Northern exposure

CHICAGO – The newest addition to the Ron Gardenhire Collection, not to be mistaken with the kind of couture seen in Milan, is a plastic batting helmet with a large crack down the middle.

Justin Morneau donated this particular piece, which joins other victims of Minnesota Twins outbursts, like torn belts and splintered bats. The inscription made Morneau's contribution especially memorable.

To Gardy,

Third game of the season.

Here we go again.

Yes, Justin Morneau, a young and brilliant power hitter, MVP of the American League last year, destroyed his helmet in the Twins' third game this year. After a life-changing season, one in which he learned to control nearly every aspect of his life, one thing still arouses the uncontrollable: failure, which, in a game that features so much of it, calls for an extra supply of helmets.

"If we were up by six," Morneau said, "that helmet would still be around."

As it happens, the Twins led the Baltimore Orioles 7-2 in a game they would win handily. With runners on first and second base and no outs in the sixth inning, Morneau swung through strike three from John Parrish, one of the AL's top left-handed relievers this season.

Two games earlier, Morneau had hit a home run. Two games later, he would hit another. And yet sandwiched in between this success was one at-bat, one swing in particular, that got Morneau's goat. When he retired to the video machine after the at-bat to look at the replay, the helmet had no chance.

"Emotions are part of the game," Gardenhire said. "He gets fired up. And I like that. He handles himself well. He's under control. I don't worry about him at all. Not at all.

"When he starts breaking the toilets, I'll get worried."

Porcelain certainly was in danger the first two months last season. Morneau was coming off a disappointing first full season in 2005, in which he hit just .239 with 22 home runs in 490 at-bats after hitting 19 in 280 the previous year. By the end of the Twins' series in Seattle early last June, Morneau's on-base-plus-slugging percentage had dipped to .739.

During that series, he had two conversations of consequence. In the first, his father, George, a demanding sort who had coached Morneau through his teen years in New Westminster, B.C., implored his son to focus less on his plans after the game than those during it. Sterner, and perhaps more to the point, was his chat with Gardenhire, which ended as such:

"You can be better than you are."

That hit Morneau hard. He was 24, on the precipice of greatness with his fierce swing and raw power, tugged back from it by his own frustration and immaturity. When Morneau blew up, older teammates shot him glances, told him to stop acting like a baby.

He started to listen.

"I'm still learning patience," Morneau said. "I want to go up there and get a hit every single time. So to not snap when I don't get a hit takes time.

"Seven out of 10 times, you drive yourself nuts figuring out how you got out in the first place. Either you swung at a bad pitch or the pitcher made some good pitches. But you never want to give him credit, so it's always your fault. The guy didn't just throw it 94 (mph) on the black away. You should've hit a looper over the shortstop's head."

After the series in Seattle, Morneau went on a two-month tear during which he hit .407 with 18 home runs and 61 RBIs, slugged .750 and secured his spot among MVP candidates. When the Twins vaulted to the AL Central title, it might have lifted Morneau over Derek Jeter.

And as much as Morneau would like to think such an honor hasn't transformed him, he understands otherwise. Baseball's MVP award might carry the most cachet in sports. This offseason, fans accosted Morneau at Vancouver Canucks games. He found himself backstage at an Incubus concert, meeting Pink and scoring prime tickets to Justin Timberlake's show – at the behest of his girlfriend, of course.

At the same time, the heightened profile means greater scrutiny. Like the breakdown in his contract negotiations with the Twins. As a "super two" – a player with enough service time to qualify for arbitration a year earlier than usual – Morneau's ability to file for arbitration three more times would make it prudent for the Twins to lock him into a long-term deal as they did with catcher Joe Mauer, who signed for four years at $33 million. Morneau reportedly turned down a similar deal and said he would explore an extension again next season.

"Nobody ever really wants to leave, because it's fun here," Morneau said. "The reality of it is, they just don't have the payroll to keep every guy who's going to become a free agent. They've got to pick their guys, and they've done a good job at that."

So whether that's Johan Santana, eligible for free agency after 2008, or Mauer and Morneau, both eligible in 2010, makes for an excruciating decision. Santana is baseball's best pitcher, Mauer a hometown boy who plays a premium position and Morneau the reigning MVP. Essentially, which 10-carat diamond do you like best?

If there's a flaw in Morneau's, he understands what it is. He thinks back 15 years ago to Little League when George, livid with a questionable call, let his temper get the best of him and got ejected by the umpire.

"I don't want to be the guy who gets kicked out of games," Morneau said.

More and more, Justin Morneau thinks, he's learning. Perhaps failure isn't a sin. Maybe it teaches him something.

Soon enough, Gardenhire might have to look elsewhere to add to his collection.