By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. – It was almost three years ago when Justin Morneau was first introduced to Josh Naylor.
Morneau had been selected to represent the Colorado Rockies in the Home Run Derby that would take place during the 2014 all-star break at Target Field in Minnesota, where he spent the first 11 years of his major league career. Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams, gave the New Westminster, BC native a call beforehand and mentioned that another Canuck would be in the building, and suggested they should meet.
Naylor turned 17 years old not even a month before heading to Minneapolis, where he was chosen to participate in MLB’s inaugural Junior Select Home Run Derby almost a year before he was taken 12th overall in the 2015 draft by the Miami Marlins as the highest Canadian position player ever selected.
“Greg called me and said there was a young Canadian kid there, and told me to look out for him,” Morneau said. “Then I saw him swing and I thought, ‘Oh. Yep, he’s got a chance.’ Greg said he had a chance to be a good player, and you never know with a young player, but a kid that young with a swing like that, it kind of makes you aware of who he is and what he’s doing.”
The young slugger from Mississauga Ont., sought out the former American League MVP and four-time all-star, and took his opportunity when he saw an empty chair next to Morneau on the edge of the field.
“I sat beside him and just started talking to him,” Naylor said. “He knew who I was and that I was Canadian, so that was kind of cool. It was amazing to have a Canadian there with us, and for it to be a veteran player like him and an all-star like him.
“Just to be around him and to get to talk to him for a few hours was humbling and it was incredible. I had so much fun there…We had a great conversation about how the night was going and how the season was going for him, and all of his accolades. He gave me all the time I wanted with him.”
Morneau enjoyed the company, not only to share in the event with another face from north of the border, but because talking to Naylor helped them both stay loose.
“We were both nervous, that was the first thing,” the 14-year major league veteran said. “We were both in the Home Run Derby and we were both sitting there, just having conversations. I was trying to help him stay relaxed and it was helping me stay relaxed too. I don’t even remember what we talked about but it was one of those things where you could tell he’s a good kid and he’s got his head on right.”
Fast forward 32 months and the two first basemen are now teammates on Canada’s national squad, suiting up together as the Canadians head into the first round of the World Baseball Classic. Though they haven’t seen each other since their time at Target Field, Naylor feels as though no time has been lost.
“It’s like we’re old friends now,” Naylor said. “So to have someone like him around helping me and to learn from him and see what he does, and take what I can take away from his game, it’s humbling…It’s an honour to be around him and to be around all the veteran players here.
“You learn from them day in and day out, and try to have as much fun as you can here. I mean, it’s going to be a quick tournament and you never know what could happen, so just try to win and try your hardest.”
With two seasons of professional baseball under Naylor’s belt – last year batting .269/.317/.430 with 12 home runs, 29 doubles, two triples and 75 RBI in 122 games between the Class-A Greensboro Grasshoppers and Class-A Advanced Lake Elsinore after being traded to the San Diego Padres organization – Morneau’s view has changed a little bit, and working with the young hitter has made him nostalgic.
“It’s fun for me watching these kids,” the 35-year-old said. “You see them when they’re on the junior team, when they’re young and through their development, and you remember what it was like to be in that position.
“To be an 18 or 19 or 20-year-old kid hoping to make the Double-A team, and your future and everything is in front of you. I remember just how exciting every day was. Then you see him swing, and you see the bat speed, and you see the talent, and you hope that he’s going to get an opportunity, and he’s going to stay healthy, and that he gets to have a long career, because it could be something special.”
As the two continue to work together during the days that remain with this Team Canada squad, Morneau has at least one specific message that he’s trying to relay to his young counterpart.
“He tells me just to have fun,” 19-year-old Naylor said. “You never know when it’s going to be your last day on the field, so to take pride in your work and be professional about it. And just enjoy the moment you’re in and always have fun with it, and work hard constantly.”
Morneau isn’t sure that he would have fully understood or listened to his own advice a couple of decades ago, but with the cognizance he’s gained in recent seasons because of the experiences he’s had, he’s hopeful that his newfound knowledge can be useful for someone who he hopes has plenty more time left in his career.
“It was something, I wouldn’t say I took it for granted when I was younger, but the older you get the more aware of it you become,” Morneau said. “When you’re 20, you think you’re going to play until you’re 40 and that everything is going to be great, all the days are going to be wonderful and free of pain, and you’re going to run out there and feel good every time you swing.
“Being hurt as much as I’ve been, I had to just learn that lesson of enjoying today because tomorrow you never know what’s going to happen. It really changed my perspective, and I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed it but it’s been something that [has made me] a lot more appreciative of the last few years of playing.”