Welcome back Morneau

There hasn’t been much good about the Minnesota Twins in 2012, or much to feel good about. When you’re looking up at the Royals, darkness abounds.

Allow me to provide a pick-me-up, and it’s one of the sports’ most uplifting stories in 2012: Twins first baseman Justin Morneau is a lot closer to what he used to be, than the Justin Oh-No of 2011.

Two years ago Justin Morneau was on his way to really deserving the MVP award (sorry, but in 2006 he wasn’t the most valuable player on his team, let alone the league. Jeter’s lobby was right. Or to put it in terms a Twins fan would easily understand, the voters all went Phil Cuzzi.)

Morneau hit .345 in half a season of 2010, slugged .618 and was on base nearly 44% of his plate appearances. His 1.055 OPS was 11 points higher than Josh Hamilton’s, who won the MVP, and 13 points higher than Miguel Cabrera’s, who was second.

You can argue that Morneau would have slumped, or that Hamilton was worthier or that it was only half a season. All true, perhaps.

But on July 7, 2010,  Morneau slid into second base against Toronto,  trying to break up a double play. John McDonald’s knee hit Morneau’s head as the former came down and the latter rose up. Morneau walked off the field — “always a good sign,” said commentator Bert Blyleven — and into a personal hell.

He never played again in 2010, even as the Twins won the division and 94 games, albeit none in the playoffs. In 2011, Morneau played but not well — he was worse than a winter in Duluth. He batted .227, homered four times in 264 at-bats and had a .618 OPS, 231 points below his current career average.

The only thing worse than his performance was his health — he had surgery on  his neck, wrist, knee and foot, according to the Star-Tribune. None of that hurt as much mentally as another concussion, which Morneau suffered last August.

For that there was no procedure but patience (he had suffered a third concussion, according to the Star-Tribune, when beaned by Ron Villone in 2005).

It’s not quite two years since Morneau’s 2010 season was ended, but there’s been a career worth of growth in how sports deals with concussions (witness Blyleven’s comment, which was a typical reaction: he’s up, he’s walking, no broken bones or torn ligaments. Who worries about concussions at second base? Today, he, and we all would be far more cautious).

It’s a sign or progress that Morneau’s troubles evoked far more sympathy as they evolved than skepticism.

Still, when he reported to spring training this year, Morneau talked about the “torture” of concussion symptoms, and a premature end to his career.

Morneau in February: “I don’t think there will be a career if it’s something I’m dealing with. That’s the reality of the whole thing. I’m obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem.”

Three-and-a-half months later, he has 10 home runs — he equaled 2011’s total in the season’s 11th game — and is slugging .500. He has 2010-like numbers vs. righties — a .313 average and .646 slugging percentage — and his overall .237 average is brought down only by Adam-Dunn-in-2011-like-numbers vs. lefties (5-for-53 with 18 strikeouts).

He’s not as good as he was in 2010, or as good as Dunn in 2012, or as good a left-handed hitting first baseman as Canada has (there’s this Joey Votto from Toronto).

But Morneau is productive, healthy and not talking of retiring. And that’s as welcome to the Twins as a series with the Royals.

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