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Excerpts from Before the Glory
My dad was born George Morneau on July 25, 1948, in New Westminster, not far from Vancouver, British Columbia. His father worked in a lumber mill. Dad was the youngest of eleven kids, who usually called him 'Geordie.' He had another nickname, too. In a family that large, it was hard to get attention. In fact, it was kind of hard to get anything. The ice skates my dad had as a kid were true hand-me-downs, handed down like half a dozen times! They never fit him right. They were kind of beat-up, and he would slide around in them and look kind of awkward on the ice. Then one day he was able to get a pair that fit him, and right away he became a smooth skater. So they nicknamed him 'Swan.'
My dad probably had a hundred different jobs. One constant in his life as a young man was sports. He was always playing or coaching. Of course, just about everyone in Canada loves hockey and grew up playing hockey. Dad was about six feet tall, kind of stocky, and an intense guy. He was the type of player on the ice who usually started the fight and always ended it. Dad also loved basketball and volleyball, but his number-one game was baseball. Although Canada can get bone-chilling cold in the winter, New Westminster is not far from the Pacific Ocean , and winters are pretty mild. So Dad played a lot of baseball and practically worshiped Mickey Mantle.
My mom was born Audra Sinclair in 1953 in a town called Medicine Hat . But when she was about seven, her family moved to Victoria , which is across the strait from Vancouver . Like Dad, Mom came from a pretty big family. She was one of six kids, and the other five were all boys. Nicknames in my mom's family were a simpler matter. Everyone was called by their birth order number. Mom was the third oldest, so they called her 'Three.'
She was a strong right-handed pitcher in softball and a great hitter. Her grandfather on her mother's side, Nelson Turner, played Minor League baseball in the United States , so baseball was in Mom's blood.
After high school, Mom went to the University of Victoria to become a schoolteacher. She played on an amateur softball team in the area, and who should be her coach but George Morneau? He was five years older than my mom. She was quiet, and he was loud. He would yell at his players, the opposing players, and the umpires, sometimes all in one breath. She had shoulder-length brown hair, a contagious laugh, and a smile that lit up the world. Somehow, the two of them hit it off. They started dating and then got married in 1976.They bought a one-story house with light blue siding and a small basement. Mom and Dad loved the entire Vancouver area.
My brother was born on November 14, 1979. He was named Geordie, after my dad's nickname. I was born on May 15, 1981, and given the name Justin Ernest Morneau. But a few weeks later when the birth certificate came in the mail, my mom opened the envelope and got a surprise. It read: 'Justin Ernest George Morneau.' My mom showed the birth certificate to my dad, and he admitted that back at the hospital, he had pulled the paperwork and added the 'George' himself. He explained that there had to be a 'George' in one of his kids' names and that 'Geordie' was close but not good enough. My mom just shrugged her shoulders, and the extra middle name was a done deal.
My dad had us out in the backyard playing Wiffle ball when I was only two years old. I threw right-handed, but I batted left-handed. Geordie batted and threw right-handed. Geordie was built solid like my dad, but I was tall for my age and could keep up with my brother. Dad threw hundreds of pitches to us, and it was the greatest thing in the world.
For times when he couldn't be there, Dad bought us a Wiffle ball pitching machine called Little Buddy. That was our main Christmas gift when I was four. It had a mechanical arm that swung around and threw the ball in just about the same spot every time. But because they were Wiffle balls, they would move around a little. Geordie and I used and used Little Buddy until it broke.
Another present we got when I was around four was a Nintendo Entertainment System. It had games like Donkey Kong and Mario Brothers. In Mario Brothers, these nasty insects and things flew out of pipes, and we had to kill them. The Morneau brothers were good at it, but we were even better at clobbering each other.
We fought every day and drove Mom crazy. She would never yell, but she probably should have. Geordie and I never hit each other in the face. We wrestled and punched each other in the arms, but that can really hurt too. He was bigger, and eventually he'd get me in a hold so that I was down on the floor and couldn't move.
