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Twins' Morneau reports to Spring Training, cleared to practice

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The Canadian Press
2/21/2011 5:19:39 PM
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The fogginess would hit Justin Morneau after the simplest of movements -- turning his head from side to side, looking down at his computer screen, even following the TV with his eyes.

Sometimes the haze would last for a minute. Other times headaches or dizziness might follow and last the whole day. Dark thoughts would take hold as he worried about his career, his quality of life.

"I'd be lying if I said that hasn't crossed my mind," the New Westminster, B.C., native said Monday after reporting to spring training with the Minnesota Twins. "There was a time, November, December, where I'm sitting there going, 'I'm not feeling better,' getting frustrated, but when you have a concussion that's the worst thing you can do, go to that place where you're feeling sorry for yourself. Stress is one of the worst things for it.

"So you kind of try to brush that aside, it can creep in there, but you say, 'You know what? It is what it is, it's not up to me, I'm doing everything I can, when it's better it's better, and I've got to believe I'm going to be out there,' and keep working toward that goal."

Morneau is now as close to realizing that goal as he's been since an innocent looking collision at second base with Toronto Blue Jays infielder John McDonald last July 7 abruptly ended his season.

The 29-year-old was greeted by bear hugs from his teammates as he entered the Hammond Stadium clubhouse, all thrilled to see their cleanup hitter again. His arrival comes a day after friend Jason Bay of Trail, B.C., whose 2010 was also cut short by a concussion, reported to New York Mets camp across the state in Port St. Lucie.

Morneau plans to participate in Tuesday's workouts thanks to a solid month of incident-free training at home in Arizona, plus the permission of doctors to take part in full baseball activities. He still needs clearance to play in Grapefruit League games, and he expects to miss the first four or five at least.

There's no rush.

"As much as we'd like to be ready to play today, it's got its own timeline. It hasn't ever been up to me," Morneau said during a 33-minute session with media in which he was as introspective as he's ever been publicly.

"We've done everything, I think, possible to try and take care of this thing and be ready, but whenever it's ready, it's ready. There might be a day or two when things aren't perfect, but you've got to battle through it and see how it reacts."

Morneau is also curious to see how he reacts when he's faced with having to make a tough baseball play like diving for a ball, or sliding hard into the bag to try and break up a double play.

That's exactly how the 2006 American League MVP was hurt in the first place, sliding into second base on Michael Cuddyer's weak chopper to short. As he came into the bag, he caught a leaping McDonald's right knee in the head.

While the contact wasn't particularly hard, the theory is that because Morneau wasn't braced for it, there was some whiplash that compounded the impact on his brain.

At first Morneau thought he'd be fine to play in the all-star game a few days later. But days soon turned into weeks turned into months, and another potential MVP season disappeared, as did the chance to play in the playoffs for a second straight year.

He kept on hoping for a return, trying to maintain some sort of physical base so he could come back to play. Nothing helped, and it wasn't until the Twins lost their AL Division Series matchup with the Yankees that he allowed himself to get the rest he really needed.

"You never know how many chances in this game you're going to get to go the playoffs, or win a World Series ring," said Morneau. "With the team we had last year, we felt like it was a legitimate World Series contender, and to have sit on the sidelines and watch that, you're mind is still going, 'What if I'm up in this situation, what would I do against this pitcher?'

"Once that ended, I think I just kind of let it all go, went down to Arizona and just kind of didn't do a whole lot. I shut the workouts down, shut everything down, probably a month and a half, two months, and it wasn't full activity when I got back to it. It was a couple days a week here and there, just trying to see how the body feels. I think getting away from it, shutting it down, that helped."

Morneau began picking things up in early January, gradually increasing his workload as he remained symptom-free. Sessions on the bike went from 10 minutes to 12 minutes, etc.

He feels he really turned the corner over the past month, doing all the regular baseball work typical of his winter routine at his home in the Phoenix area.

"He didn't even talk about his injury, just about getting stronger and getting better," said Twins outfield prospect Rene Tosoni, a Coquitlam, B.C., native who is part of Morneau's training group.

"He'd say something about how he wanted to play in the playoffs, and stuff like that, but he's not looking back, he's looking forward."

More accurately, Morneau is looking forward with the wisdom gained from what's behind him.

He plans, at least for a while, to wear a protective helmet in the field, just in case, and he has no intention of taking unnecessary chances. Last summer's concussion was his third -- the first came playing hockey while very young, the second in 2005 when Mariners lefty Ron Villone hit him in the head -- and he points to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby as an example of the dangers of coming back too quickly.

"I think he's a great example of a guy who wasn't sure if he had a concussion in the first place, and then he goes out and gets hit again and now who knows how long he's going to be out for?" said Morneau. "I'm not Crosby's doctor, not anyone's, but who knows if he had another one because the second hit didn't look as bad as the first hit, and now he's going to be out for a while based on maybe he got two real close together.

"That's kind of what we were trying to avoid."

Former Twins teammate Corey Koskie of Anola, Man., who struggled with concussions for two years before retiring, and Los Angeles Kings defenceman Willie Mitchell, who's also had concussion problems, have been important sources of guidance.

Morneau also thought of an old friend who suffered a concussion while playing in the Western Hockey League and for months could only sit in dark rooms because of his symptoms.

"But until you go through something like that, where it's everyday stuff for months on end, wondering if or when you're going to get better, that's when you really find out what it's all about," he said. "Any time I see any big (hockey) hit on TV, any cheap shot or a guy hit his head into the boards, I just kind of cringe and hope the guy's going to be OK."

While noting that concussions remain unusual in baseball, he'd also like to see the sport mandate the use of the new oversized batting helmets. Many players are reluctant to use them because of the way they look.

Given his experience, Morneau will be choosing safety over style.

"If we can avoid one guy going through what I went through I think it will be worth it," he said. "If I would have had it, who knows if at the time it would have made a difference or not."

Still, he's happy the injury allowed him to spend more time with daughter Evelyn, who'll be five months on Tuesday. And though he didn't help wife Krista too often in the middle of the night -- "I have a great wife, a very, very patient wife" -- his daytime duties helped him "worry about someone else that's more important than yourself."

It's for all those reasons he's so appreciative of his health, and the ability to do what he loves again. His goal is to be ready for opening day April 1 at Toronto and he's hopeful his body will allow it.

"There's very few things in life that I like more than hitting a baseball -- I kept reminding myself of that," Morneau said. "It's a long road and each person goes through it differently.

"Hopefully we took the right amount of time and everything reacts well."

Justin Morneau (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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