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Twins' Justin Morneau named Canadian male athlete of year

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TSN.ca Staff
12/28/2008 4:09:15 PM
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Through the ups and downs of a trying first few years in the major leagues, Justin Morneau was always able to count on the steady guidance of veterans like Torii Hunter and Johan Santana.

This year, the safety net provided by their performance on the field and savvy in the clubhouse was removed when small-market realities led to another youth movement for the Minnesota Twins.

Suddenly transformed from cleanup hitter to driving force, from mentored to mentor, Morneau excelled.

The New Westminster, B.C., slugger's continued excellence at the plate and maturation into a leader was recognized Sunday when he was named The Canadian Press male athlete of the year.

The 27-year-old first baseman topped a survey of the country's sports editors and broadcasters with 99 points to win the Lionel Conacher Award, named for the all-rounder voted Canada's athlete of the half-century in 1950. Pittsburgh Penguins captain and 2007 winner Sidney Crosby was second with 82 points, followed by Olympic stars Eric Lamaze (81) and Simon Whitfield (78).

''Any time you can beat out a hockey player in anything in Canada, it's an accomplishment,'' said Morneau. ''It's pretty cool, especially with the people who have been named to this award.''

The honour comes in a wide open year that featured several outstanding performances by Canadians, but no single defining moment or effort.

Morneau's victory is somewhat surprising given that Canadian baseball players don't often get the recognition their standard of play suggests they should. He's just the third baseball player to win the award since its inception in 1932, joining four-time winner Ferguson Jenkins and Larry Walker (1998).

''Justin Morneau continues to put up numbers with the Minnesota Twins that establishes him as one of the best players in the game,'' said David Ritchie of the Fredericton Daily Gleaner. ''He also remains a positive role model for being somebody who does his job with little fanfare each and every day. Not many elite athletes are as unassuming as he has been.''

Wheelchair racer Chantal Petitclerc claimed female athlete of the year honours Friday. The top team of 2008 will be revealed Monday.

The 2008 season was a bittersweet one for Morneau.

Highlights include winning the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium in July - stealing it in the final round after an awe-inspiring display by Josh Hamilton - scoring the winning run in the 15th inning of the all-star game, and finishing second to Dustin Pedroia in voting for AL MVP.

But the sting from Minnesota's 1-0 loss to the Chicago White Sox in a one-game playoff to decide the AL Central still lingers, and all he accomplished is measured through that lens.

Still, there's so much to appreciate beyond the .300 average, 23 home runs and 129 RBIs, as both he and Joe Mauer embraced new responsibilities in the clubhouse and on the field.

As the primary, arguable sole, power threat in the Twins lineup, Morneau is one of the main reasons a green team expected to struggle badly finished a win shy of the playoffs.

Combine his 129 RBIs with his 97 runs scored and Morneau was directly responsible for 27 per cent of his team's 829 runs.

''We have some veteran guys but at the same time, when you hit fourth and you're signed to the long deal, you feel like you have some responsibility of being a leader,'' said Morneau. ''For me it's not by talking, it's by example and working hard. Just doing the sort of things other guys can look at and say, `This guy's here and has got a long deal, but he's not satisfied.'''

Indeed, Morneau signed a six-year contract extension worth US$80 million last January and then went about justifying his status as the franchise cornerstone.

Yet he remained the same laid-back, hockey-loving Canadian he's always been, although he's done some growing up. After a frat-house like year rooming with Mauer in 2006, he moved in with girlfriend Krista and the two will be married next month.

Some old habits remain, particularly his pre-game ritual of eating macaroni and cheese. Asked if he was eating better these days, he replied: ''Eating better? That's a quality food.''

Morneau cooks his mac and cheese the exact same way before every home game.

''There's some superstition involved,'' he said. ''I time for it the same, I stop it at the same time, stir it, then I make sure I open the door with about three seconds left.

''There's a whole process that I do, it's pretty entertaining.''

