MINNEAPOLIS — The decision for the final spot on the National League home run derby squad was a simple call for captain Troy Tulowitzki.
Justin Morneau, his Colorado teammate, had the chance to go back to his baseball home.
“He’s a pro, and I guess that’s the best way to describe him,” Tulowitzki said. “I picked him as an easy choice. 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.”
Morneau tied Cincinnati’s Todd Frazier with two homers in the first round of regulation competition Monday, but failed to hit another during a three-swing tiebreaker with Frazier that ended Morneau’s appearance in a Home Run Derby that was delayed 54 minutes by rain at the start.
But all that didn’t seem to matter.
On his way to the plate, the former Twins hero received a standing ovation from a crowd that found it hard to forget the stardom Morneau accomplished while wearing a Minnesota uniform.
Morneau missed out on the All-Star game itself, despite a renaissance season with 13 homers, 60 RBIs and a .312 batting average in his first 89 games for the Rockies. But as a former home run derby champion and a four-time All-Star with the Twins before a concussion derailed his career, Morneau seemed destined to be at the festivities this week at Target Field, in some form.
“I’m happy for him. I know what he went through over the last few years. I’m happy to see him smiling again and playing baseball and not having to worry about the stuff he had to worry about. It’s pretty cool,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who’s a coach for the AL team.
Morneau was traded by the Twins last summer to the Pittsburgh Pirates and signed with Colorado over the winter. He played 10 years for Minnesota. The 2006 AL MVP was well on his way to contending for another one in July 2010, when he took a knee to the head in a collision at second base while trying to break up a double play. Morneau wasn’t able to play every day again until 2012. He didn’t rediscover his powerful left-handed swing again until this year.
“I don’t think I’d play anymore if I didn’t believe I could get back to this point, but there were times when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to get back here,” Morneau said Monday.
“I just wasn’t getting better. I was going through the ups and downs, getting better for a couple days, then kind of going backward. It was a really frustrating process,” he said. “That just really helped me appreciate the good times that much more. I don’t want to say I took them for granted, but it was one of those things when you’re young and you’re doing well, you just keep expecting yourself to do well.”
Morneau, who overtook Josh Hamilton in 2008 to win the home run derby at Yankee Stadium in New York, said he woke up Monday and immediately checked the weather forecast for the wind speed and direction.
“Hoping it was blowing out to right,” Morneau said, smiling.
There wasn’t much of a breeze when the event finally started following the rain delay, but Morneau hit a couple of balls into the seats in right field in his at-bat. He tied Frazier with two apiece in the first round, but Frazier hit one more in a three-swing tiebreaker and Morneau didn’t come close to one. Still, the fans at Target Field, on their feet the whole time their old hero was at the plate, cheered him once more as he tipped his cap in appreciation.