The early workdays at Major League Baseball’s three-team spring training town of Goodyear, Arizona, begin in the morning hours, when just a handful of players and coaches get to begin arriving for their own workouts.
It’s so early in the morning that when Justin Morneau arrives, there’s not much sign of the Minnesota Twins’ 2013 batting leader even warming up. A ball rolls by him to the left of the first-base dugout and the pop of off-field applause begins. Even if the first-base coach and manager, Ron Gardenhire, are out on the field with every player but Morneau and certain fellow new arrival Jose Berrios, there’s hardly any indication that Minnesota is coming off of a disappointing 83-79 season.
If spring training takes place over two months, then months of winter are to be expected. Even when a franchise as huge as the Twins doesn’t have as much to lose as the Astros or Red Sox, the normal winter entails a wrap-up to the winter ball tour in the Dominican Republic, an extended stay in the Rocky Mountains, and an early start on recuperating.
That means a full week at winter ball in the Dominican Republic. A few days are spent eating a lot of ice cream. Now comes the fun part, working out.
For Morneau, it’s all part of a routine he knew he had to endure when he arrived in the D.R. at the end of October, 2014. He admits now, though, that had he not spent the offseason there, he might not have had the perspective to see what he had in good company.
“With just days left (of winter ball), I was thinking about all those players I played with and the talent that we have in the organization,” Morneau said. “If that’s not enough to kind of get you down to this level, I don’t know what is. I can’t really think outside the box like that. To be there and just see all those guys work, it really was an eye-opener for me.”
Through his time in the offseason in the Dominican, he’s viewed his role in the Twins organization as more an asset than a requirement. He believes that his pedigree in hitting as a right-handed hitter coupled with his adeptness at the plate will serve him well at the plate, with a good chance of hitting .300, but believes he’s been good for his new teammates, and actually welcomed the challenge of being a mentor to pitchers. He understands he is their biggest question mark heading into spring training, but says the encouraging signs in the ninth and final game of the 2018 season is the proof that he will have a positive impact in the short-term.
“I think every at-bat I’m going to get a bit more comfortable,” Morneau said. “As you get more and more comfortable, you get a little bit more confident. After the season ended, those first few days were nice to see me compete every single day. I take pride in that. It’s one thing I’ve done since I was a kid. I’ve always played hard and tried to do everything I can to help my team win. I felt comfortable in my at-bats this year and I got hot as the season went on. So it was a pretty exciting end to the season for me.”
That has endeared him to his new teammates, but he’s hoping it will also help the team erase some of the doubts placed on it.
“We know he can hit, we know he’s going to be a good player, but there’s a lot of guys on this team that can step up and take that next step,” Joe Mauer said. “So I’m hoping that Justin will have that big hand for us.”
There’s a lot of time still left until the 2018 season begins, but the Twins don’t just want Morneau to be a man amongst boys; they want him to be their guy. More and more, he’s in a position to deliver.
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