Print and Go Back ESPN.com: 2007.01.15 [Print without images]

Monday, January 15, 2007
Routine Play

By Buster Olney

Superstition ranks somewhere between air and water for Justin Morneau, which makes sense, because the Twins first baseman is a former hockey player and the son of a former hockey player, and superstition is the birthright of all hockey players. The man gets $81 a day in meal money, and yet on his way to the Metrodome before every game, he stops by the same Jimmy John's Gourmet Subs, on Grand Avenue in St. Paul, and orders the No. 4 from the menu. Turkey Tom, no sprouts—$4.65. "I don't think he orders anything to drink," says shop owner Brent Wulff.

That's because Morneau has the drink covered. Seems that one day, teammate Nick Punto made him a concoction with the clubhouse Slurpee machine, and now Morneau's gotta have a Punto Slurpee before every game, and only Punto can make it, using the same recipe: one-half Mountain Dew, one-half red or orange stuff. As the Slurpee witching hour of 6 p.m. approaches, Punto will sometimes hide, just to mess with Morneau. "Watch this," he tells trainers, and sure enough, within minutes Morneau is anxiously asking teammates if they've seen the infielder.

Morneau steps onto the field at 6:47 with shortstop Jason Bartlett and does four wind sprints. No more, no less. Then he plays catch with Bartlett, or Punto in a pinch. "He is our biggest superstition guy," Punto says. Morneau wore No. 33 in 2006, having requested it about 14 seconds after the Twins traded J.C. Romero to the Angels at the end of 2005, because that was the number worn by Patrick Roy. On hockey nights in his childhood, spent in a Vancouver suburb, Morneau refused to exit the car before a game until precisely 6:33, to honor Roy, and because Morneau, also a goalie, knew it was just the right time. The engine would be running, his teammates already inside the rink, but the kid would not open the door. His father, George, understood completely. "We'd sit, shooting the breeze," George says. "The clock would turn, and he'd say, 'Okay, let's go to work.' "

Justin recently bought a place in his hometown of New Westminster, 10 minutes away from the small worn house where he and older brother Geordie played Wiffle Ball in the backyard, not far from the park where George threw them batting practice. Justin made $385,000 last season, and probably has tens of millions of dollars in his future—maybe more—but he can't imagine landing anywhere but this place, surrounded by family and friends from high school, the same gang he finds time to go camping with every year.

The man honors superstition, lives for routine, hates change. He hates being viewed as anything different from what he's been for the first 25 years of his life.

But in order to become the American League's Most Valuable Player in 2006, Morneau had to change a lot.

IT'S EARLY December, and inside Queen's Park Arena, four blocks from where Morneau lives, he stands beneath a handwritten sign bearing his name in black ink. The deal is that, if you drop a donation to the New Westminster Firefighters Charitable Society into the black-and-yellow fireman's boot, you get his autograph or a picture with him. You could slip in a dollar or $10, a few coins or a handful of peanuts, because you give what you can and nobody is really checking.

Seeing Morneau here—the guy who hit .321, belted 34 home runs and drove in 130 to edge out Derek Jeter for MVP honors—is like finding Beyoncé at a county fair kissing booth. But here he is, wielding a Sharpie between periods of a hockey game in which he's serving as an honorary coach of the Vancouver Canucks alumni.

George Morneau usually works in a warehouse, but he's been on disability since having knee-replacement surgery in June. So earlier in the day, he hustled to make 200 copies of photos for Justin to sign tonight. Now he stands next to his son, the dad of the MVP. Nearby, Geordie watches with friends and cousins and nephews. Justin's buddies and family are omnipresent. A herd of them drove the 135 miles to Seattle in 2005 when the Twins visited, staying with him and taking him out. Morneau stayed out a lot on those two trips, or wherever the Twins were playing. He is an understated but social guy, and he makes friends easily. That's what he'd always done, hanging out, staying up late.

Teammate Joe Mauer had talked to him in 2005 about settling down and focusing on every day. "It's just not healthy if you try to go out every night," Mauer says. "I told him, 'Pick your spots. You've got to get rest when you need it.' "

Morneau's talent was readily apparent to Twins executives, who drafted him in 1999, as well as to teammates, who marveled at the strength and raw ability of the 6'4", 225-pound lefty slugger. Reliever Joe Nathan had seen him bench press 400 pounds, squat 500 and put on fireworks-worthy shows in batting practice. But Morneau struggled through illness and injury in 2005, taken down by chicken pox and appendicitis before getting beaned in his third game of the season. The Twins, a team built on a modest budget, needed him to thrive in his first full season, but he batted only .239 with 22 homers.

Morneau's second season started off just as disappointingly. The day after he went 0-for-3 in the opener of a three-game series in Seattle in early June, dropping his average to .237, manager Ron Gardenhire asked him to step into his office. There was no yelling, no anger. Gardenhire had just one question for the slumping first baseman: "How much good do you want to be?"

Morneau has always been a hard worker, Gardenhire says; that wasn't a problem. The issue was whether Morneau would change his off-field habits to give himself the best possible chance to be successful every day. "You could do a lot of things other players can't," Gardenhire told him. "Once you realize that, you'll do amazing things."

