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Morneau knows Canada has a lot riding on Classic

Morneau knows Canada has a lot riding on Classic

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The Canadian national team took pictures Monday morning and held a workout in the afternoon.

With an evening free and most players displaced for the impending World Baseball Classic, Justin Morneau created a little Canada in the desert.

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The Twins first baseman, former American League MVP and unquestioned leader of Team Canada invited his teammates to his Phoenix-area home for a barbecue and some hockey.

No, that doesn't mean they ate ribs huddled around some NHL action.

Morneau had something a bit more active in mind. With no ice outside a freezer for miles around, these Canadians took to the streets for a friendly.

"Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned that," Canada manger Ernie Whitt said with a smile. "But it's the Canadian way. We have a good time, and we stick together."

No harm, no need for a power play, despite Whitt's pun. It's just Canada being Canada.

It's also Morneau's way of keeping his guys loose heading into a pivotal tournament for Canadian baseball. This small baseball fraternity has yet to make it past the first round of the World Baseball Classic, and Canada considers it time to take that next step as a national program.

While the Canadians have Reds first baseman and 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto and plenty of young talent on their side, Morneau is their greatest asset.

He's proud of his roots and is a champion for Canadian baseball whenever he can be.

"I wouldn't be here if not for where I came from and the people that influenced me," Morneau said. "I grew up in the junior baseball program, and we're supposed to come back and help the program that helped us start a professional career. It's an honor for me, and I'm happy to do it."

Morneau also embraces his role as a role model. He remembers how big an influence Larry Walker was in his youth, when the three-time batting champion and 1997 NL MVP gave a young Morneau something to aspire toward.

Morneau remembers the national high that followed the Blue Jays' back-to-back World Series triumphs in 1992-93. Those moments spurned Morneau to work hard and try harder to become an excellent baseball player where hockey is king.

At just 31, Morneau knows it's time to regift the inspiration he was given. It starts with a career .280 batting average, 204 home runs, 786 RBIs and MVP hardware, but the job goes beyond statistics.

"Whether we as ballplayers like it or not, we're role models," Morneau said. "The impact you can have on people is greater than what you originally think. If you asked Larry at the time, he wouldn't have considered his place as a role model, but looking back, he'd say it was important. It's a good position for us to be in, and I think we should consider ourselves fortunate to be able to positively affect other people's lives."

That starts at home. That's why Morneau has played in each Classic starting in 2006 and was all-in for this tournament when other countrymen, including Russell Martin just last week, backed out.

"It makes a difference to have the guys that should be there," Morneau said. "It's such a tough tournament when you don't have the depth that some other countries have. We have a lot of Canadians that are battling for big league jobs and need to be in camp that we would love to have on the WBC roster, but they stayed home. You can't fault guys for that, but it hurts. Anytime a Canadian is asked to play for country and is available, they're proud to do it. It's a pretty rare occurrence when that doesn't happen."

When a player of Morneau's caliber jumps first, it prompts others to leave pro camp and follow suit.

"It makes it an easier sell for guys to participate in all levels," Whitt said, "especially when they have a role model who has had so much success."

Morneau wanted to be at his best for this tournament. He played extensive innings in six Spring Training games with hits in nearly half his 17 at-bats and hit a home run the day before joining Team Canada.

Monday was a family reunion of sorts, with so many players from youth national teams past. Canadian junior teams frequently travel together for international tournaments and to play young pros in extended spring training with snow still on Canadian ground.

The bonds among this group are strong within and across generations. Morneau, for one, is hoping that camaraderie can take Canada beyond the first round.

"It's the same cast of characters as it's been for national tournaments of years past, which makes it a close-knit group," Morneau said. "That helps us stay calm during pressure situations, and hopefully, it will help us win some close ballgames in the World Baseball Classic."

Scott Bair is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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