Justin Morneau, who less than a year ago couldn't play baseball because his brain refused to let him, is dissatisfied. He is dissatisfied with his team's record, dissatisfied with his statistics and dissatisfied with where he is right now in baseball, all of which stands to reason until remembering that little fact about his brain, and that he very easily could be spending his days at home instead of in a Minnesota Twins uniform.
This should be gravy. It's not, of course. It can't be. This is where athletes are different. The achievements, the failures. The highs, the lows. They operate on extreme scales. And whereas a return to normal life – no headaches, no vertigo, no nausea, no mental lapses – represents a normal goal for those who have suffered multiple concussions like Morneau, normalcy is not something to which he aspires. He was special. He was different. He believes he again can be special and can be different.
Slugging almost .500, popping 10 home runs, crushing right-handed pitching at a similar level to Joey Votto and Carlos Gonzalez and Josh Hamilton – that's not enough. He's not hitting lefties. And the simple belief that a post-concussion Morneau can be as good as he was before his brain rattled against his skull drives him forward and yanks him back, like a wave that folds into an undertow.
Justin Morneau's brain tortured him before. Now that it's better, he tortures himself instead.
"I didn't go through all that just to come back and play," he said recently. "I grinded it out to come back and try and do well and help this team win ballgames. I still believe I'm capable of doing that. I believe I'm a middle-of-the-order hitter capable of driving in runs. If I stay healthy, I'll get back to that level."
"When you've played at a certain level, it's hard to be satisfied when you're not doing that well. I’m not someone who's happy just to be out here."
Just be out there. Think about that for a second. Morneau, in all likelihood, suffered concussions growing up playing hockey. People with multiple concussions are at greater risk for more, and for far worse long-term brain damage, and so what looked like an innocent play – a latent right knee to the head on July 7, 2010, as he slid into second base trying to break up a double play – grew into a season-ending ailment. And that preceded a dive at first base prompting more concussion-like symptoms last season, one in which Morneau whacked only four home runs and spent most of the year in a haze of injuries and reflection.
All of which poured out during spring training, when Morneau made headlines by saying unless his symptoms receded, he no longer would play baseball. It was a moment of raw honesty, of sadness. And it created an odd dichotomy: For as much self-awareness as Morneau showed during spring training, he still can't reconcile his present failures with his past issues, refusing to intertwine them no matter how obvious the connection.
"It took a long time to get to that point where, if this was it, it was it," he said. "It was out of my control. It was something freak that happened. I've seen doctors, tried treatments, rested, done everything. There's only so much a person can do and take. Everyone was surprised by that. I didn't think it was surprising at all. If I couldn't get through spring training without still feeling symptoms from something that happened eight or nine months earlier, I had no business trying."
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He made it, found himself slotted into the middle of the lineup by manager Ron Gardenhire and … well, nobody knew. He could be MVP Morneau. He could be 2011 Morneau. He could be an amalgamation of the two. He could be anything. He could be nothing.
"My expectations are that he just gets the chance to play baseball and we see what happens," Gardenhire said. "How do you put expectations on a former MVP? Will he ever be able to achieve that again? I don't know. It's unfair. So I just said, 'Let's see you play.'"
"He loves playing baseball. This is his passion. It always has been. He just wants to be healthy."
And he is. For now. That caveat will haunt him until the day he retires. Just like pitchers throw a baseball knowing their elbow ligaments could give without warning, Morneau jogs onto the field nine times a night aware that an errant throw or an awkward landing could jar him into misery once more. Or that a pitch that slips from someone's hand could steal this career he spent so much time rescuing.
During batting practice, when his teammates step into the cage with backward caps, Morneau sports a helmet. The pitches are slow, non-threatening. Life is one big just-in-case anyway.
"You try not to think about it," Morneau said. "You put trust in the doctors and the people responsible for making the decision to put you out there. They've seen enough people go through it. The doctors I've seen have had to retire guys. I made sure that was a question that was answered, and they promised me that if it happens again, I can get back to normal. It may not be fun. It may take a while. But I put trust in them. I have to."
Next comes trust in himself. He feasted on right-handed pitching immediately. His 1.070 OPS against righties is fifth best in the major leagues. What left-handers do to Morneau more than balances that out.
Of the 168 hitters who qualify for the batting title, Morneau ranks 168th in batting average (.097), 168th in on-base percentage (.123) and 163rd in slugging percentage (.210) against lefties. He's swinging more against them than anybody but Hamilton and Delmon Young, and he's missing those swings at a baseball-worst 50 percent clip. Though he has hit two home runs, in 62 at-bats against lefties, he has just one line drive – and it was caught.
"I just can't hit lefties," Morneau said. "That's what's killing me."
He shook his head slowly, back and forth, scolding himself. The Twins need him. They are an American League-worst 25-37. If he can be himself against righties, why not lefties? If he can not just show flashes but play at an MVP caliber again against one side, why can't he do the same, or at very least be respectable, facing a group against which in 2010 he hit .325/.391/.575? These are questions he knows he cannot answer. He asks them anyway.
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"Because I know what I'm capable of doing," he said, and that is all he needed to say, really. Honesty only went so far with Justin Morneau. He looked at himself in the mirror and brought himself to a place where if his career ended, he could find peace.
The mirror lies to him these days. What he has done, what he's doing, isn't substandard, something of which he should be ashamed. The very fact that he's back is plenty special and plenty different. It's plenty, period.
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