The player listened quietly, then stepped out of Gardenhire's office and walked over to where the lineup card was posted. He wasn't starting. Soft-throwing lefty Jamie Moyer was pitching for the Mariners that night, and Morneau looked at the names in the Twins' batting order and told himself there was no reason he shouldn't be in the lineup, except for this: He'd been terrible. "I had let people down," he says.

Morneau decided there would be no more late nights, no more partying into the early morning. "I had let myself be distracted," he says, "instead of concentrating on what I needed to do."

He'd taken a room in Mauer's house in St. Paul at the outset of the season, and during the next homestand, the two of them drove there after games, flopped into the comfy chairs in Mauer's home theater and flipped between the Travel Channel and the Discovery Channel. "I really never left the house after that," Morneau says.

THERE IS almost no land left to develop in New West, as the locals call it; you can't build out, so you build up. Two-story houses become three or four stories. Morneau's place, rebuilt last summer, looks like just another house in a row of houses. Geordie lives in the basement, and so does their mother, Audra, on the days when she comes over on the ferry for her work as a teacher. (Justin's parents have been divorced since he was 7.) A friend lives on the third floor.

Morneau and Krista Martin, a Minnesota girl he met in August, are spending part of the off-season on the second floor, and they're still unpacking. They've set up a dark-brown dining room table and chairs, along with a big-screen plasma TV, but most of the walls are empty, and there are half-open boxes everywhere. Morneau plans on living in New West when he's finished with baseball. He could get a larger place an hour away, but he has no desire. "Not with the traffic the way it is," he says. "And that would be too expensive to get a house out there."

He went into pro ball as a teenager and found himself pining for New West. As a Twins minor leaguer in Florida, he would listen to the weather on a Vancouver radio station he found on the web and think of what his friends might be doing back home: a barbecue, maybe, or just hanging out.

It was in the minors that Morneau and Mauer developed the kind of easy rapport that Morneau had with his crew back home. These days, the two friends download Prison Break episodes, watch music videos and sleep late—Mauer rising at 11:30, Morneau a little after noon.

Mauer didn't make many outs last April and May, when he batted .359, but the Twins struggled early. The club was 25—33 on the day in June when Morneau was called into Gardenhire's office. The next day, he was back in the lineup. He started to hit, and the Twins started winning. "It was like he was on a mission after that," Gardenhire says. "You could see it in his eyes."

Morneau hit .362 the rest of the season, becoming the kind of middle-of-the-order hitter Minnesota needed. On Aug. 9, the Twins played the first-place Tigers, who owned a 9¬-game advantage. Ace Johan Santana gave up the lead in the bottom of the seventh inning, and in the top of the eighth, with a man on, Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya came in and blew away Michael Cuddyer with a 100 mph fastball. "We'd be lying," Punto says, "if we didn't admit we were a little intimidated."

Morneau was up next. By this point, he'd already been at the park for hours as part of his new, altered routine. After his stop at Jimmy John's, he would spend more time stretching, more time getting daily treatments. Heat Pack Guy, Mauer called him. Then there was early batting practice, regular batting practice, the Punto Slurpee—an entire day built on a schedule that prepared Morneau to play, a routine that was one-third practicality and two-thirds superstition. "We all noticed it," Punto says. "It's not something where you're going to pat him on the back for not going out. But you treat him with a different respect."

Now the Twins were a run down in the eighth, and Zumaya fired a fastball at Morneau, 99 mph. Morneau clobbered it, sending it just inside the rightfield foul pole to give Minnesota the lead. His teammates and coaches waited at the mouth of the dugout—Gardenhire, Cuddyer, Punto. Santana extended a hand. Morneau felt he had let them all down before, but now he'd become the teammate they needed.

You give what you can.

MORNEAU SITS at the dining table of his new home and recalls a fan letter he received from a teenager. It was unusual, he says, because the kid didn't ask for an autograph or a ball or a picture. He just wanted to ask a question, so earnest and so raw in its angst: Justin, how do you deal with being tall?

As Morneau talks about the letter, his friend Ryan Englund drops by to chat. Englund went to Boston in September to see Morneau play the Red Sox. But after the games, Justin lay low. He says his pals understand why he can't hang out the way he did before. "He still has time for his friends," says George Morneau, "but that's when he's not doing his work, when his season is over."

His teammates believe he won't ever change his new routine now that he's had success; superstition, they say, won't allow it. "He's figured out some things," Nathan says. "The sky is the limit."

Morneau is arbitration-eligible this year, and the money he will make is almost inconceivable to him. "I'm happy when I get free shoes," he says. "To even think … " His voice trails off. "It just doesn't seem realistic. A lot of responsibility comes with that."

He'd like to give each of his parents a home. He'd like to install a batting cage near his place. Beyond that … "Give Justin a glove and a bat," Mauer says, "and he'd be fine."

Beyond that, you give what you can. When Englund leaves, Morneau goes to Reebok's website (he has a shoe deal with the company) and orders hockey sticks for some friends. He'll hang out with them for a few more weeks, then go back to focusing on baseball.

How do you deal with being tall? Justin Morneau, the New West boy who never wanted to be different from his friends, who never wanted to change—but who changed enough to become the American League's Most Valuable Player—would seem uniquely qualified to answer that question.