Opening day of the baseball season is always a special occasion.
But for Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau of New Westminster, B.C., this one could be considered just that much more significant.
He appears to be on schedule to be with the Twins for opening day against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre on Friday after his 2010 season was ended by a concussion. Morneau had taken an accidental knee to the head while breaking up a double play at the same ballpark July 7.
A new set of protocols in dealing with concussions — including a seven-day disabled list — also goes into effect in major-league baseball on opening day.
"It gives us time," Morneau said Wednesday at Turner Field before the Twins exhibition game against the Atlanta Braves. "We don't have to rush to make decisions. It also makes anyone feel they don't have to rush to get back."
He's encouraged by the way the Blue Jays have handled Corey Patterson's recovery. The outfielder was put on the disabled list after he was hit on the helmet by a pitch last Friday in a game against the Boston Red Sox even though he has had no symptoms of a concussion.
"I'm glad we're finally getting to that point where it's err on the safe side rather than err on the side of let's see how it goes and if something happens, something happens," he said. "It is getting better."
Morneau's own situation also is getting better. He started the Twins game Wednesday, his sixth consecutive spring training appearance. He had been playing alternate games when he first came back nearly three weeks ago.
"It is a fluid situation, it will be continually monitored by the doctors and the trainers," he said. "As long as things keep going well, we're going to keep doing what we're doing. We're not going to make any official declaration of clearance or anything like that."
So far, he says, there is no reason to think things won't continue to progress well for him now that he's finally shaken the symptoms, including a feeling of fogginess.
"I think we're going to be hopefully pretty much on a regular schedule once it starts," he said.
The 2006 American League MVP was having an excellent 2010 season before the concussion. Morneau was batting .345 with 18 homers, 56 runs batted in and an on-base percentage of .437.
After playing in spring training games, both major- and minor-league, he admitted to feeling excitement playing at Turner Field on Tuesday for the first of two games against the Braves.
"I was pretty excited to run out in a big-league ballpark and be a part of the team," he said. "Obviously any time you're on an opening day roster it's exciting. I'm sure it will mean a little bit more. There might be a little bit more emotion that goes into it."
He always feels more excitement when he plays in Toronto, which is something he deals with better now that he is 29 and an experienced major-leaguer.
So as this opening day approaches in Toronto, and after being sidelined for so long, he's working on keeping his emotions under control.
"You know, I don't want to put too much into it," he said. "It's the first game hopefully of 162 and the playoffs for us. Obviously it will be special to be out there. But you want to continue to be out there."
Unlike sports like hockey and football where an adrenaline surge can help an athlete, baseball players usually perform best when they keep the excitement under control.
"There's always the emotion in the game but the more adrenaline you have sometimes the more it can get you in trouble," Morneau said.
In his first years in the majors that was the case.
"I just try not to put as much into it as I did," he said. "My first two years, we went [to Toronto] and I think I had one hit in the first two series. So now I go back there and try not to put too much into it.
"You know I get excited, obviously. It feels good to be home and everything else but the more I put into it, the more pressure, the more excitement you put into it, that can work against you."
Morneau's statistics in official spring training games are not impressive. After going 0-for-3 Wednesday, he's batted .152 in 11 official spring training games. But those statistics don't include all the minor-league games he played. And the statistics don't indicate how he feels about his swing.
"My swing feels good, the last two days especially," he said. "Results don't really matter. If you look at spring last year the results weren't good, either."
Morneau felt the improvement just before the Twins left Florida.
"I had a good at-bat the day before we left," he said. "So everything kind of felt like it clicked."
He knows the questions about his concussion will continue, at least for now.
"I'm sure I'm going to deal with it the first half of the season," he said. "People ask the questions, it is what it is. Hopefully, when people see me out there, they see that I'm playing, they'll be answers enough."