Twins trailing the Blue Jays 6-5, Morneau led off the eighth, with a line drive single to centre against lefty Scott Downs. Next Michael Cuddyer hit a weak grounder to shortstop John McDonald, who raced to the bag and threw to first too late to get Cuddyer.
McDonald’s knee caught Morneau’s noggin.
“Might have had the wind knocked out of him,” Bert Blyleven, the Twins broadcaster told his audience in the Twins Cities, hopefully. “Justin’s walking off on his own, which is always a good sign.”
Morneau didn’t play another game that season sidelined by concussion symptoms. Morneau, who played half a season (81 games) ended with 18 home runs, a .345 average and an OPS of 1.055.
2012 2012 2012
Morneau hit a 1-2 pitch from Cleveland Indians reliever Josh Tomlin on Aug. 6 for his 200th career home run. Two innings earlier, he hit a solo homer against Zach McAllister to deep right field in a 14-3 win against the Indians.
2013 2013 2013
As a warm up to the 2013 WBC in Phoenix, Morneau insisted everyone come to his house for a team get together. It didn’t matter whether you were a big leaguer, minor leaguer, just joined the 40-man roster, a long-range prospect or a free agent. There was food and drinks, plus a BBQ. Players could swim in the pool. Morneau arranged for enough hockey equipment for everyone and Porta-Potties were on his Cul-De-Sac. Players, coaches, trainers and support staff took the team bus to Chez Morneau.
“That was a perfect example of who he was: thinking about other players ... including everyone and with a smile on his face the whole time,” said Greg Hamilton, director of national teams.
And as always the players remember who won.
“Wayne Gretzky’s boys came over and played with us, they all were starting to run together,” said Stubby Clapp. “Justin won it for our team with a nasty snap shot from the hash marks. He was co-MVP ... with me as the goalie.”
Morneau hit .636 with three doubles and three RBIs in three games.
* * *
The Twins were in Arlington, Tex. when GM Terry Ryan told Morneau he had been dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Morneau hit .260 with three RBIs as the Pirates reached the postseason for the first time since the 1992.
2014 2014 2014
Mornneau signed a two-year deal with the Colorado Rockies in 2014. And he battled .319 to win the NL batting title ahead of Josh Harrison of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who hit .315. The rest of the top five includes the Pirates Andrew McCutchen at .314, San Franciso Giants’ Buster Posey at .311 and Philadelphia Phillies’ Ben Revere at .306.
Morneau had 32 doubles, three triples, 17 homers, 82 RBIs and an .860 OPS.
2015 2015 2015
While the concussions symptoms lingered and hung around like a bunch of guys in a honky tonk at closing time, Morneau suffered another concussion diving for a ball against the Los Angeles Angels.
Morneau left the game in the bottom of the eighth, a 2-1, 11-inning loss to the Angels. He did not play again until Sept. 4, playing in only 49 games.
2016 2016 2016
In April of 2016 the Blue Jays were in Minneapolis. Morneau was in Florida re-habbing and helping out with Greg Hamilton’s Canadian Junior National Team.
Walking by the booth of GM Ryan, he called me in and showed me his phone. On it was a picture of Morneau throwing batting practice with the message. “Maybe I’ll come back as a two-way guy.”
Morneau eventually signed as a free agent with the Chicago White Sox making his debut July 15 against the Los Angeles Angels. And his final at-bat came Oct. 2 at U.S. Cellular Field when he grounded out against Twins Jose Berrios to end the fifth.
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When Tragically Hip frontman and lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (glioblastoma, an invasive brain tumour, in his front left temporal lobe), Morneau posted this on his blog:
“It’s not very often I’m affected by sad news of someone that I’ve never met in the entertainment industry. This morning I read about Gord.
The Tragically Hip have been with me for many car rides, late nights and pregame music mixes for a very long time. They were on the stereo of the bus after we qualified for the Olympics with Team Canada in Panama in ’03. The Hip were with us pre and postgame in the clubhouse on the stereo during the World Baseball Classic in ’06, ’09 and ’13. They helped connect us as Canadians and bring us together through their music.
There are families affected by sad news like this every day. I feel like, as a Canadian, Gord Downie is part of a very large extended family. While this news saddens me, I feel fortunate to have grown up listening to their unique sound and to have witnessed them perform some of the best live shows I have ever seen.
Thank you Gord for what you have done for music in Canada and best of luck.”
2017 2017 2017
In the spring of 2017 Pete Orr, Scott Richmond and other Canada players arrived in Dunedin to work out at the Bobby Mattick Training Facility. The free agents didn’t have a home park where they could train. Morneau was offered the chance to arrive early so he could take ground balls and batting practice.
