Justin Ernest George Morneau was born on May 15, 1981, in Westminster, British Columbia. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His older brother, Geordie, arrived in the world 18 months earlier. Justin's parents, George and Audra, were very familiar with the challenges of raising kids. His dad was the youngest of 11 children, and his mom the only girl of six siblings.
At Justin's birth, George and Audra had named him simply Justin Ernest Morneau. A few weeks later, when his birth certificate was printed, his mother got a shock. The document read Justin Ernest George Morneau—his father had surreptitiously added his name to the mix without telling his spouse. All was forgiven but certainly not forgotten.
George kept many jobs throughout his life, but he always stay connected to the sports world. A spirited coach, he was also a devout baseball player and fan. Audra had a baseball pedigree, too. Her maternal grandfather, Nelson Turner, played minor league ball in the U.S. By her own right, she was a nasty right-handed softball pitcher and a strong hitter.
Justin's parents introduced him to baseball early in his development. At the age of two, he had a Wiffle Ball bat in his hands and was taking batting practice. From the start, the youngster threw right-handed and hit left-handed. He learned baseball where most children learn, spending countless hours in the backyard with his brother and his father.
When Geordie started kindergarten, Justin lost his best buddy. He got a wonderful gift a short time later when his father bought a sporting goods store—and not just any sporting goods store, but one with a batting cage. Because they didn't have to pony up the $5 for a bucket of balls, the Morneau boys were in heaven. Free equipment came in the deal, too.
Justin attended Lord Tweedsmuir School as kid and was roundly ignored by Geordie and his friends. After class was a different story, however. Nearly two years his brother's junior, Justin played on the same Little League team as Geordie. Large for his, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his big brother and the other players on the squad.
A year later, Justin had a real life experience straight out of the movie “The Sandlot.” Playing catch with his brother using a rubber ball, they wanted a hardball instead. The duo happened upon their father’s autographed Mickey Mantle baseball and immediately took it out of its case. When George discovered them tossing his prized possession, he first grounded them and then launched into a lecture on the Mick and his legacy.
When Justin wasn’t on the diamond, he could be found on the ice playing hockey. A cat-quick goalie in the mold of Patrick Roy, he skated next to future NHL stars Marian Hossa nd Brendan Morrow the 1997-1998 Western Hockey League’s Portland Winter Hawks. The team ended up winning the Canadian Hockey League championship, the Memorial Cup, (though Justin wasn’t on the playoff roster and didn’t get a ring).
Not long after, Justin was forced to choose between his two favorite sports. While it was a painful decision, it was clearly the right one. A member of Canada's Junior World Team, Justin was named the New Westminster High School Athlete of the Year in 1999. By then, he was viewed by most scouts as his country's top hitter and catcher. Justin declared himself eligible for the draft and was taken by the Twins in the third round, the 89th pick overall.
ON THE RISE
Justin began the first of his six seasons in the minors in the summer of '99. The buzz quickly built about the power hitting lefty from Canada. He started in the Rookie League Gulf Coast League, hitting a solid .302 in 53 at-bats. Justin opened the 2000 campaign there as well. After batting .402 over the season's first few months, he was promoted to the Elizabeth Rookie League, where he hit .217 with three home runs.
Despite Justin's paltry numbers to finish the '00 season, he continued to move through the minor league ranks quickly. Justin suited up for three different teams in 2001, starting with the Class-A Quad City River Bandits. There, he crushed everything that came his way, hitting .356 with 12 home runs. Justin stayed hot with Fort Myers, batting .294 average and four homers. He ended the year in AA ball with New Britain. Though Justin had some trouble adjusting to the pitching at this level, there was no question he was ticketed for the big leagues. He also added to his baseball resume that summer by playing on the Canadian National team in the World Baseball Championship.
Justin logged the entire 2002 campaign with New Britain and made great strides at the plate. Chosen for the All-Star Futures Game, he caught the attention of the scouts in attendance during batting practice, launching several moon shots deep into the stands. In the World Team's 5-1 victory over the U.S., he had an RBI double.
With Gold Glove-winning Doug Mientkiewicz as Minnesota's’ first baseman in 2003, Justin expected to spend another full year in the minors. On June 10, however, he got the call from the big club. He batted fourth in his debut and picked up two hits in four at-bats. His father was there, beaming with pride. Pitcher LaTroy Hawkins welcomed Justin to the majors by smashing a towel filled with shaving cream in his face during his first press conference.
