DENVER (AP) – Justin Morneau laces up his cleats right next to the locker once belonging to Todd Helton, the first baseman whose shoes he’s now trying to fill.
Merely a coincidence, though. The Colorado Rockies slugger selected that space in the clubhouse only because good friend Michael Cuddyer resides on the other side.
Morneau insists he’s not trying to replace the retired Helton, only “do the things I’m capable of doing.”
He’s certainly off to a solid start, hitting .387 and scooping up just about everything thrown in his vicinity at first – just like Helton used to do.
“Justin’s not trying to be Todd Helton,” said Cuddyer, who was Morneau’s longtime teammate in Minnesota. “Justin’s a relentless worker and continues to get better, to make our team better. He’s not coming in here and worrying about filling Todd Helton’s shoes, because nobody can do that. Helton’s an icon.”
Certainly was, trotting out to first base for 17 seasons. But No. 17 went out on his own terms, leaving after last season as the franchise’s all-time leader in virtually every offensive category.
Morneau just happens to be next in line.
And while maybe a younger player might struggle under the lingering shadow of Helton, Morneau doesn’t give it a second thought.
“I’ve been around long enough to know, when you start trying to do too much or start trying to be somebody else or do more than you’re capable of, that’s really when you get yourself in trouble,” said Morneau, whose team opens a three-game series in San Francisco on Friday. “I just try to keep it simple. I know what kind of player I am.”
It certainly hasn’t taken Morneau long to feel right at home with his new teammates or at hitter friendly Coors Field, where he’s 7 for 18 with two doubles in five games.
“This is a good place to be,” said Morneau, who turns 33 next month. “I’m getting a lot more comfortable, kind of getting to know everyone’s sense of humor – who you can have some fun with, who you can mess with.”
Cuddyer knew Morneau would be an instant fit, which is why he vigorously campaigned to bring him to town in the offseason.
The only potential red flag with Morneau was his health. The left-handed hitting Morneau was sidelined with concussions in both 2010 and 2011, along with a DL stint in 2012 for a sore right wrist. But he played in 127 games last season with Minnesota and 25 more with Pittsburgh after he was traded by the Twins on Aug. 31.
“That’s more games than anybody in this clubhouse,” said Cuddyer, who has a hit in all 10 contests this season. “Obviously, with his health over the last couple of years, people were wondering about his performance on the field. But that was one thing I was definitely not worried about. I’m looking forward to him getting back to being extremely productive.”
After all, Morneau is a former American League MVP and four-time All-Star.
Asked if he’s feeling more and more like his old self, Morneau grinned and said: “I feel like myself today.
“As far as health, I feel good running out there every day. You want it to stay that way all the way through September and October. Right now, feels good.”
There was no question Morneau would produce at the plate. His glove was another consideration.
Sure, he’s always been a top-notch fielder, his .996 career fielding percentage the second-highest among active first basemen. But he was stepping in for Helton, who was one of the best in the business.
Granted, Morneau has made two fielding errors, but he’s impressed his infielders with his ability to dig throws out of the dirt.
“I feel very comfortable with him,” said Nolan Arenado, who won a Gold Glove last season. “He’s a big target, which is nice.”
Then again, Cuddyer always felt Morneau’s glove work was somewhat undervalued.
“It’s hard to say he was underrated when he was an MVP and a four-time All-Star, but his defense was for sure underrated,” Cuddyer said. “He’s just a good baseball guy.”
– By Pat Graham, AP Sports Writer
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