The Minnesota Twins’ offense in the early 2000s was defined by slap-hitting and scrappy baserunning. However, there wasn’t a shortage of good hitters in those lineups. Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Mauer put together great at-bats and could flex some power now and again. But players like Nick Punto, Jason Bartlett, and Mike Redmond did not consistently provide the kind of thump the middle of the lineup needed.
That came in the form of Justin Morneau, a 6’4” Canadian with a mighty swing.
Over the weekend, Minnesota enshrined Morneau into the Twins Hall of Fame. In recent memory, the festivities of honoring one of the team’s best players overshadowed the game that followed the ceremony because of how important he was for the organization. For many fans, it brings them back to an era when they were regularly in the playoffs. It was a great moment for Morneau, as he received honors alongside his close friend Mauer.
But there’s a bittersweet feeling because it always felt like the slugger would have had more fanfare to this day, including his No. 33 hanging up along the left-field line, and if he had had a Hall of Fame career. The most frustrating part was he was so close to that path and had the potential to land in Cooperstown had things broken a little differently.
During his 11 seasons in a Twins uniform, he slashed .278/.347/.485 and crushed 221 home runs while driving in 860 runs. The four-time All-Star received MVP votes in 2007 and 2008 and took home a Silver Slugger in 2006 and 2008. Fans who watched this era of the team know how much of a presence Morneau was, mainly because he was hitting behind Mauer during the peak of his career. The two became tied together both on and off the field, and the “M&M Boys” had their best seasons when playing together.
The 2006 campaign still stands out to Morneau. He earned his first Silver Slugger and took home the AL MVP as he helped lead the Twins to another AL Central title. He hit 34 home runs, 130 RBIs with a 138 wRC+ and a 3.8 fWAR. Morneau’s run from 2006 through the first half of the 2010 season was downright dominant. He was one of the best sluggers in baseball, riding four straight All-Star appearances.
Morneau was a fan-favorite across Twins Territory because of his home runs and the great plays he made at first base. His iron man mentality during most of his Twins tenure also endeared him to fans. Morneau played in at least 135 games a season from 2006-09. That included appearing in every game during the 2008 season, from Opening Day to Game 163 in the South Side against the Chicago White Sox.
Everyone remembers the 2006 season where he took home the hardware and helped lead one of the best Twins teams of that decade to a 96-66 record, but 2010 was shaping up to be the best of his career, and he could have potentially surpassed his 2006 numbers. In just 81 games, the lefty smacked 18 home runs and 56 RBIs while slashing career highs with a .345/.437/.618 line. Morneau also recorded career-highs with a 183 wRC+ and recorded a 5.0 fWAR halfway through the season. Even if he didn’t match his first half, Morneau still had an excellent chance to earn his second MVP and cement himself as one of the best first basemen in the game, adding to his legacy in a Twins uniform.
Morneau had been through tough times making his way up to the pros. Most notably, when he and Hunter got into an argument, Hunter took a swing at Morneau because he questioned Morneau’s effort. Stories like that are put into perspective when Morneau said things like this during his Twins Hall of Fame Speech over the weekend, including that he was playing games hungover early in his career. His career was almost derailed by his actions, but the most challenging part of his legacy is that it became derailed based on something he had no control over.
As Twins fans remember, Morneau’s hopes of a second MVP dissipated when the knee of Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald accidentally slammed into his head during a double-play attempt. He was sidelined for the rest of the season with lingering concussion-related issues.
Another frustrating part of Morneau’s uncharacteristic injuries was that they kept him from playing in some of the team’s most important games during that Twins core’s final postseason runs. A stress fracture in his back kept Morneau out in the last month of 2009, meaning he missed the ALDS, where they were swept by the New York Yankees. The best Twins team since 2006 missed their best hitter during their playoff run, where they once again were swept by the Yankees. With how big of a presence Morneau was on both of those teams, he could have helped the Twins generate some postseason success.
That play in Toronto wasn’t just significant for Morneau’s 2010 season; it became a turning point in his career.
The first baseman, once known as an iron man, was now frequently banged up. Concussion issues along and other injuries hampered him from 2011-13. Morneau was unable to reach his previous success in his last few seasons in Minnesota, generating a slash line of .256/.319/.406 before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 2013 season. And with that, a franchise player was gone, and so was hope that he could become an all-time great.
Morneau’s career could have been over then, but what makes his second act so interesting is that he stuck it out and got a second wind with the Colorado Rockies. Playing in the thin air at Coors Field, he found success again in 2014 by slashing .319/.364/.496, a career-high in batting average in 135 games while hitting 17 home runs, earning some MVP votes that season. It was his best season since 2010. And while his career finished unceremoniously after the 2016 season, what 2014 showed was that he could play solid baseball into his mid-30s. That performance made Twins fans wonder what kind of numbers Morneau would have put up if he had stayed healthy.
Morneau will go down as one of the best Twins of his generation during a significant run of success for the team. Without the injuries slowing him down, Morneau could have been one of the best first basemen of his era. The maple syrup-drinking, bear-wrestling, McDonald’s-eating Canadian will be remembered as an iconic Twin on and off of the field. This weekend brought another reminder that he was a good player who was close to being an all-time great. He could have his number in Target Field’s rafters and potentially be in the Cooperstown conversation had he never suffered a concussion in Toronto in 2010.