Morneau welcomed back with open arms

Morneau welcomed back with open arms

Morneau welcomed back with open arms
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Justin Morneau walked out to the plate at Hammond Stadium for his first official at-bat of the spring on Friday, he was greeted with a huge roar from the sold-out crowd.

A little over eight months after the Twins first baseman suffered a concussion that ended his 2010 season, the crowd of 8,214 was eager to welcome him back, and many rose to their feet to applaud the return of the 2006 American League MVP.

"It felt great," Morneau said of the ovation. "Until you go through something like this, it's hard to understand, but you know, it's nice. I don't know if the fans appreciate me back out there or whatever it is, but it's a good feeling they're behind me and they're happy I'm out there and just as happy as I am that I'm out there."

In what has been a long recovery process for Morneau from the post-concussion symptoms that plagued him after the injury, Friday provided yet another positive step. After playing four innings of a "B" game against the Pirates on one of the back fields on Tuesday, Morneau made his first appearance in front of a big crowd, and he admitted there were a few butterflies, although most of those disappeared as soon as the game started.

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"When I got hurt, I didn't think I was going be out that long, going to be hurt that bad," Morneau said. "It was a while, but hopefully this is the first big step towards Opening Day or towards being in the lineup in the regular season."

In his first official spring game, Morneau got the opportunity to face Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester twice while playing four innings in the field. He went 0-for-2, striking out looking in the first inning and then reaching on a fielding error by left fielder Carl Crawford in the fourth inning.

Morneau acknowledged after the contest that his timing still needs some work, but he was happy to have the opportunity to face Lester -- whom he considers one of the best left-handed pitchers in the game.

"I actually prefer to see as many lefties as I can, to tell you the truth, to get comfortable," Morneau said. "The more at-bats you can get off a guy like that, the more you can learn."

Morneau battled Lester to a 3-2 count in his second at-bat before lifting a pitch into left field that Crawford misplayed. Morneau was replaced by a pinch-runner after reaching base, but like in the "B" game when he played four innings as well, he seemed happy just to get the chance to get back on the field.

"Obviously, the timing's a little off at the plate," he said. "I got to see a lot of pitches, made some plays at first. It felt like the first spring game pretty much."

Morneau said he will have Saturday off, play again on Sunday and then take another day off on Monday as the team continues to ease him into playing again. The Twins then have a scheduled off day on Tuesday. Morneau said that he hopes to play more frequently following the off-day, but he's trying not to focus too much on what's to come.

"For me to look more than a few days ahead, it's something we try not to do too much," Morneau said. "But we played four innings today, maybe four or five next time, and as it goes, we'll go through our regular progression. ... Hopefully by the end of it, we're playing seven, eight, nine innings and be ready to go by the time the season starts."

Morneau feels that his reactions and his instincts on the field have returned. He got a glimpse of that during Tuesday's "B" game, when he managed to avoid getting hit in the face on a throw that bounced in the dirt. And with each step in this recovery, he's slowly getting more and more comfortable with how he's feeling.

The difference in Morneau over the past few days since he started playing in games again has been easy to see. He's been a little more jovial, joking around with teammates more frequently inside the clubhouse, and it's been hard to hide the smile on his face. He acknowledged this recovery process was difficult at times, saying it feels "like you're on the outside looking in" with your team during a long stint on the disabled list.

Morneau's manager and his teammates seem just as happy to have him back out there with them.

"He's missed a lot of baseball, and no one can tell you more than him how hard that is," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's fun to see him back out on the baseball field. He's a great player. We all know that. He's worked very hard and gone through an awful lot to get back on the field. I think he'll appreciate the game a lot more now having gone through this. Not that he didn't before, but when you miss time like that, it shows you how much you really, really missed the game."

Morneau and the rest of the Twins have certainly learned a lot about concussions through this process. And while the first baseman is still focused on his own recovery and getting back to his Major League career, he hopes that his situation can have a positive impact on how concussions are handled in sports.

"I believe everything happens for a reason," he said. "Maybe I'm one of the athletes that can stand up and be heard in the future. Right now I'm not quite past all of that yet, so I am just sort of worried about day-to-day stuff.

"Hopefully kids see this, that [you can] miss a significant amount of time and life goes on. There are things more important than sports. Obviously, I love the game, I love to play, but you want to function as a 40-year-old, 50-year-old, 60-year-old man. You want to do that, you want to play with your kids. Hopefully kids see that you don't have to rush back, or when they have problems not be afraid to tell someone, that they're not afraid to feel like they're not tough and all the rest of the things that go along with it.

"You can play with a sore knee with toughness, but your toughness is questioned when it's a head injury because you can't see it. Maybe kids will see [Morneau] went through it and he got better and now I can do the same thing and not be afraid."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Kelly's Corner and follow her on Twitter at kellythesier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.