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Morneau happy to come home

MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau returned to Target Field on Monday a humbled former Twin, grateful for continued good health and a rejuvenated career that once again has the hulking first baseman among baseball’s best sluggers.

It had been 319 days since the Colorado Rockies’ RBI leader last appeared at Minnesota’s home ballpark, just before the Twins traded the impending free agent to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Morneau subsequently signed with the Rockies last offseason, confident he had permanently buried the concussion issues that derailed him.

Arguably he could be the National League’s starting first baseman at this year’s All-Star Game. No matter. He was back in town for his third Home Run Derby.

Sitting on a dais with the nine other competitors at a downtown Minneapolis hotel, Morneau was truly thankful for the invite by teammate and NL derby captain Troy Tulowitzki to chase another title.

“You know, I have been able to appreciate being able to come back to things like this, or just to have good days and feel good out there playing,” he said. “And I think it’s going to be a different perspective and I feel very fortunate to be up here and to be able to be a part of this. So it’s pretty rewarding to be able to sit up here with these guys.”

Only Harmon Killebrew and Kent Hrbek homered more in a Twins uniform than Morneau, who slugged No. 221 the night before his Aug. 29, 2013 trade.

The 2006 American League Most Valuable Player and 2008 Home Run Derby champion at old Yankee Stadium was vying for his second MVP in July 2010 when he suffered a serious concussion sliding into second base in Toronto.

He missed large chunks of the next few seasons before reclaiming his health in 2013, playing in a team-high 127 games before Minnesota dealt him.

Morneau’s 60 RBIs rank third in the National League behind Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton (63) and Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt (61), who will start Tuesday’s All-Star Game.

Morneau led the final NL fan voting until the Final Vote race in which fans voted in Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

“I picked him as an easy choice,” said Tulowitzki. “He has meant so much to the fans here in Minnesota. It’s a great story. He’s had a great first half for us. He very well could be on this All-Star team, and he should be.

“But I think him and everything that he’s been through and getting a chance to compete in this Home Run Derby is going to be special for his family and the fans in Minnesota.”

Morneau said his wife and kids were among about 20 relatives who traveled to Minnesota for his one-off appearance.

“We were planning on coming back here anyway,” he said. “Worked out good. Stop by, do the Home Run Derby and continue on with the break.”

Derek Jeter’s farewell tour with the Yankees and his final AL all-star appearance have dominated the feel-good storylines of 2014.

But Morneau’s homecoming was Monday’s lovefest.

“I think Twins fans are more excited about that than anything just because of what he’s meant to this organization, with all the playoff runs,” said Twins second baseman Brian Dozier. “He’s been the guy for so many years now. For him to be back, it would be a rude awakening if he doesn’t get a standing ovation. It’s going to be pretty cool.”

Morneau, who made five postseason appearances with Minnesota, published an open letter to Twins fans following his trade in which he apologized “that during my time here we weren’t able to achieve our ultimate goal of winning the World Series, but I will forever carry many wonderful memories of my time here.”

An emotional touchstone in the Twins clubhouse, Morneau teamed with Joe Mauer as the second generation “M&M Boys” of Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris fame.

Ironically, Mauer replaced Morneau at first base this season but was unable to earn a seventh all-star selection after injuring himself earlier this month.

“You won’t find a city with much more respect for a guy than this one,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “He helped build this organization or kept it going. In the community and what we represent on how to handle yourself, how to play the game. He’s all part of that.”

It was easy to forget how three years of concussion symptoms, plus wrist and back troubles, had snuffed the enjoyment Morneau had for baseball.

“But I never really stopped believing along the way that I can get back to contributing to a baseball team and trying to hit in runs and being productive,” he said. “Obviously it’s been a long ride the last couple of years, but like I said before, I can really appreciate it a lot more now.

“You know, it’s supposed to be fun and I think I learned a lot more to have fun with it just playing.