Make sure to salute Justin Morneau on his way out

M&MBoys

The M&M Boys, Justin Morneau on right, sign autographs prior to a 2012 spring training game at the Orioles’ complex in Sarasota.

 

One of the many great lines in Robert Towne’s “Chinatown” is Eli Cross’s observation that “politicians, old buildings and whores get respectable if they last long enough,” the point being that surviving, no matter how ugly, is an accomplishment. Justin Morneau has been surviving for three years now, and it’s starting to get a little ugly.

One day before we know it, Morneau will be back at Target Field soaking in a standing ovation while being inducted into the team’s hall of fame. For Twins fans right now, he’s more a memory than a player: a shadow of the 2006 American League MVP; a reminder of what could have been; the disappointing half of the M&M duo around which the Twins are built.

Nearly four years after the first of three season-ending injuries, a microfracture in his vertebrae that cost him the 2009 postseason, Morneau is playing out the tail end of a six-year, $80 million contract extension and, not coincidentally, his career as the Twins’ first baseman. And he knows it.

A terrific interview by the Pioneer Press’s Mike Berardino on Sunday revealed that Morneau is waiting to be dealt. If a deal that makes sense presents itself to GM Terry Ryan and the Twins, he told Berardino, “I think they’ll make it.”

Morneau has always been candid, meaning, simply, that he doesn’t lie – a lost art in the world of professional sports. This hasn’t always served him well with fans, some of whom didn’t like what he had to say about separate concussions that ended his 2010 and 2011 seasons. Yet Twins fans still love Justin Morneau, who has grown up to be a valuable member of the community and, at his best, one of the baseball’s best players at a position traditionally loaded with very good players.

And now it’s (almost) over. The fact is, Morneau has finished one season since 2009 – a 96-loss campaign in 2012 – and just isn’t hitting. He’s still pretty sharp in the field, always his most underrated skill, but looks a step behind at the plate. On pace for about 14 homers – he hit 34 and drove in 130 runs, and batted .321, when he won his MVP Award – he appears to be guessing in nearly every at-bat. It makes me wonder if his wrist, a problem for two seasons that finally was corrected by surgery in Fall 2011, hasn’t really been corrected. Morneau once told me that when the wrist was bothering him, he had to guess in order to keep up with major league pitching; when it was healthy, he felt in control.

He doesn’t appear in control now. That he still leads the Twins in RBIs with 52 says much about player and team.

Morneau told Berardino that his financial team approached the Twins about a contract extension last week. When told no, it was clear to Morneau that his days in Minnesota are numbered. One can hardly blame Ryan for this; at between $14-15 million the past four seasons, he has been more bane than boon on the field, and the fact that he missed the playoffs in 2009 (back) and 2010 (concussion) certainly has not helped a team whose critical flaw has been an 0-6 record in playoff series since they won the ALDS in 2002.

For an extension – or any 2014 contract anywhere – Morneau will have to take a significant pay cut in his prime earning years. Only 32, he should be on the cusp of his last big contract; instead, he seems headed for a series of one- or two-year deals. As for a trade at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, you’d guess that if Morneau were still hitting for power he’d be a perfect fit for the Yankees, who last week put Mark Teixeira on the 60-day DL. But he’s not hitting for power, and he’s never been comfortable coming off the bench or being a designated hitter.

Morneau still is a productive player; his .273 batting average would be quite nice if the homers were still there, and his 23 doubles are in his career-high range (47 in 2008). But what he brings isn’t what the Twins need, and his stay appears at and end.

I can’t help but think back to 2010 after a good Twins team was swept in Milwaukee. Morneau was openly critical of the team’s play, openly accepting the burden that Mauer wouldn’t. Two weeks later he took that knee to the head from John McDonald while breaking up a double play in Toronto. Just as Morneau was becoming the acknowledged leader in a clubhouse desperately in need of leadership, he wobbled off the field at Rogers Centre and has never been the same since.

One has to wonder if Morneau has taken too much of a beating to regain that form. He works hard; eats (beyond) right; family man. He’s doing all the right things. But as my mom once said, getting old sucks. Don’t weep for Morneau; he’s fortunate to have been paid $80 million for it since 2007. But do pay him some respect on the way out. On and off the field, he’s earned it.

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