* 1B Justin Morneau (North Delta, BC) spent his high school spares and lunch hours hitting in solo at the All-Star Academy in Vancouver while playing for coches Ari Mellios and Mike Kelly with the North Delta Blue Jays, before the Minnesota Twins selected him in the 1999 draft. .....
By Bob Elliott
SCOTTSDALE _ The reigning National League batting champ honed his swing during lunch when many teenagers were watching Leave It to Beaver re-runs.
The third Canadian to ever win a batting title also does something rare when he finds himself with two strikes. He actually has a two-strike approach.
Justin Morneau, Colorado Rockies first baseman, is not an old-timey hitter with his hands choked up almost to the trade mark, but you can’t argue with his success.
He learned his swing on his in the solitude of Mark Hiscott’s All-Star Baseball Academy on Marine Drive near the Vancouver airport.
“I’d arrange my schedule so I had a spare before lunch,” Morneau said sitting inside the Taj Mahal-like spring training facility the Colorado Rockies share with the Arizona Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
“They had a machine with a big basket, so you could load five or six buckets of balls at once, it would continually re-load,” said Morneau. “I’d hit, run home, shower and go back to school. That made up for the lack of repitions that kids south of the border were getting. I knew my swing.”
Minnesota Twins scout Howie Norsetter drafted Morneau in the third round in 1999.
The two-strike approach didn’t sink in until early in his second full season of pro ball with class-A Quad Cities. Morneau was hitting .400 at the end of the first month when hitting coach Jim Dwyer “chewed him out” for not choking up with two strikes.
“I remember how angry I was, but it’s the right way,” said Morneau, “when the ball is in the catcher’s glove you have no chance. When you put the ball in play you have a chance of something good happing. The Twins preached that to us starting at rookie ball.”
He credits his father, George Morneau for spending hours throwing batting practice to him; Twins manager Ron Gardenhire and hitting coach Joe Vavra for helping him. And Greg Hamilton, coach of the Canadian Junior National Team for exposure.
“Everyone on Greg’s team is the best from where they come from,” said Morneau, who remembers pulling a ground-rule double against a second-year pro on the annual trip to Disney and thinking “I can play with these guys.”
“I’m not saying you can’t make it if you’re not on that Junior team, but it helps you get seen,” said Morneau.
The popular theory today is that an out is an out.
Who cares if it is a strikeout?
“If you’re hitting 3-4-5 in the batting order, two out, none on, one run game, go ahead, swing for the fences,” said Morneau. “Middle of the order guys usually aren’t fast, so you probably need two hits to score.
“But less than two out, man on third, early in the game ... hit a fly ball or hit a ground ball to shortstop. Some people argue RBIs are over rated, I’d rather start off up 1-0.”
Morneau says he remembers Paul Molitor coming as an instructor in his days with the Twins. And how Molitor didn’t want to step on toes the toes of other coaches and never started a sentence “the way I did it ...”
“The man had 3,319 career hits -- tell us how. I remember asking him once what’s the most important stat in baseball,” Molitor said. “He said runs, someone has to drive people in.”
Morneau knocked had 82 RBIs in 2014 and has 945 in his first 12 seasons, second only to Larry Walker (1,311) amongst Canucks. Walker joins the Rockies as a guest hitting instructor at the request of manager Walt Weiss next month.
“Walker is something ... he gives you that ‘see ball, hit ball stuff,’ and then he’ll say something ‘ever notice how many guys throw off speed with a 2-1 count. I counted once: eight of the next 10. He was a smart hitter.”
Walker with three batting crowns and Tip O’Neill with one, 1887 St. Louis Browns, are the only other Canadians to wear a batting crown.
Morneau took his own swing, his use-the-whole-field approach and filled Coords field gaps with 32 doubles and three triples to go with 17 homers. He hit fifth opening day behind Charlie Blackmon, Michael Cuddyer, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki with Wilin Rosario and Nolan Arenado behind him.
“We had a deep lineup,” said Morneau, as the Rockies led the NL with a .276 team average. Injuries to Gonzalez and Tulowitzki bumped him to third in the order ... Walker’s old spot.
Canadian batting champs Tip O’Neill Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OPS 1. 1887 St. Louis 124 517 167 225 52 19 14 123 .435 1.180
Larry Walker Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OPS 2. 1998 Colorado 130 454 113 165 46 3 23 67 .363 1.075 3. 1999 Colorado 127 438 108 166 26 4 37 115 .379 1.168 4. 2001 Colorado 142 497 107 174 35 3 38 123 .350 1.111
Justin Morneau Team G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OPS 5. 2014 Colorado 135 502 62 160 32 3 17 82 .319 .860