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Morneau prepared for ‘weird’ return

Photo by Chris Humphreys / USA TODAY Colorado Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau hits a home run against the Atlanta Braves on June 12 at Coors Field in Denver.

DENVER — Consider this weekend a trial run for the wave of emotions Justin Morneau will experience Monday night at Target Field.

As the fifth and final National League entrant in the Home Run Derby, Morneau is eagerly looking forward to seeing so many old friends and familiar faces upon returning to the Twin Cities in a baseball uniform for the first time since being traded to Pittsburgh 10 1/2 months ago.

First, however, the Colorado Rockies first baseman must get through this three-game weekend set against the Twins, the team he represented at four all-star games during his first 11 big-league seasons.

“I think it’s going to be weird going out there and looking across and seeing all those guys,” Morneau said. “In the end it’s all about winning games and trying to go out there, whoever we play, and beat them. But to say it isn’t going to be different or weird or however you want to put it, that wouldn’t be true.”

Not after all he experienced in his decade and a half in the organization.

“You spend so much time in one place,” he said, “facing them for the first time will definitely be something I have to get used to.”

Going along with the Vote Morneau campaign felt strange as well for the 33-year-old slugger, who lost out to Anthony Rizzo of the Chicago Cubs in the Final Vote for the 34th NL all-star spot.

There was a concerted social media campaign, and the #VoteMorneau movement almost overshadowed the games themselves last week for the Rockies, who have faded to fourth place after a solid start.

“It was one of those weird things you hope you never have to be part of because you’re having to talk about yourself and campaign for yourself,” Morneau said. “Anyone that knows me knows that’s not something I enjoy doing.”

The former AL Most Valuable Player did, however, take a glance at the vote distribution map that was updated daily on Iowa, home of the Cubs’ Triple-A club, backed Rizzo, and Morneau surprisingly failed to stage a clean sweep of his native Canada.

“Got a lot of support in Minnesota and Colorado,” he said with a smile. “It was good. It was fun to see everybody joining in from different teams and different states and different countries. It was a neat experience.”

Initially, he was reluctant to return if he wasn’t a member of the all-star team. However, the overwhelming support he received from fans of both his current and former teams, not to mention from his many friends in the hockey and entertainment worlds, forced him to reconsider.

Rockies teammate Troy Tulowitzki, the NL captain for the Home Run Derby, didn’t have to do much arm-twisting to convince Morneau to sign up for an event he won in 2008 at Yankee Stadium.

“For him to ask me was a big honor, but it’s something I wanted to do,” Morneau said. “I wasn’t sure whether or not it was something I’d want to do, but with all the support and how good everyone was during the vote and all that kind of stuff, it’s one of those things I want to do and I should do.”

Tulowitzki and fellow Rockies teammate Michael Cuddyer, who teamed with Morneau on the Twins from 2003 through 2011, helped convince him it wouldn’t be awkward to return without being a full-fledged all-star.

“I think it’s kind of bittersweet for him,” Tulowitzki said. “I’m sure the fans in Minnesota are going to be real happy to see him. It will be good for the game. I think he’s pretty excited about it. He’s been great this year for us, and he deserves something like this. He’s been the face of the franchise there.”

Morneau, who isn’t sure if he will stay for the All-Star Game on Tuesday, admitted he probably wouldn’t even have watched the game on television if he had declined the Home Run Derby invitation.

Having rediscovered his power stroke this season with 13 home runs and his highest combined on-base/slugging percentage (.855) since concussions derailed his career in 2010, Morneau isn’t just talking about participating in the derby but winning it.

He plans to have Rockies bullpen catcher Pat Burgess throw to him as well as Tulowitzki. Former Twins teammate Brian Dozier will join Morneau in the 10-man field, and that could provide an interesting juxtaposition should they square off in the final.

How is Morneau steeling himself to handle the reception he figures to receive from an appreciative crowd?

“I think I’ll just have to wait and see how that is,” he said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I think we’ll get introduced first. Maybe that will help a little bit. I’ll have some time to sit around, get in the flow of it, maybe hope I get to hit in one of the first few turns and that might help me kind of settle in a little bit.”

Still, it clearly won’t be easy.

“Obviously there’s going to be nerves and there’s going to be excitement and all the rest of it,” he said.

He and wife Krista still have deep roots in the Twin Cities, where The Justin Morneau Foundation has raised more than $1 million to fight juvenile arthritis. Their two children, Marty and Evelyn, are still very young, but Morneau said that was another factor in his decision.

“That’s one of the reasons why I’m going to the derby,” he said. “Hopefully the kids will remember a little bit of seeing me out there and they’ll get to enjoy it. That’s one of the main reasons. It’s all for fun. May as well have fun.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.