Justin Ernest George Morneau was born on May 15, 1981, in the town of Westminster, British Columbia. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His older brother, Geordie, arrived in the world 18 months earlier. Justin's parents, George and Audra, were very familiar with the challenges of raising kids. His dad was the youngest of 11 children, and his mom the only girl of six siblings.
At Justin's birth, George and Audra had named him simply Justin Ernest Morneau. A few weeks later, when his birth certificate was printed, his mother got a shock. The document read Justin Ernest George Morneau—his father had surreptitiously added his name to the mix without telling his spouse. All was forgiven but certainly not forgotten.
George kept many jobs throughout his life, but he always stay connected to the sports world. A spirited coach, he was also a devout baseball player and fan. Audra had a baseball pedigree, too. Her maternal grandfather, Nelson Turner, played minor league ball in the U.S. By her own right, she was a nasty right-handed softball pitcher and a strong hitter.
Justin's parents introduced him to baseball early in his development. At the age of two, he had a Wiffle Ball bat in his hands and was taking batting practice. From the start, the youngster threw right-handed and hit left-handed. He learned baseball where most children learn, spending countless hours in the backyard with his brother and his father.
When Geordie started kindergarten, Justin lost his best buddy. He got a wonderful gift a short time later when his father bought a sporting goods store—and not just any sporting goods store, but one with a batting cage. Because they didn't have to pony up the $5 for a bucket of balls, the Morneau boys were in heaven. Free equipment came in the deal, too.
Justin attended Lord Tweedsmuir School as kid and was roundly ignored by Geordie and his friends. After class was a different story, however. Nearly two years his brother's junior, Justin played on the same Little League team as Geordie. Large for his, he stood shoulder to shoulder with his big brother and the other players on the squad.
A year later, Justin had a real life experience straight out of the movie “The Sandlot.” Playing catch with his brother using a rubber ball, they wanted a hardball instead. The duo happened upon their father’s autographed Mickey Mantle baseball and immediately took it out of its case. When George discovered them tossing his prized possession, he first grounded them and then launched into a lecture on the Mick and his legacy.
Not long after, Justin was forced to choose between his two favorite sports. While it was a painful decision, it was clearly the right one. A member of Canada's Junior World Team, Justin was named the New Westminster High School Athlete of the Year in 1999. By then, he was viewed by most scouts as his country's top hitter and catcher. Justin declared himself eligible for the draft and was taken by the Twins in the third round, the 89th pick overall.
ON THE RISE
Justin began the first of his six seasons in the minors in the summer of '99. The buzz quickly built about the power hitting lefty from Canada. He started in the Rookie League Gulf Coast League, hitting a solid .302 in 53 at-bats. Justin opened the 2000 campaign there as well. After batting .402 over the season's first few months, he was promoted to the Elizabeth Rookie League, where he hit .217 with three home runs.
Despite Justin's paltry numbers to finish the '00 season, he continued to move through the minor league ranks quickly. Justin suited up for three different teams in 2001, starting with the Class-A Quad City River Bandits. There, he crushed everything that came his way, hitting .356 with 12 home runs. Justin stayed hot with Fort Myers, batting .294 average and four homers. He ended the year in AA ball with New Britain. Though Justin had some trouble adjusting to the pitching at this level, there was no question he was ticketed for the big leagues. He also added to his baseball resume that summer by playing on the Canadian National team in the World Baseball Championship.
Justin logged the entire 2002 campaign with New Britain and made great strides at the plate. Chosen for the All-Star Futures Game, he caught the attention of the scouts in attendance during batting practice, launching several moon shots deep into the stands. In the World Team's 5-1 victory over the U.S., he had an RBI double.
As soon as scouting reports circulated on Justin, he began to slump. Rather than concentrating on making contact, Justin tried to overpower the ball. He wasn’t staying back, and pitchers found holes in his long swing After hitting .226 over the next month, Justin was sent back to Triple-A Rochester and then to Double A. Not satisfied with his progress, he flew down to Puerto Rico after the season for winter ball.
Heading into the 2004 campaign, the Twins were ready to contend, particularly with Cy Young-hopeful Johan Santana at the top of the rotation. Justin started the year with Rochester. When Mientkiewicz was sidelined with a sore wrist, Justin returned to the everyday lineup in Minnesota. Defensively, he wasn't there yet, but at the plate Justin looked confident. The Twins were convinced enough to deal Mientkiewicz to the Boston Red Sox.
Justin gave Minnesota a much-needed big bat in the heart of the order. With Santana dominating on the hill, the Twins won the AL Central and met the New York Yankees in the playoffs. They were no match for the Bronx Bombers, bowing out in four games. Still, it was a great year for Justin, who hit .271 with 19 homers and 58 RBIs in less than half a season.
