Welcome back, Justin Morneau

BOB ELLIOTT, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:06 PM ET

TORONTO - Justin Morneau headed towards the batter’s box at 7:56 Friday night at Rogers Centre.

The walk-up music was not the Welcome Back, theme from the Welcome Back, Kotter TV show.

It was not Kathy Mattea’s Where Have You Been?”

It could have been either.

Morneau dug in 120 feet from where his season ended on July 7 as he slid hard into second trying to break up a double play and was clipped by John McDonald’s knee at second. The result was a season-ending concussion.

No September ball.

And zero at-bats against the New York Yankees in post-season play.

Who knows what would have been without the concussion?

There were four consecutive days early last season when Etobicoke’s Joey Votto, who won the National League MVP, and Morneau led batting races in their respective leagues.

“I had about 50 at-bats this spring, counting the minors, I’m close to getting back to fully normal,” said the former America League MVP. “I played six days in a row, even got hit twice by double-A left-handers from the Baltimore Orioles.

“It was good to get that out of the way.”

Baseball people understand Tommy John surgeries or pulled hamstrings.

Concussions are almost as new as third base coaches wearing helmets.

When Aaron Hill missed four months of the 2008 season he was often queasy and light-headed.

Morneau moved towards health when he no longer felt “foggy or light-headed” and didn’t have to lie down for a three-hour nap.

Some days he wondered if he’d ever play again.

What fellow members of the concussion club preached was patience.

Patience ranks about 112th on a big leaguer’s list of traits.

Morneau talked to Willie Mitchell of the Los Angeles Kings (he married a Minnesota girl and he used to play in Minneapolis), former Twin and ex-Jay Corey Koskie, who saw his career end because of a concussion and Jason Bay of the New York Mets, who had his 2010 season ended by a concussion.

“They were helpful,” Morneau said. “I may have helped Bay then he helped me. I’ve been through a few things before.”

Morneau missed the 2009 Twins post-season because of a back injury.

During batting practice Morneau wore a batting helmet, which we’ve only seen John Olerud do.

But wait ... the rest of the group Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel and Jim Thome all did the same.

Morneau, one of three Canadians to win an MVP award still hears from Larry Walker, including a recent photo of Walker golfing at Pebble Beach, asking: “How is your morning?”

This spring Morneau hit .152 (5-for-33) in major-league games with three doubles, one RBI, two walks and six strikeouts.

McDonald, who phoned the Twins’ trainer’s room the day after the collision at second, also checked on Morneau throughout the winter via Koskie.

“Morneau plays hard, hits for power, runs everything outs, slides hard on a double play,” McDonald said. “When I phoned him in the trainer’s room I told him I wished I’d jumped a little higher, we talked about Aaron Hill and I told him he would need patience.”

During pre-game introductions Morneau received applause — matching Pat Hentgen on the clapometer — from the soldout crowd welcoming him back.

“We’re all part of a family in baseball,” McDonald said. “If you do well or fail, you’re out there trying your best.

“But when someone can’t get on to the field due to another reason — say an injury or Justin’s concussion — well no one likes to see that. No one.”

Welcome back.

The left-handed hitting Morneau faced the Jays ace lefty Ricky Romero and lined softly to centre on the second pitch of the at-bat.

Welcome back.


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