Morneau emerging as quiet leader
DENVER -- Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau slipped on a pair of gray baseball pants just before beginning his pregame preparation at Coors Field on Monday. Oops. At home, the Rockies wear white pants with purple pinstripes.
Morneau laughed at himself. "I'd done so well in the gray pants," he said, before changing quickly so no one else would notice.
There certainly were hits in those road pants -- 4-for-16 with two home runs and two doubles in his last five games. But it's the man, not his pants, who is finding his swing and emerging as a key performer and positive example for the Rockies, with whom he signed a two-year, $12.5 million contract during the offseason.
Through his first 15 appearances, Morneau was hitting .346 with six extra-base hits. His .924 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) was sixth-highest among National League first basemen.
Morneau's .346 start was his best through 15 games since 2005, when he was hitting .390. That year, however, his average finished at .239.
Morneau, who turns 33 on May 15, also has quietly but efficiently fit in, and at times stepped out front with the Rockies. It's the Morneau who was one of the heart-and-soul players with the Twins 2003 through last August.
Last year, the Twins traded Morneau to the Pirates last Aug. 31. While Morneau was a contributor to a playoff team, he acknowledged that players such as Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez were the leaders and he was "joining someone else's party."
Because he has been with the Rockies since the start of Spring Training, he has had time for vigorous pregame preparation and postgame exercise routines and his relaxed sense of self to become part of the fabric of the club. Having Michael Cuddyer, who was a longtime teammate with the Twins and had already established himself as a Rockies leader, helped Morneau.
"Anytime you've been around a while, people look at how you go about your business, how you do things, how you work, and how you play -- as much as I look at everybody else who's successful," Morneau said. "People have respect for players who have been around awhile, so it's a big part of it.
"There's a way that I believe and Cuddy believes the game is supposed to be played. We just try to set an example."
The Rockies pursued Morneau believing he was past the concussion problems that limited his availability 2010-12. Because he finished last year healthy (.259, 17 HR, 77 RBIs in 152 games combined with the Twins and the Pirates), the Rockies thought Morneau could have a full offseason of preparation and use that to return to something close to his former All-Star status.
But what they knew about Morneau's presence was as much a reason for pursuing him as the projected production.
"Guys respond to him," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said. "It's tough coming to a new club, even if you've been around for awhile. Morney has been out front and he's set the tone in a lot of ways. We've got a good group -- some veteran guys that are willing to take on that leadership role. He's been great."
Morneau's calm nature allows him to walk the line of leading without being overbearing.
"If there's some way I feel I can help, something I see or a situation I've been in before, guys can accept things a lot more if you talk to them one-on-one," Morneau said. "I'm not big on embarrassing somebody. Obviously, if you're not respecting your teammates, respecting the game, there are times that needs to be brought to someone's attention. And we have guys who are willing to listen. It's fun to talk to those guys."
It helps when the person with the advice is producing. That's the case with Morneau, whose recent extra-base hits have been especially hard. The homers were to center field at San Francisco's AT&T Park and San Diego's Petco Park. The double that drove in the Rockies' first run in the rally that gave them a 3-1 victory over the Padres was hit hard enough on a line that Padres right fielder Chris Denorfia froze initially and couldn't recover.
"My swing is a lot more consistent than it has been in a while," Morneau said. "Obviously, getting results is nice, but every time you step in to bat you want to feel like you're going to get a hit. It's important to have."