'Surreal': Morneau takes place in Twins' HOF

September 26th, 2021

MINNEAPOLIS -- The first time saw the Minnesota Twins, he still thought he was going to play hockey.

Of course he did. He was a teenager growing up in Canada. He loved both hockey and baseball, but he even skipped a year of baseball when he was 8 years old. And when he recently asked his father, the elder Morneau replied that he always thought Justin would end up becoming a hockey player.

So, when Justin was in his early teens, he found himself in the Twin Cities for a hockey tournament, sitting in left field at the Metrodome, watching one of those struggling Minnesota teams of the mid-1990s, without a hint of the idea that in a half-decade, he'd be drafted by that very team.

In hindsight, it sure is a good thing that he didn't pick hockey.

"I wasn't good enough to make the section team, let alone the provincial team or the national team," Morneau said. "I think it was the right move."

A generation of Twins fans would agree.

Five division championships, an American League Most Valuable Player Award, four consecutive All-Star selections, two Silver Slugger Awards and a Home Run Derby title later as part of a 14-year playing career spanning four teams, Morneau's personal accolades and contributions to one of the most successful eras of Twins baseball were cemented on Saturday with his induction to the club's Hall of Fame in a pregame ceremony before the Twins' matchup against the Blue Jays, the team Morneau supported as a child.

"This is a franchise with a long, proud history and great players. Lots of numbers retired up on the wall, lots of National Baseball Hall of Famers," Morneau said. "To be in a Hall of Fame that includes Rod Carew and Bert Blyleven, Harmon Killebrew, Kirby Puckett -- if you go down the list of the greatest Twins in history, to be amongst them is a very special, humbling honor."

In addition to earning the 2006 AL MVP Award for which he edged out Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, Morneau owns the third-most home runs in club history (221) and ranks ninth in games played for the Twins (1,278). After being drafted as a catcher in the third round of the 1999 MLB Draft, Morneau converted to first base and anchored the position for 11 seasons in Minnesota, appearing in the second-most games there in club history behind only Kent Hrbek.

As is always the case for these Hall of Fame inductions, Morneau and the Twins put out a call, far and wide, for those of personal and professional significance to Morneau throughout his baseball journey, from high school coaches to the man who owned the batting cage where Morneau used to take swings, letting the future slugger hit for free.

"They said that I invited more former players and the longest guest list they've ever had for this thing," Morneau remarked. "I figured about half the people would say yes and show up. I guess a lot more people are more bored than that."

The familiar faces from Twins history that arrived en masse to officially usher in Morneau as the 34th member of the club's Hall of Fame were, of course, led by longtime skipper Ron Gardenhire and a who's who of that late Metrodome era of Minnesota baseball, including Johan Santana, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Torii Hunter and Nick Punto, all of whom Morneau thanked by name.

And, of course, a special place in the ceremony was reserved for Joe Mauer, the other half of the "M&M Boys," who introduced Morneau to begin the hour-long ceremony, which featured a video of Morneau's Twins highlights, a message from the Canadian ambassador to the United States and even a recorded video from fellow Canadian and Hall of Famer Larry Walker.

As for Morneau himself, he didn't have too far to go to join all those former teammates. It only takes a short elevator ride and walk through the tunnels to get from the broadcast booth on the club level to the field, a walk he now does often as a special assistant in the Twins' front office and analyst for Bally Sports North telecasts alongside longtime play-by-play man Dick Bremer, who called Morneau's entire playing career.

"Camaraderie with teammates, leaving Spring Training with a goal of winning the World Series, all that stuff, it's hard to replicate," Morneau said. "But once that's gone, I think what I'm left with is relationships and those guys. I've tried to find new challenges, tried to find new things. Obviously, I went from the best job in the world to the second-best job in the world."

The playing career would obviously have been sweeter with a championship, but to be fair, Morneau was part of the last Twins team to win a playoff game -- all the way back in 2004 -- and he noted that he just felt lucky to play alongside a Cy Young Award winner, Silver Slugger Award winners, Gold Glovers and All-Stars as he carved out his own piece of club history and represented an area that he still calls home.

"I mean, you think of the teams we put on the field," Morneau said. "Just lucky to come along at the right time and be part of that run. I think we all have so much respect for each other. It was a close group. You can go years without seeing each other, but it’s like we saw each other yesterday. It’s a special group."

The tight bonds between that group -- the shared experiences that keep them all coming back, year after year, for each of these ceremonies -- are one of the most important hallmarks of this franchise and what Morneau hoped to highlight most as he teared up while going down a lengthy list of thanks for everyone from Tom Kelly to the late Wayne "Big Fella" Hattaway to the clubhouse personnel to Corey Koskie.

Now, he'll forever be immortalized as part of that franchise's history -- not that his time as a Twin is close to being over.

"There's so many people that have your best interest," Morneau said. "They just want to see you succeed. And then when they see you make it, even if they never make it to the Major Leagues, they take pride in it, too. You never dreamed for a moment like this. You just dream for one in the big leagues. And then you get to cap it all off in the end with something like this. It's almost surreal."