The meal is just the first part of his elaborate pre-game preparation.

''I always run on the field at the same time at home, I always play catch with (Nick) Punto before the game, there's a million different things,'' he said. ''Some people call them superstitions, I just call them my routine, it's just what I do to feel comfortable before the game and get myself ready.

''I think that if I do the same thing every day, that my body will know how to react in the same situation. I think I'll drive myself more crazy if I'm changing my routine every day instead of just sticking with the same thing and knowing how I'm going to prepare.''

One well-known part of his routine was eliminated last season when he ''retired'' his Todd Bertuzzi emblazoned Vancouver Canucks T-shirt.

''It had too many holes in it,'' said Morneau. ''It hung in my locker all year though.''

Hockey remains a big part of Morneau's life and no matter how much he accomplishes in baseball, a part of him will always wonder what might have been.

Growing up he was as talented on the ice as he was on the diamond, a goalie who enjoyed a brief stint with the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks at 16. At the same time, he was also impressing coaches with his displays of raw power at the plate.

But in the summer of '98 he decided to focus on baseball.

''We had just come back from the nationals and I was named top catcher and top hitter at the tournament, so I was confident enough to play baseball,'' said Morneau. ''It was that time to make that decision whether I go to camp (with Portland) or whether I stay home and spend the winter in the cage and work towards being a major-league baseball player.

''I still think about it now but at the time it wasn't something I was torn about.''

He remains an avid hockey fan, although he ends up seeing more of the Minnesota Wild than his beloved Canucks these days. He's got many friends in the hockey world and finds he still watches the game as a player.

''I feel myself getting into it, tracking the play, seeing what I'd be doing,'' he said. ''They're two different games, hockey is such a team game, guys fight for each other and all that kind of stuff. Baseball is a team game but at the same time it's really individual. When you're standing there in that batter's box or on that mound, it's just you and nobody else can help you, and that's probably the part I enjoy the most. At the same time, you don't have that same feeling in the locker-room as hockey.''

He has no regrets about his decision and, really, why would he?

Since a difficult 2005 season when he was hit in the head by a Ron Villone pitch in April and a rough start to 2006, he's been one of the most dominant offensive players in baseball.

Morneau won the '06 AL MVP award after batting .321 with 34 homers and 130 RBIs, helping the Twins end the season on a 71-33 run and clinch the AL Central title on the season's final day.

Morneau is even more of a complete player now, and he hopes his success inspires more Canadian athletes to make baseball their sport, the way Larry Walker helped inspire him.

''It's a great game,'' said Morneau. ''It's a lot of fun to play, you have to be dedicated to do it, it doesn't come easy, there's so much repetition, so much time involved and hard work, but at the end of the day, it's a pretty great way to spend a summer.

''Hopefully guys can see that and know there are sports out there other than hockey that Canadian kids can play.''

A quick look at Justin Morneau:

Personal: Born May 15, 1981, in New Westminster, B.C. Six foot four, 230 pounds.

Two-sport star: A star goalie growing up, he briefly played for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks as a 16-year-old before deciding to focus on baseball.

Making a name: Named top catcher and hitter at national baseball championships in 1998. Hit a 500-foot home run that left scouts in awe.

Draft: Selected in third round by the Minnesota Twins in 1999.

Big-league firsts: Collected two hits in debut June 10, 2003 versus Colorado; drove in first run the next day; hit first homer June 17, 2003 against Kansas City.

Joining the elite: Was named American League MVP in 2006 and a runner-up in 2008; named an AL all-star in 2007 and '08; won 2008 home run derby.

In Canada's corner: Played on national junior team in 1999, played for senior team in 2001 World Cup, 2003 Olympic qualifying tournament, 2006 World Baseball Classic.

Quote: ''Any time you can beat out a hockey player in anything in Canada, it's an accomplishment. It's pretty cool to be named, especially with the people who have been named to this award.''

Justin Morneau (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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