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Justin Morneau enters tonight’s game in San Diego holding a slim .320 to .318 lead over Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison in the National League batting race. With the Rockies long eliminated from playoff contention and baseball quickly fading from the consciousness of Minnesotans, the 2006 AL MVP’s comeback season has been largely overlooked by fans who once followed his every move.
Our paths crossed again last week at Coors Field in Denver and Morneau, as always, took time out to chat with me about his first season away from the Twin Cities, the 2013 trade to Pittsburgh, free agency, an All Star break trip to Target Field and more.
DZ: You’ve had a pretty eventful year, some ups, some downs; how would you sum it up at this point?
MORNEAU: It’s been a tough year for our team, last place isn’t ever fun. It’s been rough that way, but personally, it’s been nice to be a little more consistent throughout the year. A change of scenery, a new group of guys; it didn’t work out the way we wanted to as a team, but there are things I can look back at and be proud of.
DZ: You have something individually to play for - the batting title, you are in that race. You have the defending champ (Michael Cuddyer) a few lockers over here, have you talked to him about that much?
MORNEAU: Yeah, I’ve picked his brain a little bit. The hard thing is when you are losing games…not to solely focus on if you are 0-for-2 or 2-for-2 or whatever it is. Just try to keep playing the game to win, try not to let it become a distraction, but at the same time, just enjoy it and embrace it. So far it’s been all right.
DZ: Did you ever see yourself as a guy who would be contending for batting titles?
MORNEAU: I think everybody who plays when they are little believes that. It’s something you dream of doing, if it becomes reality or not doesn’t really matter. I hit for high average in the minor leagues as a young kid, so you never believe anything is impossible.
DZ: You guys are obviously out of the race right now. You got a little taste of it last year with Pittsburgh. The last few years with the Twins weren’t so good either. When you first came up, it seemed like you guys were in it every year. Looking back, did you take that for granted..?
MORNEAU: I don’t think you take it for granted, but I think you come to expect it. When you are playing with the same guys and you are playing well and things are going well, you just expect it to continue to happen. Obviously, injuries play a part sometimes and sometimes you just run into teams that are really good and have been able to battle through the tough times. I think you appreciate when you look back, but when you are going through it, I think it’s an expectation you have.
DZ: You were with the Twins forever and now you’ve kind of bounced around the last 13 months or so, how has that affected you?
MORNEAU: I think coming here; we’ve got two years and an option year - we’ve settled in here, settled in nice. Obviously last year, after being in the same place for so long was kind of crazy, but it was exciting at the same time. Sometimes change is good, that’s what I found this year. A little bit of change has kind of helped refresh things a little bit; a new league, new teammates and all of that stuff. Obviously, I miss those guys in Minnesota, but at the same time, something different, a different experience can go a long way.
DZ: How about your family life, did you bring them down here for the season?
MORNEAU: Yeah, they’ve been here most of the time. They’ve kind of went back-and-forth between Minnesota and the kids started school in Arizona. They’ve been down there, but I’ve gotten to see them quite a bit. We are pretty comfortable here, it’s been nice.
DZ: I’ve got to ask you about the trade last year, how were you notified of that?
MORNEAU: Terry Ryan called me in Texas into his hotel room; he called me in the night before and let me know that something was probably going to happen the next day. So I was just kind of waiting around for that deadline to come and he called me in around noon and just said, “Hey this is what we’ve got for you and this is what we are going to do.” It was just kind of crazy after that - nonstop.
DZ: What was the first thing you did?
MORNEAU: I called my wife and told her where we were going and what was happening. She caught the last flight out (to Pittsburgh) and made it in that night and saw the first game the next day in Pittsburgh and then we went back on the road. It was a long, crazy trip, but it was a good experience.
DZ: Did you know before that last game you played (with the Twins) that you were likely to get traded..?
MORNEAU: No, it was after the game. It was a pretty cool way to go, hitting a homerun that last at-bat and end up winning the game.
DZ: You were a free agent (this last offseason) for the first time, how did you approach that process?
MORNEAU: I kind of looked for who was in need of a first baseman or first baseman/DH, whatever it was. What would be a good fit for me; somewhere good to hit, somewhere with a good line-up; just an opportunity to play. I still believe in myself as an everyday player. One of the things they were doing here; they told me they didn’t want me to platoon, they were gonna give me some days off against lefties, but they were gonna give me the opportunity to hit lefties and I think that was a big factor in my decision.
At this point, it was time for batting practice and Morneau headed out of the home clubhouse and onto the field. Check back later in the week for Part II of our discussion…
See more of David Zingler’s player interviews:
September 21: Michael Cuddyer
August 31: Glen Perkins
July 22: Matt Guerrier
July 16: Maya Moore
July 9: Sam Fuld
July 4: Phil Hughes
June 11: Janel McCarville
May 2: Kurt Suzuki
April 26: Kyle Gibson
April 22: Jason Kubel