Young Twins first baseman unfazed by acclaim that goes with MVP award

The Baltimore Sun

FORT MYERS, FLA.-- --With all the things he had to do this winter, the countless interviews, appearances and rubber-chicken banquets, Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said there was only one awkward moment. Nothing was stranger than boasting to a rolling TV camera and several young baseball stars, "I'm the MVP."

He had little choice. It's tough to say no to Spike Lee.

"I didn't want it to come across too cocky so the first couple takes I didn't even say the lines," Morneau said. "I kind of went along with it and they convinced me to say, 'I'm the MVP.' It was tough for me to do that."

A little background: Morneau, a soft-spoken, 25-year-old Canadian, had a stellar second half last season to lead the Twins to the American League Central crown, which ultimately earned him American League Most Valuable Player honors over more acclaimed players such as the New York Yankees' Derek Jeter and the Boston Red Sox's David Ortiz.

Then, this offseason, Morneau was selected by the New Era sports apparel company to appear in a TV commercial directed by Lee that also starred, among others, AL Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander and World Series MVP David Eckstein.

The premise was that the group of players was eagerly camping outside a store to buy the soon-to-be released, MLB-approved New Era baseball cap, but Morneau had a cardboard cutout hold his place in the front next to the entrance. When he tried to cut in line, the rest of the players objected and Morneau delivered this scripted cinematic gem: "It's OK, I'm the MVP. I get to go in first."

Talk about acting out of character. "I don't know," Morneau said of his apprehension with the all-in-fun TV spot. "I didn't want to come across as somebody that was arrogant."

This is Exhibit A why Twins general manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire aren't worried that his 2006 success will inflate their first baseman's head.

"He has handled it with a lot of graciousness," Ryan said. "He is flattered that he's got the attention from the MVP. He has the maturity, and it's nice to see."

How grounded is Morneau? He was visiting his girlfriend's family in Minnesota when he was informed that his MVP award would be announced later that day. So he called his house in Vancouver where he had been living in the offseason with good buddy, fellow Canadian and current Orioles farmhand Adam Stern. Morneau told Stern to tape the TV newscasts that day, but never told him why.

Stern spent the next couple hours figuring out Morneau's TiVo recording system and his multiple TVs, not truly realizing the importance of his assignment.

"He just thought I wanted something taped," Morneau said, chuckling. "So he went and taped it and he figured it out later. And then he called me an idiot."

Said Stern: "He called me at like 8 in the morning and said, 'Dude, please tape the newscasts.' And he wouldn't tell us anything else. I mean, you call me at 8 a.m., what do you want? I told him, 'I'll tape it when you are the MVP.' But he had already known he had gotten it."

Because of the extra commitments that go along with the award, Stern said he teases Morneau that he has become "a little too showtime for us."

In reality, he has been the opposite, Stern said.

"You become like a name now and you become a bigger target and now you are the guy in the lineup people are gunning for. But I think he can handle pressure well," Stern said.

If anything, Morneau worked harder this offseason, according to Orioles pitcher Adam Loewen, who, like Stern, trains with Morneau.

"He's not the kind of guy that's going to sit on [the MVP] and not work," Loewen said. "He still likes to work at it and I know it took a lot of hard work for him to get there and he's going to continue to do that."

Morneau said he can't afford to lighten up on the field. He knows firsthand how fleeting success can be. He was a third-round pick in 1999 and rocketed through the Twins' system, debuting with Minnesota a month after his 22nd birthday. The next season, 2004, he hit a combined 41 homers at Triple-A and the majors -- and looked like the American League's next great power hitter.

But 2005 was a major disappointment. He hit just .239 with 22 homers, and his confidence was shaken. Last year didn't start much better. Through May 27, he was batting .233 with nine homers and 34 RBIs. From then on, Morneau -- and, consequently, the Twins -- took off. In his final 433 at-bats, he hit .353 with 25 homers and 96 RBIs. The contrast taught him volumes about himself and the sport.

"I learned how to deal with things when I struggle, not to be too hard on myself. And try to keep my confidence up," he said. "But, at the same time, you don't want to get too high, because this game is funny. It doesn't care who you are. It can turn around just like that."

He's not making any predictions for the 2007 season, which begins for the Twins tonight against the Orioles at the Metrodome. He said his main focus is getting his team back to the playoffs. That's the prevailing mind-set in Minnesota's clubhouse, which includes reigning Cy Young award winner Johan Santana, batting champion Joe Mauer and Gold Glove winner Torii Hunter.

"It doesn't matter what kind of things you have done in the past, what awards you have won. We are all the same," Santana said.

So Morneau's an MVP and he gets no special treatment at the park or at home in Vancouver, where baseball pales to hockey. He occasionally was recognized at NHL games this winter, but practically nowhere else.

"It's nice," Morneau said. "I like it that way."

Of course, he does. He's a laid-back guy from British Columbia who happens to hit a baseball a long way. He's the anonymous MVP who hasn't changed his lifestyle.

"The winter, he spent it up in Canada and who's going to find him up there?" Gardenhire said. "So there was nothing to worry about other than him getting buried by snow."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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