“Put it on,” demanded a smiling Nick Punto holding teammate Justin Morneau’s white, pinstriped jersey.
It was July 2009, I stood in the middle of the Twins, Metrodome clubhouse with the infielder goading me on. “I can’t do that,” I responded with jumbled thoughts of professional etiquette racing through my head.
“He would love it,” Punto replied, knowing full well it would have the opposite effect on Morneau.
“He never comes out here (pre-game),” I said, referring to the locker-room area of the tiny clubhouse where media access was allowed. “I haven’t seen him out here in a couple of years.”
Punto, knowing I was right and wasn’t budging, finally relented.
Late in the 2006 season, I was doing a pregame interview with Morneau in the Twins dugout. After batting practice, a few players ran by – I can’t exactly remember who, but reserve catcher Mike Redmond was likely involved – and said “Morneau, how’s your brother?”
Morneau and I are about the same height and have a similar complexion, so I asked “What’s up with this brother thing?
“It’s nothing,” he responded curtly.
In April 2007, I walked onto the Metrodome field for batting practice and headed toward the home batting plate cage. Redmond, standing over 100 feet away near the shortstop position, began yelling, “Hey Morneau, your brother’s here!”
I met Justin Morneau shortly before his major league debut on June 10, 2003. I was there on behalf of Minnesota Score for a potential magazine piece, which never materialized because the young first baseman was shipped back to the minors about a month later. Despite that, I spoke to Morneau before and after and his first three major league games, which helped establish me as a minor player in his orbit.
During his rise and tragic fall from superstardom, Morneau always made time to talk with me. During the peak, we typically did interviews near the beginning, middle and of end of each season. He was always more thoughtful that his public persona (at the time) suggested and provided me with real-time insight into his triumphs and struggles. It was an experience I will never forget.
“The brother thing” meanwhile, continued for several years. Players, coaches, clubhouse employees and even manager Ron Gardenhire blurted “Hi Morny”, when we’d cross paths. I tried to act unaffected, but it was cool to be recognized and noticed, even if it was just part of a ploy to needle the star first baseman.
Seeing the 2006 AL MVP and 4-time All Star inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame last night tapped into those priceless memories. Morneau’s eloquent, gracious and, at times, self-deprecating speech was a culmination of those flashes of depth and maturity I saw during our many interviews.
In May 2008, I approached Redmond, the master mastermind of the prank, and Punto, his always willing partner in crime and asked them for clarification on “the brother thing”.
“Look in the mirror,” Redmond said. “Look at yourself. You look just like him. You’re 6-5 – the same size, everything. So, I told him, ‘Hey Morny, that looks like your brother right there.’ At first, he was a little sensitive about it.
“He’s all right with it now,” Redmond continued. “He was a little sensitive about it, but he’s moved past it. I think it’s like anything, if you keep saying it, he’s going to (get used to it.)”
“We still want you to put his jersey on,” Punto chimed in. “I tried to get you to put his jersey on.”