June 18, 2022
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
When Justin Morneau was called up by the Minnesota Twins to make his major league debut on June 10, 2003, he walked into the home clubhouse at the Metrodome and found a bat in his locker.
He picked it up and read the inscription.
It said, “To Justin. Make Canada proud!”
The bat was a gift from National League batting champion and fellow B.C. native Larry Walker, whose Colorado Rockies happened to be playing the Twins that day.
Morneau went 2-for-4 and batted behind fellow Canuck Corey Koskie (Anola, Man.) in the Twins’ lineup.
“Think of how surreal this is, I was playing at Larry Walker Field in 1999 . . . and five years later, I’m standing on a major league field, making my debut against [Larry Walker and] the Colorado Rockies,” said Morneau in his induction speech on Saturday afternoon.
Walker also convinced Morneau to have a photo snapped with him and Koskie prior to the game. That photo is now one of the most cherished items Morneau has from his playing career.
Well, Morneau certainly made Walker and the rest of Canada proud that day and he has continued to do so, not only with his outstanding on-the-field accomplishments, but through his commitment to the national team and to a long list of charities.
And his humorous and heartfelt speech at his induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys, Ont., on Saturday afternoon was enough to make any Canadian proud of him.
“This is truly special. It’s my first time here,” said Morneau of the Canadian ball hall. “Walking through the museum this morning, it was kind of surreal, you look around you think I’m in the place with all of these legends of Canadian baseball.”
Morneau was the second inductee to speak at Saturday’s ceremony after fellow 2020 honouree Duane Ward. Morneau’s former North Delta Blue Jays teammate and 2022 inductee, Jeff Francis, followed, with Montreal Expos legend Pedro Martinez addressing the near capacity crowd last.
It was the first in-person induction ceremony that the Hall has been able to hold since 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Born in 1981, Morneau initially had his sights set on becoming a professional hockey player.
“Growing up I always dreamed of wearing the red and white with the maple leaf, I just never thought it would be with a bat in my hand,” said Morneau in his speech. “As a young Canadian kid, I thought I was going to play hockey and that was my path and that was my dream . . . But there was something that just drew me to baseball, it was just such a special game.”
Growing up a Patrick Roy fan, Morneau was an excellent goaltender, making it as high as the major junior A level with the Portland Winter Hawks before dedicating himself exclusively to baseball.
Morneau says his father, George, deserves much of the credit for developing his baseball skills.
“My dad has probably thrown more batting practice than any person on earth,” said Morneau at the press conference prior to the ceremony. “From the time I was little, he put a bat in my hand and taught me to hit left-handed. I’m thankful for that. He was there after school every day and he would throw me batting practice.”
The determined Morneau eventually landed with the North Delta Blue Jays of the B.C. Premier Baseball League where he caught Francis.
“We were roommates together. He recruited me to come over there to play for their team,” said Morneau. “And I’m glad I did . . . We worked so much together. We had this dream.”
Morneau’s talents soon caught the eye of Greg Hamilton and the Canadian Junior National Team, whom he made a strong impression with. He also impressed Twins scout Howie Norsetter who convinced his club to select Morneau in the third round of the 1999 MLB draft.
The left-handed hitting Canuck began his minor league career as a catcher but was converted into a first baseman in 2000 in Rookie ball. Over parts of five minor league campaigns, he developed into a top prospect, earning invitations to two MLB Futures Games (2002, 2004) before he was called up to make his major league debut with the Twins on June 10, 2003.
But after that memorable first game and a decent first month, he went into a deep slump.
“I got close to 100 at bats. I struggled mightily. I think I had five hits in the first two games and then followed it with an 0-for-60 or something crazy,” said Morneau. “And I started to doubt myself. It was the first real time that I had dealt with failure. It was the first time that I had really failed for an extended period of time.”
Fortunately, that October, Hamilton called Morneau and asked him to join the national team for their Olympic qualifier.
“So I went down to Panama and I tell you, it was exactly what I needed at the time . . . we had such a great group of guys and that still to this day is one of my greatest baseball memories,” said Morneau. “Watching Stubby Clapp hit a walk-off home run to help us qualify to get to the Olympics . . . It was a great day, a great tournament and it just helped me get my confidence back.”
With that renewed confidence, Morneau would spend the next decade with the Twins and evolve into one of the American League’s most feared sluggers. Between 2003 and 2013, he was a four-time all-star, won two Silver Slugger awards and had four 100-RBI seasons. In 2006, he tied Larry Walker’s single-season Canadian record with 130 RBIs, and in that same season, he became the first – and still only – Canadian to be named American League MVP.
After a short stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013, Morneau proceeded to bat .319 and win the National League batting title with the Colorado Rockies in 2014 to become just the second Canadian (along with Walker) to accomplish that feat. He finished his big league career with the Chicago White Sox in 2016.
On top of his tenure with the Junior National Team and with the senior squad at the 2003 Olympic qualifier, Morneau also competed for the national senior squad at the IBAF Baseball World Cup in 2001 and in all four World Baseball Classics.
In all, Morneau played in parts of 14 big league seasons and he ranks in the top five among Canadian major leaguers in many all-time offensive statistical categories, including third in RBIs (985), hits (1,603), doubles (349) and total bases (2,739) and fourth in home runs (247).
At the pre-ceremony press conference, Morneau, who lives in Medina, Minn., expressed his gratitude to his mother and father for all of the sacrifices they have made for him. His words seemed especially poignant given that COVID-19 border restrictions prohibited him from seeing his parents for nearly two years.
“That was really hard,” said Morneau. “It was as tough on them as it was on me . . . They went from seeing my youngest [Myles] before he was even crawling to the next time they saw him he was talking and running around. So that was really hard.”
Morneau also makes it clear that he while is extremely grateful for the countless hours that his father put in as his batting coach over the years, he is equally thankful for the support he received from his mother, Audra, who was a school teacher.
“Mom, I thank you for when you picked up the phone that we never talked baseball,” said Morneau from the podium on Saturday. “It was everything except the game of baseball. It was, ‘How are you doing?’ All she did was care about how her son was doing, how he was living, how he was taking care of himself . . . And I was always thankful for those calls.”
Morneau, who currently works as a part-time analyst on Twins’ TV broadcasts, also thanked his wife, Krista, and his five children Evelyn, Marty, Estelle, Maximus and Myles who were in attendance on Saturday.
“Thank you for sharing this journey,” Morneau said to his wife, Krista. “I wouldn’t want to share it with anyone else . . . Everyone here probably remembers 2010 [the year he sustained a serious concussion], but I probably wouldn’t have got through that year without you by my side. I thank you so much for always being a good listener and always being there for me.”
Towards the end of his speech, Morneau delivered a touching message to his children.
“To my kids, I hope you can find something you love to do as much as I love to work in the game of baseball, it really is not work if you’re doing something you love, whether it’s baseball or its hockey, whatever you find in life, always give it your best effort, always do the best you can and then things will turn out great. I believe in you. I hope for a great future for you guys. I’m thankful you’re here. I thank you for reminding me what’s important.”
That kind of wisdom, that kind of fatherly love from Morneau – on the day before Father’s Day – is enough to make any Canadian proud of him.