CHICAGO – Justin Morneau wondered if he was at the end of his baseball career this winter, if after 1,487 big-league games over 13 years, multiple concussions and multiple surgeries he’d put his body through enough. Yet as he worked his way back from a Dec. 22 operation to repair the primary flexor tendon in his left elbow, the Canadian slugger found that his desire to keep playing never ebbed, his drive to compete never eased. So he worked and worked, and now a return to the majors with the Chicago White Sox looms, in the weeks, rather than months, ahead.
“It’s something we all have to face at some point,” Morneau says in an interview. “Some of us are lucky enough to get opportunities and play for a long time until those opportunities kind of go away. I’m enjoying it at this point, I just try to enjoy every day, enjoy the work and enjoy being around the guys. Being home, that’s one of the things I missed, being part of the team, being in the dugout, on the road, playing cards on the plane, all the little things away from the game of baseball that are fun and fun to be around that you really can’t get anywhere else.”
Last season, his second with the Colorado Rockies, wasn’t much fun. The first baseman from New Westminster, B.C., struggled through elbow issues all year, he and the team thinking it was simply tendonitis that could be played through. There were neck and concussion issues, as well. In all, Morneau played in only 49 games, although he slashed .310/.363/.458 in 182 plate appearances.
During the off-season, when his elbow still didn’t feel right, he decided to get examined on his own and that led to the surgery. Once he began to recover and improve, the 35-year-old knew he wanted, at minimum, to write a better ending to his career. Eventually, the White Sox signed him to a $1-million, one-year deal.
“I still love the game, I still love to play, I still love to hit, that was still there, and the desire to prove to yourself you can come back from something,” Morneau explains. “It was a rough year but I finished the last month playing and I wasn’t quite ready to give it up yet. This opportunity presented itself and it was hard to not want to do it and hard to not want to try to come out here and do everything I can to finish the way I want to.”
A point of progress came Saturday when he took live batting practice out on the field. He started out tentatively, reluctant to really let the smooth swing that made him one of the most accomplished major-league players to ever emerge from Canada fly, before sending a handful of line drives over the wall in right field. Melky Cabrera genially kibitzed with him by the cage throughout the session. The hope is that he could be ready for the White Sox sometime in mid July.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” says Morneau. “I was a little nervous taking the first few swings but it’s still early in the process. Hopefully it keeps going well. I took quite a few swings, I’m probably ahead of schedule where I should be or where I’m supposed to be. Everything we’ve thrown at it so far has reacted well, it’s one of those things where you’re not sure how it’s going to feel the first swing off a tee, the first swing on flips, the first swing in BP and it’s reacted well for me so far and it keeps getting stronger as we go and get more confident in it. I feel good swinging, just going out there and doing what I love to do, which is swing the bat.”
With 241 home runs, Morneau is 24 behind Matt Stairs for second all-time among Canadian big-leaguers, well back of Larry Walker’s 383. A four-time all-star, he joins Walker and Joey Votto as the only Canucks to ever win an MVP award while he, Tip O’Neill and Walker are the only Canadians to have claimed a batting title. It’s a resume that makes him a lock for the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont.
“Winning awards and all that kind of stuff is nice but I think the thing I can be most proud of is that the people I’ve played with will tell you I was a good teammate, and tried to do everything I could to help not only myself get better but everyone else around me try to get better and do everything I could to win,” says Morneau. “That means a lot to me. When you compete against guys and they come up and say, ‘I like watching you play, I like the way you play,’ that’s as high a compliment as you can get.”
A product of the junior national team, Morneau made an appearance as a guest coach with this year’s squad during its extended spring training trip to Florida and came away impressed with the country’s next wave of talent. With compatriots like White Sox teammate Brett Lawrie, Votto and Michael Saunders and Russell Martin on his club’s weekend opponent, the Toronto Blue Jays, he also feels that Canada is very well represented at the big-league level.
“Coaching with the national junior team for a few days in extended spring training was a pretty interesting experience, just to see the amount of talent that’s coming through. I feel like guys are more advanced at that age than we were at that age and came through that program,” Morneau says. “There are young players coming, we have talent coming, it’s pretty exciting being here seeing three Canadians playing (this weekend). We’re in good shape. … I like where baseball in Canada is at.”
Morneau also likes where he’s at, although after multiple concussions, including the devastating one July 7, 2010 in Toronto that interrupted an MVP-calibre season, surgeries to his wrist and foot, and a host of other ailments, it’s hard not to wonder how much he has left. Even he’s not sure.
“I guess that’s what we’ll find out,” he says with a laugh. “We’ve got Jose Abreu who’s going to play a lot of first so I think there will be more at-bats just on the DH side which should help. It’s a lineup that’s pretty right-handed heavy so I think there’s an opportunity there to get at-bats as a left-handed hitter. If I didn’t believe that I could still go out there and contribute and help this team win then I wouldn’t be here. It’s hopefully going to work out well, be a part of something and play meaningful games in September.”