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David Brown

Back from concussion, Twins' Morneau finally plays 'A' game

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FORT MYERS, Fla. — Slugger Justin Morneau(notes) called it "the first big step" in returning to the Minnesota Twins lineup from which he has been long absent.

Morneau played four innings of defense at first base and had two plate appearances against the Boston Red Sox on Friday, suffering no setbacks in his first action against top competition since getting kneed in the head while and sustaining a concussion while running the bases in July.

"When I got hurt, I didn't think I was going to be out that long; I didn't think it was going to be that bad," Morneau said.

Morneau's first competition of any kind came Tuesday in a "B" game against lesser players from the the Pittsburgh Pirates. On Friday, he faced Jon Lester(notes) and several of Boston's best.

As he came to the plate in the bottom of the first, the bipartisan crowd at Hammond Stadium — the Red Sox train nearby — gave him a loud, warm and partially standing ovation.

"It was great," Morneau said. "One of those things I was wondering... Until you go through something like this, it's hard to understand. It's nice for the fans — I don't know if they appreciate me being back there, or what — but it's a good feeling to know they're behind me and they're happy that I'm out there. Just as happy as I am [that] I'm out there."

He struck out looking in the first and reached first base on an error in the fourth before a pinch runner took his place. On defense, Morneau handled two grounders at first and took two throws from the shortstop.

"It all felt pretty normal," Morneau said.

Morneau's goal is to have manager Ron Gardenhire pencil him into the lineup on opening day. While that's still not a sure thing, Morneau was pleased and seemed relieved at the progress he has made and what his re-appearance means.

"When you're not out there playing, when you're not out there battling, you don't always feel like you're part of the team," Morneau said. "You feel like you're on the outside looking in."

Morneau also has an idea what his concussion experience might mean to younger athletes who sustain one.

"Hopefully kids see this and that I missed a significant amount of time and life goes on; that there’s things more important than sports," Morneau said. "Obviously, I love the game, I love to play, but you want to be able to function as a 40-year-old, a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old man. You want to be able to play with your kids."

Having a baby girl at home, 5-month-old Evelyn, adds perspective.

"A great distraction," Morneau said. "You look [at her] and there’s nothing else on your mind. Trying to help her walk — she’s not quite there yet — and trying to help her crawl and do all of those [mischievous] things she’s not supposed to be doing. You kind of get caught up in all that stuff. It’s been the best gift I could ever ask for."

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Gardenhire is excited about the possibility of getting Morneau back in the lineup. Their best hitter while healthy, he played 81 games and none after July 7.

"He's missed a lot of baseball and no one can tell you, more than him, how hard that is," Gardenhire said.

A part of Morneau's behavior has become enhanced as a result.

"Patience," Morneau said. "The best way to describe it is like being on an island. Nobody can really know what you're going through every day, what you're feeling every day. It's got its own timetable. It's not up to you."

Morneau said the plan is to sit Saturday and play again Sunday. He hopes to start playing regularly after Minnesota's day off Tuesday.

"For me to look more than a few days ahead is something we've tried not to do too much with this," Morneau said. "Hopefully by the end of spring training, we're playing seven or eight innings and be ready to go by the time the season starts."

Along the way, Morneau has consulted with many medical experts, but found that other concussion sufferers — such as Willie Mitchell of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings, former Twins player Corey Koskie and Jason Bay(notes) of the New York Mets — can provide empathy.

And some frustrating comparisons.

With Bay, "I got hurt before he did and he was healthy before I was," Morneau said.

Mitchell — who plans to donate his brain to science — has been particularly inspirational.

"Especially Willie, being able to come back and play regularly in a full-contact sport like the NHL," said Morneau, who grew up in Canada also playing hockey goaltender.

Like with Mitchell, Morneau believes one day soon that all of his symptoms — and the risk of them returning — will fully disappear.

"He told me, the first time he took a big hit and he felt OK, he knew he was back to normal," Morneau said. "He'd tell me, ‘Don't worry about it, you're going to be OK.' "

Follow Dave throughout spring training on Twitter — @AnswerDave — and check out the Stew on Facebook for more coverage.

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