LOS ANGELES – Justin Morneau is 33 years old and, as he described the other day, "Closer to my prime than I am farther away from it," which seemed a reasonable and vague enough place for himself. As they relate to his particular baseball career, notions of time and age and tomorrow and routine once ran off together in a puff of dirt behind second base, leaving him, well, he didn't exactly know. Still doesn't, maybe. He's working on that.
But, and this is important, he's standing in the middle of a lineup for the Colorado Rockies, had another hit – a double off lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu – on Monday night, is batting .301, has 11 home runs, 17 doubles and 44 RBI, and has every reason to feel capable and useful again. He's hit .500 in the past six games and the Rockies have won five of them, a stretch that has temporarily saved their first half from apparent ruin. Time was, Morneau would be a Minnesota Twin forever, except time isn't as trustworthy as it once was, so he's here, and not so eager to be the player he once was but to be every bit the player he can be today.
"I was never satisfied by just playing," he said. "I want to do well. I want to contribute. Sometimes the expectations that are hardest to live up to are your own."
Sometimes they are impossible to reach until the moment they aren't. That can take time. And time can be unreliable like that.
He's easy to like. In the room that passes for the visitor's clubhouse at Dodger Stadium and is in reality about as long and wide as the inside of a school bus, the television overhead is turned to soccer, and the volume is up, and sometimes Morneau's mouth is moving but the sound is muffled and the words fall into themselves. If it were his nature to speak above a soft, slightly Canadian hum, few would know. Yet, Morneau carries heft in a place once dominated by Todd Helton, a different character altogether, for more than a decade. That heft comes from who he is, the player he was, and the player he aims to be every day, and the way he attacks every day. The way he can again now that his body is willing and the scans are clean. It is good, he said, to feel good again, and everything starts there.
"He's been everything we hoped for," Rockies manager Walt Weiss said, "and a lot more."
Last year was OK, because he played in 127 games with the Twins, then 31, including the postseason, with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He wasn't exactly the Morneau who hit with the best in the game, that being before the concussions and the post-concussion worries, and he still wears a helmet for batting practice. But he had those nine home runs in August, and he logged the games, and he was a free agent, and his old friend Michael Cuddyer put in a word with management, and there is no better place to retrieve a career in the batter's box than the batter's box at Coors Field.
"It's been kind of refreshing," Morneau said. "I wasn't sure what was going to happen after being in one place for so long."
Nearly four years have passed since his head collided with John McDonald's knee in Toronto, leaving him dazed and sprawled and clinging to the batting gloves wadded in his hands, McDonald tending to him before anyone else arrived. He'd only wanted to get back to work, to find his stroke, to remember and repeat, he said, "What my swing's supposed to feel like."
Of his 232 career home runs, Morneau carries all but seven or eight on his iPad, and that's where he goes when he's searching for the hitter inside him, the guy who was an MVP and was on his way to another when the concussions came. That guy raked lefties. That guy hit 30 or more home runs and drove in more than 100 runs and hit .300 and never struck out 100 times. For a couple of seasons, he'd been physically unable to stack the at-bats upon at-bats necessary to draw it out, and now, perhaps, he's closing in on it again. Now, without fear, he can work when he wants, as hard as he wants. He can get better. Without fear.
"When I came out the other side," he said, "I realized I can feel good again."
So he plays again and hits again, and tries to be exactly who he can be. This time, it seems, he has a chance. This time is his. Again.
"There's no reason to believe there's not a few good years left," he said.
Give him the years, anyway, and let the game decide what's good and what's not. Let him decide, too. He's earned that.