On June 21, 2009, the Minnesota Twins played a relatively innocuous game with the Houston Astros (then hailing from the National League). That Sunday afternoon, the Twins fell 4-1 and continued their mediocre slog (35-36) to begin the season. Starter Glen Perkins (7 IP, 4 ER) kept us in the game, as did a home run from Michael Cuddyer, but the bats could not solve Wandy Rodriguez (7 IP, 1 ER).
Much more notable than anything that happened on the field that day, however, was who was off it: for the first time in over two years, Justin Morneau was not in the starting lineup.
Beginning on June 27 of 2007, Morneau had been part of Ron Gardenhire’s starting lineup for 319 straight ballgames. Not Cal Ripken Jr. (2,632 consecutive games), to be sure, but still very impressive in an era where baseball people were starting to recognize the importance of a day off here and there to help keep the mind and body fresh. That streak is tops all-time for the Twins franchise.
On one hand, that type of durability and willingness to play through nagging aches-and-pains is admirable (and likely part of the reason why Justin is revered by Twins fans and the organization alike). The baseball season is a long one, and there’s no way he was fully healthy at all times during his streak. I’m sure he was always “playing through something”. I can only imagine the kind of leadership that mindset must spread throughout a clubhouse.
On the other hand, however, the effects of that long streak were very evident even while it was transpiring. Down the September stretch in 2008, Morneau’s bat largely went silent. I specifically remember him really struggling against John Danks in that year’s Game 163. After his streak-busting off day on June 21 of ’09, he did play most of the games through August, but again with diminishing returns. On September 12 of that year, he was shut down for the rest of the season and playoffs with a stress fracture in his lower back.
Now, there’s obviously no direct way to prove that Morneau’s injuries or general fatigue in those seasons were a result of his playing every single day, but common sense would seem to dictate a strong relationship between the two. As sort of a general trend towards protecting players and maximizing their potential, most are now given more periodic breathers. In that sense, Ripken’s record may be as unbreakable as, say, Cy Young’s 511 career wins or Ricky Henderson’s 130 stolen bases in one season. In fact, I don’t even anticipate a Twins player in the foreseeable future topping Morneau’s 319 streak.
Looking back, it is astounding how quickly things changed for Justin following that ‘09 injury. Michael Cuddyer took over at first base for the rest of the season, Morneau would never really play an entire healthy season in a Twins uniform ever again, and eventually his pal (and then iconic catcher) Joe Mauer would replace him at the first sack. Crazier still, Morneau & Cuddyer would both go on to have late-career resurgences with the Rockies, winning NL batting titles in back-to-back seasons in Colorado (‘13 & ‘14)!
For a time in the late 2000s, however, Justin Morneau was THE given, day-in and day-out, at the ballpark for the Minnesota Twins.