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Healthy Morneau excited to carry torch

Healthy Morneau excited to carry torch

MINNEAPOLIS -- Twins first baseman Justin Morneau admits that he's been privileged to take part in many memorable life experiences since arriving in the Major Leagues a little over six years ago.

The diehard hockey fan was able to hoist the Stanley Cup after the Anaheim Ducks won it in 2007, he attended a game of the Stanley Cup Finals in three of the last four years and he's made the "Let's Play Hockey" call a few times for the Minnesota Wild, among other things.

But one of the most memorable experiences for Morneau may be right around the corner. The Canadian learned last week that he will carry the Olympic torch through the streets of Vancouver, which is not far from his hometown of New Westminster, British Columbia, on the day before the Opening Ceremonies.

"It will be right near the top," Morneau said when asked where this will rank among his list of experiences. "That's pretty cool. It's something that's once in a lifetime. Maybe I'll stick around to watch Canada beat Norway [in hockey] and then get ready for Spring Training."

Running with the torch is something that Morneau couldn't have done just a few months ago due to the back injury that caused his 2009 season to come to an early end in mid-September.

But the injury is no longer a concern for Morneau, who was in the Twin Cities this weekend for the club's annual TwinsFest. A CT scan of Morneau's back on Friday showed that the stress fracture in his L5 vertebra had completely healed, allowing team doctors to give Morneau clearance to start swinging a bat again.

The first baseman plans to ease into hitting again. He'll take dry swings off a tee next week to see how his back reacts. Morneau's plan is then to start hitting some baseballs the following week before he heads off to Vancouver.

Morneau has typically started swinging earlier in the offseason but the back injury, which the first baseman said was likely caused by overuse, has taught him that perhaps less is more when it comes to prepping for the season.

"I'm going to show up to Spring Training later," Morneau said. "Just finally let myself relax and realize that Spring Training doesn't matter. It's just about getting ready for the season. It doesn't matter how many hits you get in Spring Training."

Morneau is planning to take fewer swings each day during the spring. Still the player who has been known for being one of the first players to arrive every day at the club's training complex in Fort Myers, Fla., and one of the last to leave admits that the change won't exactly come easy.

"It's one of those things where you eventually have to back off a bit," he said. "At the same time, I wouldn't be where I am if I didn't work as hard as I do. It's that fine line of doing too much and not doing enough."

One person that Morneau will likely turn to for advice on that topic is his new teammate, Jim Thome. Morneau said he received a phone call from Thome last fall when he went down with the back injury. It turns out that Thome, who at the time was playing for the Dodgers, had the exact same injury earlier in his career.

"He wanted to see how I was doing, let me know that he had the same thing and ask me if I needed any help, if I needed him to set me up with the doctor that he saw," Morneau said. "That's the kind of guy he is. That was before he was on our team. He's a special, special individual."

Morneau, 28, plans to learn as much as he can from Thome, who is known for having an extensive workout and training regimen that begins nearly six hours before game time.

"As much as he can stand me, I'll be right there beside him," Morneau said. "He has a program that he does with a lot of core work and a lot of back strengthening stuff. It takes him awhile to get ready but I'm not afraid of hard work. He's playing until he's 40. I think everybody in here hopes they'll be able to do that. I'm too young not to want to be able to play as long as I can. If I can learn something from him, then that will be a plus."

While Morneau is already doing more core work and back strengthening exercises this winter to prevent a similar injury from occurring again, he'll also have the advantage of no longer having to play 81 games of the season on turf now that the club has moved outdoors to Target Field. Morneau doesn't believe the Metrodome turf caused his injury, but he said that playing on it consistently did take a toll on his body overall.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire also plans to be a little more cautious with how he uses Morneau and catcher Joe Mauer in 2010, both at Spring Training and in the regular season. The two players have each battled back injuries over the past year and while their desire is always to be in the lineup, Gardenhire said that the players might listen to him more when he suggests that a day off is needed.

"I've learned a little bit from it," Gardenhire said of Morneau's back injury. "I think he has too. We'll have to take care of ourselves a little better."

Morneau said that the best thing for him might to be to take the occasional day off in April, May or June, even if it won't always be an easy thing to do.

"It's hard because that's when you feel good and those are the days when you feel like you don't need a day off," Morneau said. "But when you take days off early, hopefully it will help you late."

One thing is for certain, Morneau doesn't ever want to go through the experience he had last year when he was forced to sit on the bench and watch over the final three weeks as his teammates rallied to catch Detroit and defeat them in Game 163 for the American League Central title.

"Not being able to run out there with the guys when they were doing so well is one of the hardest things I'll ever do," Morneau said. "It made me realize how much I enjoy playing the game."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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