Morneau transformed his season after lousy start

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know that the "East Coast bias" known to influence the outcome of baseball's awards refers to the east coast of Minnesota's Lake Harriet.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Now we know that the "East Coast bias" known to influence the outcome of baseball's awards refers to the east coast of Minnesota's Lake Harriet.

Justin Morneau won the American League MVP Award on Tuesday, joining Joe Mauer (batting title), Johan Santana (Cy Young), Torii Hunter (Gold Glove) among Minnesota Twins celebrants from the 2006 season.

Mauer, Santana and Hunter earned their accomplishments by being who they are -- baseball's purest hitter, baseball's most dominant pitcher and a human highlight reel on defense.

Morneau's achievement is more surprising because he transformed himself and his career in the middle of a seemingly lost season, and helped to simultaneously transform the Twins.

Five months ago, members of the organization questioned whether he would ever become a competent hitter, and the Twins were baseball's most unwatchable team.


Today, Morneau is the franchise's first MVP in 29 years and the Twins are -- did that really happen? -- the AL Central champs.

No one disputes the timing of either turnaround.

On June 7, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire called Morneau in for a wake-up-and-smell-the-crisis meeting. By the end of the night, the Twins were 25-33, 11½ games out of first place.

On June 8, Morneau went 1-for-5 in the last game of a series in Seattle, where Morneau, a native of nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, was known to cavort with his Canadian buddies. He was hitting .235.

"That was a bit of a wake-up call," Morneau said. "There was a lot of stuff going on off the field that didn't need to be. My focus wasn't what it needed to be.

"They opened my eyes. They said, 'You can be this good.' "

On June 9, Morneau took early batting practice with Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra. Morneau ingested a simple thought -- "Stay back" -- and hit eight consecutive balls over the fence.

"I said, 'Let's try to do the same thing over and over,'" Morneau said. "And then the same thing tomorrow. And I did the same thing the next day, and ate the same things, and kept with the same routine."


That night, Morneau went 2-for-4 with two walks and two homers, including the game-winner against Baltimore. He got 12 hits in his next 21 at-bats, including four homers. From June 8 to the end of the season, he led the majors with a .362 average, while hitting 23 homers and driving in 92 runs. The Twins finished 71-33 and caught Detroit.

Morneau learned to stay back, and his lifestyle became laid back. He and his roomie Mauer would sleep late, eat Jimmy John's subs and knock the ball all over the park.

"If you can stay back, you can wait an extra split-second longer, and then you become more relaxed, and that's when you gain confidence," he said.

At the Metrodome, after Morneau's news conference, another Twins MVP, Harmon Killebrew, related his eureka moment. He began his career as a line-drive hitter, then one day the great Ralph Kiner called him aside.

"He told me that I should be hitting for power, and that I needed to move up on the plate and pull the ball," Killebrew said. "That lowered my average and caused me to strike out a lot more, but he was right -- I hit for power."

Two Twins Hall of Famers, Kirby Puckett and Paul Molitor, experienced similar awakenings. Molitor grew up idolizing Killebrew. During his first pro spring training, his Class A manager, Denis Menke, told him to stop trying to hit the ball over the fence. Molitor became one of baseball's best opposite-field hitters.

For Puckett, the epiphany came during the 1986 spring training, when Tony Oliva told him to incorporate a leg kick to his swing. Puckett went from four homers to 31.

Now Morneau finds himself in heady company. He's the first Twins MVP since 1977, the youngest MVP since Frank Thomas in '93, and one of the two best hitters in Mauer's St. Paul condo.


Will Morneau move out?

"That's a tough call," he said. "I don't know if you want to change anything, after that year. I don't know if Joe would let me. He says he's not superstitious, but he would eat Jimmy John's every day, just like me."

Jim Souhan is a sports columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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