Nick Punto looks ahead, behind
Thrilled to be with Red Sox, he still has thoughts for Justin Morneau, Twins
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- No one had to drop off a visitors' guide to Fort Myers in Nick Punto's locker here. As a member of the Minnesota Twins, who like the Boston Red Sox train here, he spent seven springs in the Fort.
Now he's back here with the Sox, although there is one old friend he is eager to see.
"I've been playing phone tag with [Justin] Morneau," Punto said Monday morning. "We're supposed to have dinner, but he's not answering my phone calls."
Ordinarily, Punto might think nothing of it. His buddy, the Twins' first baseman and former MVP, is busy.
But Punto suspects there may be more at play here. Morneau has played a total of just 150 games in the past two seasons because of multiple concussions, and when he reported to camp on Friday, he sounded like a man who was wearying of the struggle to get back on the field.
"There comes a point you can only torture yourself so long," Morneau told reporters last Friday. "I don't think there will be a career if it's something I'm dealing with. That's the reality of the whole thing. I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem."
Therein lies, Punto suspects, the reason for the unreturned phone calls.
"That's not good," he said. "He doesn't want to deal with it."
And Punto is concerned.
"Justin is a really good friend, a really good husband, a good father," he said. "It's a really scary thing. Baseball's a game, a game that we love and play and get paid a lot of money to do, but in the end he's a young man with a lot of life to live. I just hope he gets healthy and if he can play baseball, great. If he can't, as long as he's healthy, I'll be happy."
Punto was still with the Twins when Morneau first was hurt, or hurt badly enough that the symptoms had such a drastic effect on his performance that they could no longer be ignored. Punto also was a teammate of third baseman Cory Koskie, whose career was cut short by concussions.
Concussions have become a front-burner issue in the National Football League, and MLB's awareness has now been raised too, with new provisions allowing for a player to be placed on the disabled list for seven days instead of the standard 15 in the event of a concussion. That is designed to discourage players from trying to play through it, or teams pushing a player to do so.
"We've seen [Orioles second baseman] Brian Roberts going through it," said Punto, who has never had a concussion. "It's a scary thing. It's just something we don't know a lot about.
"You know, in this game surgery is such a light thing. 'Oh, you blew out your knee? ACL, you'll be back in nine months.' That would be a major surgery for a normal person, right? But you've only got one brain, you know? You can fix an arm, an ankle, a knee."
In Morneau's case, Punto says, there's no telling how far back his history of concussions extends.
"He's an old hockey player, a goalie," Punto said. "How many times did he take a shot off the head and didn't think anything of it, said I got a headache for a couple of days. You know what? Those were mild concussions, and every time you get one it gets worse and worse."
Morneau was one of the best players on a Twins team that often gets overlooked but should be regarded as one of the best teams of the century's first decade. Operating under the same kind of constraints that made the Oakland Athletics fodder for "Moneyball," but with a much better track record, the Twins perennially overachieved.
"Being with the Twins, you really do have to be a team," Punto said. "The media just always picked Chicago, picked Detroit. We never really were a favorite. We definitely played with a chip on our shoulder, but it was a humble chip.
"We never let people know we thought we were that good, but we knew we were. We just always thought we were supposed to win even though people didn't think we would win. That carried us a long way. We were fundamentally sound. We knew we had to do everything right."
This was a team that didn't have a true slugger after Kent Hrbek retired, until Morneau arrived. He and Torii Hunter and Joe Mauer and Michael Cuddyer were the stars on the team, but never the prima donnas.
"I always say you're as good as your big boys," Punto said. "The attitude that you're going to carry through the year is the attitude the big boys carry, and they just played the game hard, right and respected it."
At 5-foot-9, Punto was not one of the big boys, but do not overlook his value to the Twins. They certainly didn't, reluctantly parting ways with him when the constraints of their budget would not allow them to pay him what his performance and service time dictated they should.
"I always said Punto was the best third baseman the Twins had, the best second baseman they had, and the best shortstop they had," said columnist Patrick Reusse of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Punto wound up signing with the St. Louis Cardinals, and three days into camp sustained a sports hernia, the same injury that felled Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis. He also had a sore elbow that threatened to shut him down for the season, but he played through it and was rewarded with his first World Series title, the Cardinals defeating the Texas Rangers in seven games, Punto appearing in six of those games.
After the season, he signed a two-year, $3 million deal with the Sox. "I signed to be the backup infielder," he said, "and then there were moves."
The biggest of those moves was the trade of everyday shortstop Marco Scutaro to the Colorado Rockies, leaving the position open. Mike Aviles and Punto have been targeted as candidates, with rookie Jose Iglesias the long shot. At 34, Punto hardly figures to be the everyday shortstop, but could well share the position with Aviles.
"I might still be the backup infielder," he said, "but there's going to be an opportunity out there, and there's going to be some playing time."
If the Twins had a nemesis in recent years, it was the New York Yankees. Since 2003, the Yankees have knocked the Twins out of the playoffs in the first round four times; Punto was on the Twins for three of those occasions.
"We'd finish really well, then had to play the Yankees and it didn't work out," Punto said. "Ever. It's nice to be on this side. I enjoy playing against the Yankees. This is a dream come true, wearing this uniform, going into a hostile environment in New York, and having them come in to Fenway, enjoying the energy the fans give us.
"My goal is to win a world championship, regardless of where I play. I hope all the guys stay healthy and win again. That's why I'm here. I got a taste of it last year and I want to do it again."
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.