The 2005 season began with high hopes for Justin. Injuries and Illness, however, derailed him early on. He showed up at spring training recovering from a cocktail of off-season ailments—appendicitis, chicken pox, pleurisy, and pneumonia. As Justin started to feel strong, he was hit in the head by Seattle’s Ron Villone, suffered a concussion and missed 13 games.
Justin returned to the lineup at the end of April and sizzled through his first 10 games, posting a .439 batting average with 10 RBIs. May, unfortunately, was not as kind and his performance sagged. In June, he hurt his left elbow and received a cortisone shot for a bone spur. Struggling to regain his health, Justin was dropped as low as eighth in the order. When his average sank to .251 in July, the Twins weighed sending him back to the minors.
Part of Justin's slump stemmed back to his April beaning. But he was also having trouble laying off inside pitches, failed to use the opposite field and chased one breaking ball after another. He couldn’t touch left either, hitting .201 in 154 at-bats against southpaws.
Justin's rough season ended on a low note went he got in a tussle with Torii Hunter following a loss to the Kansas City Royal. While he downplayed the situation, it was emblematic of the frustration of a lost season. Indeed, the Twins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Still, Justin opened the year poorly. Spending his time away from the field hanging out with friends certainly wasn't helping, and after Justin started June with a .240 average, Twins’ skipper Ron Gardenhire called him into his office for a meeting. The soft-spoken manager was gentle but firm. He expressed his belief in Justin, told him to put aside the off-field distractions and focus on baseball.
To Gardenhire's delight, Justin listened to his advice and attacked the game with newfound discipline. Gone were the late nights with friends. Instead, Justin showed up to the ballpark early and put in extra time working on his swing and in the field. He hit better than .400 in July and continued to sting the ball down the stretch.
Justin credited some of his success to teammate Nick Punto. The two became good friends, and Punto's pre-game rituals—particularly his bizarre shake drink concoctions—helped Justin relax once the action started.
On August 17, Justin became the first Twin to hit more than 30 home runs since Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Tom Brunansky in 1987. The next night, the tam held an informal ceremony presenting Justin with the honorary ball. He hit his 31st home run off Detroit's Joel Zumaya, who threw a 99 mph fastball that Justin sent 370 feet down the right field line.
He ended the year hitting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs, which was 10 short of Harmon Killebrew’s team mark of 140 in 1969. With Justin leading the way, the Twins won the AL Central for the fourth time in five years.By mid-September, Minnesota fans had launched a web site promoting Justin for the AL MVP.
The playoffs, once again, were rough on the Twins, who were swept in three games by the Oakland A’s. Minnesota got quality starts from ace Johan Santana and Boof Bonser but never led in the series.
In addition, Justin walked away with the Calvin R. Griffith Award as Most Valuable Twin and Louisville Slugger “Silver Slugger” Award. At a base salary of $385,000, he was baseball's best bargain. But that soon changed. Justin hammered out a new deal with the Twins, avoiding arbitration with a one-year $4.5 million dollar contract. Justin, however, won’t be eligible for free agency until 2010, so his fate will be tied to the Twins for the next few years.
Although the 2007 season hasn’t been particularly smooth sailing for the Twins, Justin got off to a blistering start. His 16 home runs are second in the AL behind Alex Rodriguez, and his 45 RBIs have back on pace to surpass the century mark. He has earned respect from opposing pitchers, drawing intentional walks even with Hunter hitting behind him. Like any good hockey player, of course, Justin hasn't escaped without injury. In May, he left a game early after a relay throw took a wicked hop, bounced up and broke his nose. Again, like any good hockey player, he was back in the lineup the next day.
After Justin's breakout '06 season, it's no longer a joke when people refer to him and Mauer as the M&M Boys. With an MVP and a batting title to their names, Justin and his teammate can certainly be mentioned in the same sentence as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. The next question is whether Justin will have his own bust in Cooperstown some day.
JUSTIN THE PLAYER
It’s hard to find a weakness in Justin's game. Though he is known for his offense, his defense at first base is solid, and his long frame allows him to stretch and pull balls out of the dirt that smaller men can’t get to. His time spent in net as a hockey goalie definitely has helped improve his hands and footwork around the bag.
Baseball players from Canada don’t normally play as many games growing up as as kids in the U.S. So Justin's learning curve may be a bit bigger than other players his age. But his change in attitude during the 2006 season has accelerated his development. It has also made Justin more respected on the bench and more of a leader in the clubhouse.
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