MINNEAPOLIS – The homers are what everybody came to see. Yoenis Cespedes hit 30 of them in total to repeat as champion, Jose Bautista won the first round with 10 before falling to the Oakland Athletics slugger, and Giancarlo Stanton nearly put one into orbit. He crushed that one stupid far.
The heart of Monday night’s Home Run Derby, however, was Justin Morneau and the love shown to him by a crowd of 40,558 at Target Field, a touching reunion between the long-time Minnesota Twins cornerstone and the fans who adored him.
They stood when he was first introduced, and again when he stepped to the plate for his two-homer first round, and again during the swing-off he lost 1-0 to eventual finalist Todd Frazier that knocked him from the competition.
At one point the videoboard showed a close-up of the Colorado Rockies first baseman from New Westminster, B.C., as he was cheered, and he raised his cap, pointed it to the stands and then to his heart. It was a moment that meant something.
"That was pretty amazing, I was real close to getting some tears in the eyes there at the beginning," Morneau said afterwards. "These fans are great here, they’ve always treated me well and I think it might have to do with the fact that I’ll never quit for you, I’ll run every ball out and I’ll do everything I can to play the game what I believe is the right way.
"There’s a mutual respect between myself and the fans, I’d been very fortunate to be able to play in one place for so long, and play in front of these fans that were so good for me."
The Twins traded Morneau to the Pittsburgh Pirates last summer, ending a relationship that started when they drafted him in the third round in 1999. He helped them to a pair of post-season appearances, won MVP honours in 2006, finished second in ’08 and was on pace for another MVP calibre year when he was hurt in a harmless looking collision with John McDonald’s knee season midway through 2010.
Morneau lost the rest of that season to a concussion, and his 2011 campaign was cut short by another brain injury. He endured dark days afterwards, struggling with light and sound, eventually healing enough to again become a regular.
During the off-season he signed a $12.5-million, two-year deal with the Colorado Rockies and he arrived at the break batting .312/.345/.502 with 13 homers and 60 RBIs. Left on the outside looking in for the all-star team, teammate Troy Tulowitzki selected him for the derby.
"An easy choice," Tulowitzki said. "He’s meant so much to the fans here in Minnesota. It’s a great story. He’s had a great first half for us. He very well could be on this all‑star team and he should be. But I think him and everything that he’s been through and getting a chance to compete in this home run derby is going to be special for his family and the fans in Minnesota."
Bautista, who was intent on winning, starred in the first round but went nearly an hour between swings after earning a bye into the semifinals under the derby’s new more-complicated-than-necessary format. Cespedes beat him 7-4 to advance to the final against Frazier, a shocking 1-0 winner over Stanton in the other semifinal. The Cuban is just the second ever repeat champion, joining Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1998-99.
Morneau, the 2008 winner, had hoped to add a second title to his resume, but settled for just two homers, one of them a shot off the flag pole in right that he described as the best ball he ever hit at Target Field.
"I never really stopped believing along the way that I can get back to contributing to a baseball team and trying to hit runs and being productive," he said. "And obviously it’s been a long ride the last couple of years, but I can really appreciate it a lot more now having gone through it and going through some rough times.
"You know, it’s supposed to be fun and I think I learned a lot more to have fun with it and whatever you want to call it. I am just happy that I am out there playing."