Justin Morneau enjoying his time after being short-changed


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Justin Morneau is a four-time All-Star, was the American League's most valuable player in 2006 and has made more than $83 million as a big leaguer. He's probably the last player who would say baseball owes him anything. If he did, you would laugh at him or feel sorry for him.

But the game has cheated Morneau, much the way hockey has cheated Penguins star Sidney Crosby. It has taken away a significant chunk of his prime. Morneau's Minnesota Twins won the American League Central Division title in 2009. He didn't play after Sept. 12 because of a cracked bone in his back. The Twins won the division again in 2010. Morneau didn't play after July 7 because of concussion-like symptoms that tortured him day after day, week after week, month after month, an agony the great Crosby certainly understands.

You think Morneau is looking forward to the final 19 games of this fascinating Pirates season and to a little October baseball with them?

You have no idea.

"That's why we all play the game, to play in games like this," Morneau said over the weekend in St. Louis, where the Pirates were swept by the Cardinals and he went 0 for 10.

The results at Busch Stadium weren't pleasing, but Morneau didn't complain. There was a time not long ago -- spring 2012 -- when he thought his career might be finished at 30 because of those blasted concussions. The one in the summer of 2010, when he took a knee to the head from Toronto second baseman John McDonald on a slide into second, was the worst. But there were a couple in his days as a schoolboy hockey and basketball star in British Columbia, Canada. There was another early in the 2005 season when he was beaned by Seattle's Ron Villone and missed 10 games. There was still another in August 2011, when he dived for a ball in a game against Detroit, landed awkwardly and felt his head jerk back. That play ended his season and prompted the talk of premature retirement the next spring if the concussion symptoms came back.

Fortunately for Morneau, they did not.

Fortunately for the Pirates, too.

That 0 for 10 aside, the team is counting on Morneau to provide much-needed offense down the stretch.

"It's not a sore hamstring or a sore elbow," Morneau said of his concussions. "You look fine, but you're not. Until you go through it, there's no way of knowing what it's like. There's no way of telling how you're going to react. Some guys come right back. But other guys ... "

Morneau is a huge hockey fan so he's aware of how a concussion and a neck injury forced Crosby to miss half the 2010-11 NHL season and most of 2011-12. Like Crosby, he never imagined he would miss so much time. But the symptoms lingered, to the point Morneau probably screamed in the privacy of his home.

"Headaches. Fogginess. You feel like you're slowing down and everything else is speeding up. Your brain can't keep up," Morneau said.

"Imagine driving a car 65 mph. You look out the windshield and everything is fine. But then you look out the side windows and everything is a blur. It seems like it's going so fast and your brain can't focus."

In Pittsburgh, Crosby often was called soft on the radio talk shows and on Twitter for not coming back sooner. No one knows better than Morneau just how ridiculous that was.

"We won 94 games [in 2010] and I felt like I was having the best year of my career," he said. "I certainly didn't lack for motivation to come back. I tried many times. One day, I would feel good. The next day, I would do the same amount of exercise and I would feel lousy. You never know if you're helping yourself or setting yourself back. All you can do is take one step at a time."

Morneau hasn't been the same player since that 2010 concussion. He especially has struggled against left-handed pitching. But he's still an upgrade at first base for the Pirates over Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez. He hit nine home runs for the Twins in August. He hasn't hit one in eight games with the Pirates after the win Monday night in Texas.

Morneau knows another concussion might end his career. It could be from an errant throw to first base that pulls him into a runner. It could be another slide into second. Heck, it could be another beaning. Morneau nearly was hit in the head Wednesday night when Milwaukee's Wily Peralta came in high and hard.

"I know what they say about multiple concussions putting someone at greater risk," Morneau said. "But we're all at risk out there. I try not to think about it ...

"I probably do appreciate every day a little more now. I've always known I'm really fortunate to be a big league player. But I don't look so far down the road. I'm just enjoying every day."

That's why Morneau isn't so concerned about what's going to happen in the offseason when he's a free agent. He's in the final year of a six-year, $80 million contract. There's too much meaningful baseball left to be played this season.

Morneau is going to enjoy every second, no matter if the Pirates get just one wild-card game or win the World Series.

You might say he has it coming even if he won't.

pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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