Justin edges Jeter
Prior to his big-league debut on June 10, 2003, Justin Morneau gathered with Minnesota Twins teammate Corey Koskie and Colorado Rockies star Larry Walker for an all-Canadian photo behind home plate at the Metrodome.
Afterwards Walker sent an autographed bat over to the Twins clubhouse with a message for the young phenom: “To Justin, Make Canada Proud.”
The hulking 25-year-old first baseman from New Westminster, B.C., did just that Tuesday when he won the American League Most Valuable Player award in a tight vote over New York Yankees superstar Derek Jeter.
“I never asked for that, he did that on his own,” Morneau said of Walker’s gesture that day. “I thought that was pretty cool for a guy that’s been around that long to do that for me. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The feat links Morneau, raised among the generation of B.C. baseball players inspired by Walker, with the star he grew up idolizing as the only Canadians to win the award in the majors. Walker was the National League MVP in 1997.
“Justin’s breakthrough, his ability to get the big-leagues fast and do as well as he did, will really open up the doors for a lot of other kids to emulate him,” said Ari Mellios, Morneau’s coach with the North Delta Blue Jays in the B.C. Premier League in 1998 and ’99. “It changes a lot of people’s perceptions and attitudes toward Canadian kids.”
Walker, of course, was the first player to accomplish that with his emergence as a Montreal Expos star in the early 1990s. Ryan Dempster, Jason Bay, Jeff Francis and Adam Loewen, to name a few, credit Walker for making them believe they could make a career in baseball and Morneau’s award should inspire a new group of kids.
But Walker’s help for Morneau went well beyond serving as a hero. At the World Baseball Classic this past spring, the Maple Ridge, B.C., native mentored Morneau as a coach. And when Morneau struggled out of the gate in April, text messages to Walker helped keep him straight.
“I’d say I don’t feel that good and he’d give me something simple to try and not make me think. That was the biggest thing for him, just go up there and just hit,” said Morneau. “For him to even care about what I’m doing makes you feel pretty good.”
Advice came from other places, too.
Teammate Torii Hunter pressed on him to not get so down on himself when he struggled. Manager Ron Gardenhire did the same, giving him a stern talking to in an early May meeting that helped pull him from and capitalize on his vast talents.
The message eventually got through, as after a slow start in April (.208, five homers, 15 RBIs) on the heels of a disappointing 2005 that left some questioning his future, he tore up the league.
Morneau finished batting .321 with 40 homers and 130 RBIs. He became the first Twins player to hit 30 or more home runs in a season since 1987 and his 130 RBIs are the second-best in team history to Harmon Killebrew’s 140 in 1969, when he won the MVP award.
“You can say he lit a fire under me maybe,” Morneau of the meeting with Gardenhire. “I just felt better in my swing and all of a sudden something just clicked, I got a little confidence going and after that just kind of took off. I don’t know if it was from that meeting getting me more focused and tuned in on what I needed to do on the field or not, it definitely woke me up.”
The reigning MVPs in the AL, NBA (Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash of Victoria) and NHL (San Jose Sharks centre Joe Thornton of London, Ont.) are now all Canadian.
Morneau picked up 15 of the 28 first-place votes and 320 points in balloting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, to finish 14 points ahead of Jeter, who had 12 first-place votes.
Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz finished third with 193 points, followed by Frank Thomas, who recently left the Oakland Athletics for the Toronto Blue Jays, and Chicago White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye.
Morneau slept little Monday night while awaiting word on the vote and spent a tense morning at his girlfriend’s Minneapolis apartment when the phone call came.
“Last night even I was saying I don’t expect to get it. I might have given myself maybe a 50-50 chance,” Morneau said. “I didn’t want to set myself up for disappointment if I didn’t get it.”
Morneau is the second member of his team to win a major award this season, joining AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.
“I’m putting my money on Justin Morneau,” Santana said after his win last week. “Hopefully, he’ll have a chance for everything he did for our team.”
Morneau is returning home this weekend and will serve as Marshall for the Santa Claus Parade in New Westminster. He’s also changing his off-season routine and will spend the winter in Vancouver working out with Loewen, Aaron Guiel and Adam Stern.
“I have to go out and prove myself again,” said Morneau. “There’s going to be a lot more eyes on me now, teams are going to be paying a little more attention and I just have to build on this year and get better.”
Morneau can also now look his boyhood hero in the eye from more level footing with the MVP award on his resume. Walker was among the first to call him and congratulate him.
“He said he thought he was more excited than I was. He said, ‘Just wait, it’s going to be crazy, just have fun with it,”‘ said Morneau. “To be put next to a guy, who in my opinion should be in the Hall of Fame, the greatest Canadian position player that’s ever played, to be alongside him is a real honour.”
Justin edges Jeter