Justin Morneau’s Mighty Bat

I pay enough attention to baseball that I knew about the kind of season that Justin Morneau was having. I am, after all, the owner of a fairly sane Canadian patriotism and was once the custodian of a fairly sweet portside swing (and warning track power). So I’d heard that Our Man Justin was in the mix, but even The Globe and Mail’s excellent Jeff Blair wasn’t picking him to win.

When ‘Big Papi’ David Ortiz came back with another superbly (absurdly) clutch-hitting season, I figured that maybe the a DH doesn’t deserve to win MVP argument might have run its course. And even more compelling, the isn’t it about time Derek Jeter won an MVP blast carried a lot of weight with me. It seemed sure that, with the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Twinkies in the running, it wasn’t going to be the kid from hockey country (who plays his baseball in the State of Hockey, Minnesota) that the sportswriters selected.

But it was, and I’m mostly happy. Canucks have had Larry Walker winning the National League MVP award in ’97, Jason Bay as NL Rookie of the Year in ’04, the ridiculous Steve Nash topping the NBA voting for the last TWO seasons, and any number of Howes, Lafleurs, Lemieux and Gretzkys (and Joe Thornton last year) who have won the NHL’s Hart Trophy. (Lest we forget: Howe won it six times. Gretzky won NINE.) And now, Justin Morneau has become the first Canadian to win honours as the American League’s top player. Particularly because of how loyal he has been to our national baseball team, that engaging humility, and because his salary is about 5 percent of Jeter’s, it’s hard not to like Morneau’s selection.

Unless you appreciate the defensive side of the game: apparently, not only do chicks dig the long ball but sportswriters do as well. Though he plays for the Evil Empire, there’s a lot to admire about Derek Jeter, and I liked the idea of a magnificent all-around player – and someone with his leadership and class – getting recognized individually. Shoot, a mashing first baseman is next door to a DH, and the National League choice was also a long-ball, bushel-basket-glove sort of guy, Ryan Howard. Whatever happened to “strength down the centre”? When was the last time a shortstop was MVP? (I’m thinking Cal Ripken.) Or a catcher? (Johnny Bench?) Or even a centre fielder? (Hmm. Surely we don’t have to invoke Willie Mays?)* Not that I’m complaining. Congrats to Mr. Morneau. New Westminster, B.C. is the capital of Jock Canada today.

* Okay, how did I do? (And how ’bout you?) Shortstops. Yikes. There’ve been three since Ripken: Barry Larkin (1995 NL), Miguel Tejada (2002 AL) and Alex Rodriguez (2003 AL), though the last two were picked mainly on big home run numbers. Catchers. Bench in 1970 and 1972 (NL), but I’d forgotten Thurman Munson (1976 AL). Centre fielders? There have been a few since Mays. Robin Yount (who also won as a shortstop, and is therefore the greatest all-around player in history) got it in 1989 (AL), and was preceded by Fred Lynn (1975 AL) and Willie McGee (1985 NL) and followed by Ken Griffey Jr. (1997 AL), whom I thought would win several. Many other outfielders have won, but few of them were better than average defensively and some were highlight reels of ineptitude. George Bell comes to mind. (And if I don’t shut up soon, somebody will mention that Wonderful Stevie Nash ain’t exactly a defensive stopper, either!)

How do you do it, Mr. Nash?

How do you explain a kid from Victoria who doesn’t just build NBA castles in the air but also manages to “put foundations under them”, as Thoreau advised? How does a guy go from barely holding his own playing pickup ball as a freshman at the University of California-Santa Clara to being two-time Conference Player of the Year? (And, in a Sports Illustrated feature, being labelled “Little Magic” by Mr. Johnson himself.) What changes that fine college player from a three-year professional backup to an NBA All-Star? And what took Steve Nash, in his 30s, from “nice little player” to two consecutive Most Valuable Player trophies, something that Larry and Wilt, Kareem and Michael have done, but that only Magic had ever done from the point guard spot?

I just re-read Jack McCallum’s SI feature “Point Guard from Another Planet” from the January 30 edition. The best quote came from Nash’s younger brother Martin – clearly a superior athlete to Steve – who asked, “How do you explain where drive comes from? That Steve drive – who knows?” We just have to shrug our shoulders and acknowledge the ridiculous: this double-MVP coup is the greatest individual athletic achievement by any Canadian, ever. And I include Number 99, the one that Nash most resembles in his intuition, his modest physique and subtle way of dominating his sport. Nash won’t have Gretzky’s astonishing career numbers – it is likely that nobody in any sport ever will – but he is swimming circles around enormous fish in a much bigger pond than the Great One played in.

And never mind Canadian accomplishment: this is one of the most astonishing athletic trajectories we’ve ever seen. To come from a basketball backwater and join the pantheon of basketball greats, in a time when the game has a world profile second only to soccer, is incredible. To improve upon that first MVP performance the following season, with his team having endured injury to its other star and wholesale changes, is just plain silly.  Giftedness in anything is, as Martin Nash knows, a pretty mysterious thing, but his big brother is leaving behind some tremendous clues.

 Size and strength are nice, but not essential.
“Athletic ability” is not stored only in the legs.
 Good eyes. Sure hands. Balance. Imagination. These are athletic qualities, too.

 And they still don’t tell the whole story.

 How do you respond to adversity? What happens when you fail?
 Do you know how to learn? Do you have a plan that you never lose sight of?

 Steve Nash put it like this back in January: “Most guys somewhere along the line will meet an obstacle they aren’t willing to clear….They will not keep on going. I kept on going.” Simple as that, eh?

Sure it is.