Morneau aims to add to tradition of Walker, Helton
Free-agent addition takes over uniform number, position of Rockies greats
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Justin Morneau is a bit of an unknown to the Colorado Rockies fans.
Other than the final months of last season, when he was traded to Pittsburgh, Morneau has spent his career with the Minnesota Twins, in the American League. His only appearance at Coors Field was a three-game glimpse during 2008 Interleague Play.
Don't worry, though. Morneau's going to be noticed, and in a hurry.
Morneau is not merely the Rockies' most significant free-agent addition for 2014, but he will step in for Todd Helton, whose impact on the franchise is such that his No. 17 will become the first retired by the Rockies in an Aug. 17 ceremony at Coors Field.
And Morneau is going to wear No. 33, the same number as his boyhood idol, Larry Walker, who Morneau called to ask for permission to wear the number once he had finalized his deal with Colorado.
"I am not trying to replace or duplicate those guys," Morneau said of Helton and Walker. "They are two Hall of Fame-caliber players."
It is, manager Walt Weiss said, a good thing.
"It'd be tough for anybody to have to fill those shoes," Weiss said. "But we're doing it with a guy that's been [an AL] MVP and has been an elite player. … Maybe that ghost isn't overwhelming for someone like a Justin Morneau."
Walker and Helton leave a legacy with the Rockies, who were born of expansion in 1993. The two of them are first or second in nearly every offensive category in club history.
Helton was Colorado's first-round Draft choice out of the University of Tennessee in 1995, and was in the big leagues to stick by August 1997, taking over in the spring of '98 for the only other everyday first baseman in franchise history, Andres Galarraga.
Walker was a key free-agent signing in the spring of 1995, and played a key part in the Rockies' earning the National League Wild Card that year, the franchise's third year of existence. At the time, it was the quickest an expansion team had advanced to the postseason. In 10 seasons with Colorado, Walker won the only NL MVP Award (1997) in franchise history, was a four-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove Award winner and won three NL batting titles.
And while as a fellow first baseman, Morneau respects Helton, it is Walker, Morneau admits, who he grew up idolizing, and his respect for Walker is so strong that he called Walker to get permission to wear No. 33 before asking the Rockies for the number.
"I was shocked," said Walker. "It was flattering to have him call, talk about what I had meant to him and ask me if he could wear 33. That was a no-brainer. I'm very proud that another Canadian will have the opportunity."
Moreneau is the one who feels humbled.
"I know what that number means to him," said Morneau. "And I know what he meant to the Rockies."
Morneau also knows what Walker means to him. Morneau, like Walker, is from British Columbia, played on Larry Walker Field in Maple Ridge, Walker's hometown, and he admits his pursuit of baseball was fueled by Walker.
"Remember, at that time there were not as many Canadian ballplayers," Morneau said. "He was the guy we knew all about."
And Walker was a guy who played a major factor in convincing Morneau to sign with the Rockies this past winter, along with Morneau's former Minnesota teammate, Michael Cuddyer, and his former high school teammate Jeff Francis, who was Colorado's first pick in the 2002 Draft and the team's starter in Game 1 of the '07 World Series.
Morneau had several other offers, including a chance to return to Pittsburgh, which acquired him for the late-season push to the franchise's first winning record, in addition to its first postseason appearance, since 1992. The Rockies, however, stood out above all others, signing him to a two-year, $12.5 million deal that includes an option for 2016.
"It was my first time as a free agent and I did my homework in looking at my options," Morneau said. "It surprised me when Larry said the city of Denver was what attracted him to the Rockies in the first place. He said the mountains and the people reminded him of Vancouver."
"Larry said he did not know it was such a good place to hit in until he started to play in Colorado," Morneau said. "He came here the year they opened Coors Field, so it was an unknown."
Morneau has his brief exposure to the park, where he had positive results. He was 4-for-11 with a home run those three games back in 2008.
Morneau has seen the resurgence Cuddyer has enjoyed the last two years at Coors Field, including winning the NL batting title last year. He would like to find the same type of success himself.
The AL MVP Award winner in 2006 and an All-Star the next four seasons, Morneau suffered a concussion in 2010, and has hit only .256 with 40 home runs in the three years since.
"It's about me staying focused on what I have to do and getting the job done," Morneau said.
It's certainly not about going unnoticed, not when Morneau will be wearing Walker's number and playing Helton's position.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.