He declined. And for the right reason. With the Toronto Blue Jays six miles away and Justin Smoak coming off a struggling season his arrival would have been a story ... a spring camp stir. His final appearance as a player came with a Canadian jersey on at the 2017 WBC last March.
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Adam Morissette (Ottawa, Ont.) of Baseball Canada points out that Morneau finishes his career near the top of many offensive categories among Canadian-born major leaguers as he sits: second in hits (1,603), doubles (349) and RBIs (983), trailing only Larry Walker, third in games played (1,545) and fourth in home runs (247). He is the only Canadian to win an American League MVP Award and one of three Canadians (Larry Walker and Joey Votto) to win a MVP honour.
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What if John McDonald had jumped a little higher that day in Toronto, July 7, 2010? What if Morneau had slid a tad of second earlier? Instead, McDonald’s knee caught Morneau in the head. What if Cuddyer had hit the ball harder? Five feet one way or another? Instead McDonald’s knee met Morneau’s head.
We asked two statisticians what might have been if not for the collision with McDonald and the freak result.
On July 7, 2010 Morneau’s career stats were
Neil Munro (North Bay, Ont.) the former guru for STATS Inc. predicted Morneau’s career stats, without injury, would be:
Munro assumed his career had not quite reached the 50% mark when he was hurt in 2010 (and that he would finish that season at the same clip). He then estimated the typical fall-off for players of his type and projected the remaining of his batting stats. That’s how he arrived at the stats listed.
We also asked Randy Robles (Toronto, Ont.) of the Elias Sports Bureau to project where Morneau might have been. He used as a baseline 948 games -- which was the number of games Morneau had played up to and including the contest when he was injured on Toronto turf.
Here's Robles' list of players who played in over 2,000 MLB games and had similar numbers to Morneau through 948 games (Please note the first four columns in this chart feature the players' stats through 948 games, while the second four columns present their career totals):
Jones, Bagwell and Ott are in Cooperstown while David Ortiz is headed there. Based on these numbers, according to Robles, an injury-free career for Morneau could have looked like this: 2,300 hits, 430 homers and 1,500 RBIs.
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“The guy was a stud!!” said Hall of Fame candidate Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC). “What a great guy and a great Canadian. There is no telling how crazy good he could of continued to be if not for that damn slide into second base.
“It’s safe to say he made Canada proud for all the great things he’s done on and off the field.”
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“Justin definitely took the torch, as the face of Canadian baseball from players like Larry Walker, Paul Quantril, Corey Koskie and Matt Stairs. He was/is a true leader and a stand up ‘pro’ for all Canadian baseball players,” said long-time teammate Peter Orr. “Even through some tough injuries and many off field obligations he went out of his way to host, meet and greet all of us whether you were a former teammate, a new big leaguer, a rookie ball kid, or an old bald washed up utility player like me.
“He made you feel welcome and went out of his way to make sure you knew you were a part of the Baseball Canada family. On numerous occasions he hosted the Senior National team at his house, fed us, made us feel welcome and provided the teams with sticks and nets to battle out a good old street hockey game. I’m glad to call Justin a friend and many times over a teammate.
“Justin had all the physical talents, that was easy to see, But he also became a student of the game, and an extremely smart ball player. He went about it the right way and is a tremendous example for all expiring Canadian baseball players.”
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“Before the concussion he was an excellent player,” said former Twins GM Terry Ryan, now of the Phillies, who is, was and shall always be: Minnesota Nice. “Justin has really matured ... I’ve been impressed.”
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When the definitive history of Canadian hitters is summed up the four faces to be chisled into the Rockies would be former MVP winners Larry Walker, Joey Votto and Morneau, plus Matt Stairs.
Games: Larry Walker 1,988, Matt Stairs (Saint John, NB) 1,895, Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC) 1,545, Terry Puhl (Melville, Sask.) 1,531.
Runs: Walker 1,355, George Wood (Pownal, PEI), 965, Tip O’Neill (Sprinfield, Ont.) 879, Votto (863).
Hits: Walker 2,160; Morneau 1,603; Votto 1,586; Wood 1,467.
Doubles: Walker 471, Morneau 349, Votto 344, Stairs 294,
Triples: Wood, 132; Jeff Heath (Fort William, Ont.) 102; Bill Phillips (Saint John, NB) 98; O’Neill 92.
Home runs: Walker 363; Stairs 265; Votto 257; Morneau 247.
RBIs: Walker 1,311, Morneau 985, Stairs 889, Heath 887.
On-base: Votto .428, Walker .400, George Selkirk (Huntsville, Ont.) .400, O’Neill 392.
Slugging: Walker .565, Votto .541, Heath .509, Selkirk .483.
OPS: Votto .969, Walker .965, Selkirk .883, Heath .879.