Gerrit Cole had just been traded to the Houston Astros in early 2018, and his new organization had some ideas for the team’s newest pitcher. The Astros wanted him to utilize the top of the strike zone with his four-seamer, and they had thoughts about his sinker, too. Mainly, they wanted him to cut down on the usage of it — dramatically.
Cole knew barely anyone in the organization at the time. But, armed with this new information, he knew exactly who he could turn to to discuss what had just just been presented to him — someone who could give him a hitter’s perspective and someone who would be willing to help.
“I couldn’t really have that conversation with anybody (with Houston), so I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just call Justin and he’ll help me out like he always does,’ ” Cole said. “And that was wonderful.”
The Justin he speaks of is Justin Morneau, his teammate for all of a month during the 2013 season in Pittsburgh. The two didn’t play together long, but it was long enough for Morneau to make an impact. Cole, now the Yankees’ ace and one of the highest-paid players in the game, remembers the conversation well. Morneau less so.
“The guy’s one of the top-five pitchers in the game and to think that he needed any of my help or any of my advice …,” Morneau said, his words trailing off.
Perhaps Morneau remembers the conversation less clearly because the Twins legend has similar conversations often — always looking for a way to help younger players and make an impact in their careers. Morneau will be honored for his impact on the Twins organization on Saturday before the their 6:10 p.m. game against the Toronto Blue Jays, becoming the 34th person to enter the team’s Hall of Fame.
This weekend will be a time to celebrate the former first baseman, for all that he’s done for the organization — on the field and off — in a ceremony that was delayed more than a year because of COVID-19.
Morneau is from Canada — he hails from New Westminster, British Columbia — but it was Minnesota where he grew from a young man into a father. Where he met his wife, Krista, and where they still make their home. Where he carved out a career and ascended to the top of the sport, winning a Most Valuable Player award. Where he remains beloved by a loyal fanbase.
During his 11 major-league seasons with the Twins, Morneau, now 40, was a four-time all-star. In 2006, he took home the AL MVP award. He was twice a Silver Slugger. He captivated the hearts of Twins fans around the state, helping lead the Twins to the playoffs multiple times.
Morneau’s legacy within the organization is still evolving. As a TV analyst for Bally Sports North, he helps teach the game he loves to the next generation of Twins fans nightly. In his other role as a special assistant within the Twins’ front office, he’s leaving his mark on the next generation of Twins players.
“I think I’d like to be looked at as someone who never took time in the majors for granted and someone who tried to give back as much as possible,” Morneau said. “(I) tried to give it my best understanding that it might be the first time or only time someone got to see me play so I wanted to try to give them my best effort. If they paid their hard-earned money to buy a ticket and come watch me play, I tried to give them everything I could every time I went out there.”
Ahead of his induction, here are reflections from five people who have known Morneau throughout different stages of his career.
The first time Terry Ryan, then the Twins’ general manager, watched Justin Morneau in person, the young ballplayer was 18 and newly drafted. The Twins snagged Morneau, a catcher out of a Canadian high school, in the third round of the 1999 draft, but Ryan had not seen him play in person by draft day.
Howard Norsetter, the scout responsible for finding him, had spoken highly of his bat and power potential. Ryan was intrigued. On his way from British Columbia to the Twins’ facility in Fort Myers, Fla., Morneau made a pit stop at the Metrodome.
“We let him in there and he deposited a lot of balls up in the upper deck,” Ryan said. “For an 18-year-old kid, that was impressive.”
Soon, he was on his way to Florida. Morneau spent parts of two seasons playing in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League. And from one of them, more than 20 years later, there’s a story that still sticks with Ryan.
Morneau was so respected, so feared, Ryan said, that he was once intentionally walked with the bases loaded while playing in the GCL.
“I don’t think it would take anybody too long to realize the guy was going to be a hitter,” Ryan said. “I think as soon as we got him down there and got him comfortable, I think people realized, ‘Alright, this guy’s got a chance.’ ”
Morneau is worried he might forget somebody who had a sizable impact on him when he gives his speech on Saturday. But when asked to name those who had the biggest impact on his career, he starts down a list.
On it: former Twins manager Tom Kelly, who helped teach him the ins and outs of first base; Al Newman; Joe Vavra, and, of course, Ron Gardenhire, his longtime manager.
In 2006, before he was the guy who would go on to become the AL MVP, he was a young player who was struggling through the season, hitting less than his playing weight. When he was called to meet with Gardenhire in early May in Seattle, he initially thought he was getting sent down.
Instead, Gardenhire built him up. Told him the club expected more of him. Set expectations without making him feel like he was a disappointment. The conversation, Morneau said last year, turned his career around.
In Morneau, Gardenhire saw a player working to be the best he possibly could be. As he aged, Gardenhire saw a player who captured his teammates’ attention, one who might take it upon himself to talk to a younger player who didn’t run out a groundball.
