MINNEAPOLIS -- The first time Justin Morneau ever visited Minneapolis, he was a 14- or 15-year-old kid about to play in a hockey tournament.
At the time, the New Westminster, B.C., native hoped to play in the NHL -- and had even taken a year off from his second-favourite sport, baseball, in the hopes of making his hockey dreams a reality.
“I never would have imagined playing for the Minnesota Twins,” Morneau recalled.
Twenty-five years later, Morneau is about to enter the franchise’s Hall of Fame after a 14-year big-league career that included 11 seasons with the Twins. A four-time all-star in Minnesota, Morneau won the 2006 MVP and helped the Twins reach the playoffs five times during his tenure.
Speaking before Friday’s game behind home plate at Target Field, Morneau expressed gratitude for the opportunities earned and relationships developed over the course of the two-plus decades he’s been linked to the Twins franchise.
“You never dream for a moment like this,” Morneau told the assembled media. “You just dream for one day in the big leagues and to cap it all off in the end with something like this, it’s something surreal.”
“This is a franchise with a long, proud history of some great players,” he continued. “Lots of numbers retired up on the wall. Lots of National Baseball Hall of Famers, so to be in a Hall of Fame with Rod Carew, Bert Blyleven, Harmon Killebrew and Kirby Puckett? You think about the list of the greatest Twins in history and it’s very special and humbling.”
Back in 1999, it would have taken a particularly optimistic observer to believe that the Canadian catcher selected in the third round would go on to hit 247 career home runs in the big leagues while batting .281/.348/.481. Nor did Morneau fully grasp the history of the Twins, two-time World Series winners in 1987 and 1991. After all, he’d grown up a Blue Jays fan.
“I really didn’t know a whole lot about it, but I got down (to spring training in Fort Myers) and start to learn the history. You start to learn about all of the great players and the World Series,” he said. “And then I learned the game the way I believe it should be played.”
Longtime Twins managers Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire were instrumental in turning Morneau from the raw catching prospect Minnesota drafted into the defensively sound first baseman who won two Silver Sluggers and a batting title.
In fact, the Twins’ success drafting and developing players allowed them to surround Morneau with plenty of other all-stars, overcome their small-market status and contend year-in and year-out. While early playoff exits have too often been the norm in Minnesota, Morneau played with some talented teammates -- many of whom will be there Saturday to celebrate his induction.
“You look at Torii (Hunter) and (Joe) Mauer and Johan Santana and one of the best closers in the history of the game in Joe Nathan and you think about the teams we put on the field, I’m just lucky I came along at the right time,” Morneau said. “We all have so much respect for each other. We’re such a close group, and we can go years without seeing each other but it’s like we saw each other yesterday. It’s a special group.”
Now, the 40-year-old works Twins broadcasts for Bally Sports North and has also contributed as an analyst on Sportsnet -- a challenge he enjoys even if it’s completely different than the one he navigated as a player with the Twins, Rockies, Pirates and White Sox.
“I went from the best job in the world to the second-best job in the world,” he said. “I get to talk about baseball now, so that’s something that I never really thought would come along and did. But it’s hard to say that there’s anything at this point that ever would compare to the privilege of wearing a major-league baseball uniform every night.”
Morneau’s guest list for Saturday’s ceremony extends well beyond his teammates to his high school coach, the owner of the batting cage he used to hit at for free and, of course, his parents, neither one of whom he has seen in more than a year.
“It’s a pretty special group,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a moment like this in a stadium full of people with so many people that helped you get there.”
“One chance to say thank you to the people who helped. Hopefully we’ll laugh and we’ll cry and we’ll do a little bit of everything. I know I will.”