As soon as scouting reports circulated on Justin, he began to slump. Rather than concentrating on making contact, Justin tried to overpower the ball. He wasn’t staying back, and pitchers found holes in his long swing After hitting .226 over the next month, Justin was sent back to Triple-A Rochester and then to Double A. Not satisfied with his progress, he flew down to Puerto Rico after the season for winter ball.
Heading into the 2004 campaign, the Twins were ready to contend, particularly with Cy Young-hopeful Johan Santana at the top of the rotation. Justin started the year with Rochester. When Mientkiewicz was sidelined with a sore wrist, Justin returned to the everyday lineup in Minnesota. Defensively, he wasn't there yet, but at the plate Justin looked confident. The Twins were convinced enough to deal Mientkiewicz to the Boston Red Sox.
Justin gave Minnesota a much-needed big bat in the heart of the order. With Santana dominating on the hill, the Twins won the AL Central and met the New York Yankees in the playoffs. They were no match for the Bronx Bombers, bowing out in four games. Still, it was a great year for Justin, who hit .271 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs in less than half a season.
The 2005 season began with high hopes for Justin. Injuries and Illness, however, derailed him early on. He showed up at spring training recovering from a cocktail of off-season ailments—appendicitis, chicken pox, pleurisy, and pneumonia. As Justin started to feel strong, he was hit in the head by Seattle’s Ron Villone, suffered a concussion and missed 13 games.
Justin returned to the lineup at the end of April and sizzled through his first 10 games, posting a .439 batting average with 10 RBIs. May, unfortunately, was not as kind and his performance sagged. In June, he hurt his left elbow and received a cortisone shot for a bone spur. Struggling to regain his health, Justin was dropped as low as eighth in the order. When his average sank to .251 in July, the Twins weighed sending him back to the minors.
Part of Justin's slump stemmed back to his April beaning. But he was also having trouble laying off inside pitches, failed to use the opposite field and chased one breaking ball after another. He couldn’t touch left either, hitting .201 in 154 at-bats against southpaws.
Justin's rough season ended on a low note went he got in a tussle with Torii Hunter following a loss to the Kansas City Royal. While he downplayed the situation, it was emblematic of the frustration of a lost season. Indeed, the Twins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Justin entered spring training in 2006 determined to get his game back together. He used tinted contact lenses to reduce glare in his field of vision. The results were quality contact in the batting cage and red, demonic-looking eyes. Justin also experimented with his swing, keeping his front foot in place. Though he eventually went back to his old stride, the exercise helped him remember to keep his weight back, which allowed him to see the ball better and drive more pitches with authority.
Still, Justin opened the year poorly. Spending his time away from the field hanging out with friends certainly wasn't helping, and after Justin started June with a .240 average, Twins’ skipper Ron Gardenhire called him into his office for a meeting. The soft-spoken manager was gentle but firm. He expressed his belief in Justin, told him to put aside the off-field distractions and focus on baseball.
To Gardenhire's delight, Justin listened to his advice and attacked the game with newfound discipline. Gone were the late nights with friends. Instead, Justin showed up to the ballpark early and put in extra time working on his swing and in the field. He hit better than .400 in July and continued to sting the ball down the stretch.
Justin credited some of his success to teammate Nick Punto. The two became good friends, and Punto's pre-game rituals—particularly his bizarre shake drink concoctions—helped Justin relax once the action started.
On August 17, Justin became the first Twin to hit more than 30 home runs since Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky in 1987. The next night, the tam held an informal ceremony presenting Justin with the honorary ball. He hit his 31st home run off Detroit's Joel Zumaya, who threw a 99 mph fastball that Justin sent 370 feet down the right field line.
He ended the year hitting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs, which was 10 short of Harmon Killebrew’s team mark of 140 in 1969. With Justin leading the way, the Twins won the AL Central for the fourth time in five years.By mid-September, Minnesota fans had launched a web site promoting Justin for the AL MVP.
The playoffs, once again, were rough on the Twins, who were swept in three games by the Oakland A’s. Minnesota got quality starts from ace Johan Santana and Boof Bonser but never led in the series.