“He wasn’t one of those guys (that) you have to go find him,” Gardenhire said. “When work needed to done or was going to get done, he was there. He was always waiting and ready.”
A manager or coach’s impact on a player is frequently talked about. A player’s impact on a coach is discussed much less so. But Gardenhire sees the correlation: Morneau was traded during the 2013 season. Gardenhire was fired in September 2014.
“I know this for a fact: When he left, it wasn’t very long after he left our ballclub that I got fired,” Gardenhire said.
Joe Mauer arrived at instructional league in Fort Myers in the fall of 2001, and it was there that the “M&M Boys” first met. After a day or two of observation, Mauer could predict which of the young prospects “kind of has it.”
And Morneau, he said, “was one of those guys.”
Days later, the two went to a local sporting goods store where, fueled by their competitive nature, a hockey game broke out in the middle of an aisle, Mauer rifling pucks at his new Canadian friend.
“I knew right there we would be pretty good friends from there on out,” Mauer said.
The two didn’t unite as major leaguers until 2004. They wound up playing together until 2013. They were teammates and friends, Morneau helping pull a more introverted Mauer out of his shell in the early days of his career, teaching him that “it’s OK to also enjoy other things away from the ballpark,” Mauer said.
They were roommates at one point and stood up as groomsmen in each other’s weddings, as Justin first married Krista and Joe then married Maddie. Now, with both retired, they have settled into a post-playing career with the all-important title of “Dad.”
In retirement, they keep up through golf outings in the summer — after 20 years of trying to get his friend out on the links, Mauer said he finally has succeeded and Morneau has taken up the sport this summer — and Wednesday morning hockey games out on Morneau’s property during the winter.
“It’s been a lot of fun to kind of go through our careers together,” Mauer said. “We got to play together 10 years, and that doesn’t happen a whole lot, so I’m thankful for the time that we were able to spend in the clubhouse and on the field and even now as parents it’s fun to see that progress as well.”
Gerrit Cole was a rookie in 2013. Drafted as the first overall pick by the Pirates in 2011, he arrived with the weight of expectations on his shoulders.
The two only overlapped for a fraction of a season. But Cole and Morneau bonded immediately — over baseball, of course, but other things too, like fine wine and hockey, among other interests.
“It’s just rare you come across a person that … first of all cares about you in such a quick amount of time and cares enough about you to pour in good advice that has never really left, and it’s been impactful for both my career and my family life as well,” Cole said.
Morneau knew what Cole was going through. He had arrived in Minnesota a hyped prospect, feeling the weight of expectations, too. Whatever he could to help, to be on Cole’s side, he did.
That didn’t end once Morneau left the Pirates for the Colorado Rockies in the offseason.
The two have created an enduring friendship. Whenever Cole visits Minnesota, he always makes a point to spend a night or two with Morneau. A visit to Morneau’s starts with “usually a crudité plate or a really great meal,” and then segues into “some of the greatest wines in the world,” Cole said.
There’s plenty of talk about baseball and family, and when it’s time to leave, Morneau makes sure to send Cole off on his way with some items from his farm.
“You leave with some Grade-A maple syrup that he tapped that spring and some fresh honey that he just collected from bees down the hill,” Cole said. “It’s just class all the way around. It’s just who he is.”
These days, Morneau has found another player to mentor. This time, it’s Trevor Larnach, the Twins’ 2018 first-round draft pick. When he looks at Larnach, a fellow left-handed power hitter, Morneau sees a young player following a path similar to his own.
In his role as special assistant, outside the first layer of the coaching staff, Morneau is hoping he can be an impartial resource — something he said he didn’t feel he had as a young player. He can be someone who is there to answer questions, but also a confidant, there to listen to a player if, for example, he needs to vent.
In Larnach, Morneau sees a young player not afraid to ask questions. And in Morneau, Larnach found someone who was open about everything, willing to help in any way possible.
This year, that has meant Larnach asking questions about hitting mechanics. Sometimes the questions are about approach. Or mentality. Or any number of things that come along with being a major leaguer.
“I’ll write stuff down that really hits home with me that I remember that I could use, and a lot of what I learn from him is kind of what I took into my own process and routine this season,” said Larnach, who currently is on the Triple-A injured list. “There was huge benefit to it. It was just up to me to make my adjustment of what I needed to do mechanically, but mentally I felt so prepared, and a lot of it had to do with his help.”
In the spring of 2020, Morneau took Larnach, Royce Lewis and Alex Kirilloff — then the organization’s top three prospects — out to dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House near Fort Myers, sharing stories and advice from his playing days.
Morneau and Larnach have remained in touch, Morneau checking in when Larnach was sent down to Triple-A to provide support and motivation.
“I feel like it could be one o’clock in the morning and I could text him thinking about something and he would get back to me. That’s something that’s super special and maybe not a lot of people understand that,” Larnach said. “For him to be that open, for him to be that way towards guys that are young and want to learn, it’s just priceless.”