I hated getting beat up every day of my life, but I found another way to win. I would follow Geordie around and start up with him. Then he would hit me a few times and throw me down, and I would run right to Mom. Geordie would get in trouble and have to stay in our room, while I would get to walk around the house and do whatever I wanted to do. The way I looked at it, he won the battle, but I won the war.
When Geordie was in kindergarten and first grade, I was miserable. I had no one to play ball with and no one to fight with. I would sit at home on the floor in front of the TV and ask Mom a hundred times a day, 'When's Geordie coming home?' Then he would finally come home, want nothing to do with me, and play with his friends. Then I would start whining all over again.
One day it was my mom who was kind of whining to my dad. Mom was in the hospital for a little while, and the doctor's advice was to take it easy. A few minutes later, my dad burst into the room with big news. He was tired of working for someone else, so he bought a store. Not just a store, a sporting goods store. And it had a batting cage in it! My mom kind of freaked, because we were going to be financially strapped for a while. Dad told her to calm down. The store was going to do very well.
When Dad piled us into our 1983 Dodge K-car station wagon to go see the store, it was the best day of my life. The shelves and racks were filled with hockey sticks, pucks, pads, baseball gloves, bats, balls, everything. Geordie and I wanted just about everything, but Dad told us that stuff was for the customers. Then Dad walked us out to the back lot, where there was a batting cage. This was no Little Buddy. This was the real thing. Dad let us step in and take awhole bunch of swings. It was normally five dollars for a bucket of balls. Butwe got our buckets for free, because Dad owned the store!
Geordie stepped into the cage first and showed us how he could hit like his favorite player, Don Mattingly, the first baseman for the New York Yankees. But Mattingly was a lefty, like me, and Geordie was a righty. Anyway, the balls were not regular baseballs with seams. They were yellow and rubbery with little dimples in them. A few of them started making their way home with us.
When I got a little older, I went to a school named Lord Tweedsmuir with my brother. When I saw Geordie at school, he and his friends still didn't want to have anything to do with me. Unlike in school, Geordie couldn't avoid me in Little League, because we played on the same team. As a six-year-old who was big for my age, I matched up evenly with the eight- and nine-year-olds. Same thing when Dad took me and Geordie hunting and fishing. I could hold my own out there in the wilderness, and there was definitely plenty of beautiful wilderness around New Westminster .
But our favorite place was indoors, at the store. Geordie and I figured out that if we opened up a package and played with a ball, a glove, or a puck long and hard enough, it would get a little worn down. Dad would take a look at it, see that he couldn't repackage and sell it, and just tell us to keep it. We knew Dad had a hard time saying no, and we thought we were pretty slick. Our room in the basement of our house began to fill up with goalie masks and batting gloves.
When I was about seven, Geordie and I were in the front yard and wanted to have a catch with a real baseball, only we couldn't seem to find anything except the yellow batting-cage balls. So we went inside to the living room, walked up to a ball holder up on a shelf, and took Dad's autographed Mickey Mantle baseball. We went outside and threw grounders to each other for about an hour. When Dad came home, he looked at us a little strangely, said hello, and went inside. A few minutes later he stormed back outside. His face and bald head were beet red. His mustache was frazzled. He ran over to Geordie, snatched the ball from his hand, took a look at it, and yelled, 'Get in the house, both of you.'
Dad had never hit us. He had come close a couple of times, but I was usually a step too fast. I thought this time might be it though. Instead, we were grounded and sent to the basement. And then Dad came downstairs and told us very loudly exactly who Mickey Mantle, number seven, wasthe 535 home runs, the Triple Crown, the twelve pennants with the Yankees, the speed, the big arms, and how he did it all on terrible knees. Until then, I didn't know what a big deal that baseball on the shelf really was. I felt terrible. The next day, I took a look at it back in the holder, saw all the grass stains on it, and felt even worse.
©2007. Bill Staples and Rich Herschlag. All rights reserved. Reprinted from Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and How to Turn Hard Times Into Home Runs. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street , Deerfield Beach , FL 33442.