The silver lining for Justin came in November when he outdistanced Derek Jeter in the voting among writers and was named league MVP. It proved a banner year for the Twins, with Santana winning the AL Cy Young and Mauer taking the batting title as well. Only three other Twins had captured the MVP before Justin: Rod Carew (1977), Killebrew (1969), and Zoilo Versalles (1965). He was also just the second Canadian-born player to claim the award—Larry Walker won it with the Colorado Rockies in 1997.
n addition, Justin walked away with the Calvin R. Griffith Award as Most Valuable Twin and Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Award. At a base salary of $385,000, he was baseball's best bargain. But that soon changed. Justin hammered out a new deal with the Twins, avoiding arbitration with a one-year, $4.5 million contract.
Justin picked up where he left off, winning Player of the Month honors in May of 2007 and being selected to play in the All-Star Game for the first time. He also competed in the Home Run Derby. Justin’s numbers were down a bit from his MVP season, but he was still an effective middle-of-the-order hitter for the Twins. He finished the year with 31 homers and 111 RBIs. His average dipped significantly, to .271. The major issue for the Twins, however, was the loss of Mauer for nearly a third of the season. Minnesota sunk to third in the standings and was basically a .500 team.
Over the winter, the Twins locked up Justin for six years with a contract worth $80 million. He responded with an exceptional season. He played in every game and batted .300 with 23 homers and 129 RBIs. Justin also set career highs in doubles and walks. During a return visit to the All-Star Game, he won the Home Run Derby, defeating Josh Hamilton. The next day, Justin scored the winning run for the AL.
The Twins battled the White Sox all summer long for supremacy in the AL Central and caught them in late September to grab hold of first place. Two losses to the Royals in the last three days allowed Chicago to tie them with 88 wins, forcing a one-game playoff. John Danks outpitched Minnesota’s Nick Blackburn in a 1–0 victory. Jim Thome’s seventh-inning homer ended the Twins’ season. A few weeks later, Justin learned that he had finished as runner-up in the MVP voting to Dustin Pedroia.
The Twins returned to the postseason in 2009, but without Justin. He was having another All-Star season and hitting well above .300 when chronic back pain began eroding his numbers. He was at 30 homers and 100 RBIs in mid-September when he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his back. Michael Cuddyer filled in for Justin during a three-game sweep by the Yankees in the Division Series.
More injury problems followed in 2010. Justin was having a career year, batting close to .350 in July, when he suffered a concussion on a play at second base. He was sliding in to break up a DP against the Blue Jays when John McDonald’s knee struck him in the head. Justin could not regain his bearings and ended up sitting out the rest of the season.
Justin returned to the field in 2011 for what would turn out to be a second straight lost season. The killer was a neck surgery that kept him out of the lineup for two months. In late August, his concussion symptoms returned after a shoulder injury and ended his season.
Justin was finally healthy in 2012, and he played a full season for the Twins. Though there were flashes of the old MVP talent, he was not quite the same player. He hit .267 with 19 homers and 77 RBIs in 128 games. The Twins had sunk to the bottom of their division by this time and showed no signs of digging their way out.
Minnesota let it be known in 2013 that their first baseman was available, and although no deal was made by the trade deadline, they were able to make a waiver deal with the Pirates before September 1, meaning Justin would be eligible for the postseason if Pittsburgh made it.
Justin was batting .259 with a team-high 17 home runs and 74 RBIs at the time of the trade—but August had been a sizzling month for him. First base had been a weak spot for Pittsburgh, with Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones splitting the position. The Pirates were especially excited about Justin shooting for the right field Clemente Wall, which is tantalizingly close to home plate.
Assuming Justin avoids another concussion, he could have quite a few good years left. He eats well, trains like a maniac, and knows how to be productive even with nagging injuries. Whether that career continues in Pittsburgh beyond 2014, when his contract is up, or somewhere else, chances are good that Justin will see another All-Star Game before it’s all said and done.
JUSTIN THE PLAYER
Justin redefined the role of the power hitter during his peak years in Minnesota. He not only swatted home runs and drove in runs, he also hit for average and made contact with two strikes. A key for Justin was learning that he doesn’t always need to swing for the fences. This has helped his average and enabled him to use the whole field.
Prior to his concussions, it was hard to find a weakness in Justin's game. The main post-concussion difference is his ability to hit lefties. Since 2010, he has struggled to get his average above .250.
Though known for his offense, Justin’s defense at first base has always been solid, and his long frame allows him to stretch and pull balls out of the dirt that smaller men can’t get to. His time spent in net as a hockey goalie definitely helped improve his hands and footwork around the bag.
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