NEW YORK (AP) – Back in June, Justin Morneau walked into manager Ron Gardenhire’s office with a .236 batting average and was benched. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, he walked out an MVP.

“It woke me up,” Morneau said Tuesday after edging Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees to win the AL’s Most Valuable Player award. “He lit a fire under me.”

Morneau received 15 first-place votes, eight seconds, three thirds and two fourths for 320 points in voting by a panel of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Jeter got 12 firsts, 14 seconds, one fourth and one sixth for 306 points.

It was the 16th-closest MVP race since the current format began in 1938, and the 10th-closest in the AL.

“I didn’t really sleep that well last night. I kind of woke up. I don’t usually get too nervous about this kind of thing,” Morneau said. “You want to get it over with.”

Gardenhire benched Morneau on June 7 and spoke with him at Seattle’s Safeco Field. At the time, Morneau was hitting .236 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs.

After listening to his manager, Morneau batted .362 with 23 homers and 92 RBIs.

“There wasn’t too much said that was bad or anything,” Morneau said. “It was just, “Your focus needs to be on the field. You can do a lot of things in this game that people can’t do.’ … Gardy helped me realize that I can be a lot better than I was.”

Morneau finished with a .321 average, 34 homers and 130 RBIs, helped the Twins win the AL Central for the fourth time in five years.

Three Twins finished among the top seven in MVP voting. AL batting champion Joe Mauer was sixth, followed by AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana.

“I love Minnesota. I’d love to play my whole career here. We have a great young team,” the 25-year-old Morneau said. “We’re all around the same age. We had a pretty decent year last year and we have a chance to do it again next year and for a lot of years to come, especially with that new stadium coming. This is a great place to play. I love the people here.”

Jeter batted .344 with 14 homers and 97 RBIs. In the batting race he finished three points behind Mauer, who became the first catcher to win an AL batting title.

“While I know that voting for these awards is primarily based on differing opinions and statistical debates, it’s also part of what makes baseball such a great sport,” Jeter said in a statement issued by the Yankees.

He called Morneau “a special player” and added: “I suspect this won’t be the last time you will hear his name mentioned when awards are being passed out.”

“You’ve heard me say it a thousand times, but winning the World Series for the New York Yankees continues to be my main focus,” Jeter said. “There is no individual award that can compare with a championship trophy, and I look forward to working towards that challenge again in 2007.”

Boston’s David Ortiz was third with 193 points, followed by Oakland’s Frank Thomas (174), Chicago’s Jermaine Dye (156), Mauer (116) and Santana (114), who received the other first-place vote. Morneau is the fourth Minnesota player to win an MVP, following Zoilo Versalles (1965), Harmon Killebrew (1969) and Rod Carew (1977). Killebrew attended Morneau’s news conference.

“I don’t have any doubt in my mind he’s going to come back and have a good year,” Killebrew said.

Morneau became the second Canadian-born player to win an MVP following Colorado’s Larry Walker in 1997. He is the third Canadian-born athlete to win an MVP in a major pro league this year, following Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash and San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton.

Walker phoned Morneau as the first baseman was arriving at the Metrodome.

“He just wanted to call and say, “Congrats,”‘ Morneau said. “He said he thought he was more excited than I was. He said, “Just wait, it’s going to be crazy.”‘

Walker, a coach for Canada at the World Baseball Classic, autographed a bat for Morneau in March.

“To Justin, make Canada proud,” Walker wrote.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” Morneau said.

Earning just $385,000 in his third season as a regular, Morneau proved a bargain. Philadelphia’s Ryan Howard, voted NL MVP on Monday, made $355,000.

Morneau is eligible for salary arbitration this winter. Howard is not.

“He’s going to be rewarded. There’s no doubt,” said Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who sat next to Morneau at the news conference.

Ortiz earned a $100,000 bonus for finishing third. Thomas, who left the Athletics last week to sign with Toronto, received a $100,000 bonus for placing fourth. Dye got $60,000 for fifth.

Morneau is from Westminster, British Columbia, population 54,656, according to a 2001 census. He’s heading back there for another honor.

“Parade marshal in the Santa Claus parade,” he said.

AP-ES-11-21-06 1939EST



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