A baseball will do what it's told. Grip it a certain way, throw it with a certain motion, wrench your arm this way or that to make it dance. The ball does your bidding. It has no mind of its own, even as it might drive you crazy. Ask Charlie Morton.
A year ago, Morton began his season with the worst 10 starts in baseball since 2000: He was 1-9, with an ERA of 9.35. This year, the Pittsburgh Pirates righthander has won six of nine decisions. He has an outside chance of being an All Star. All it took was giving the baseball a few different instructions.
Morton was on the field before a game at PNC Park last week. Someone asked him to describe the way he's throwing the ball now, as opposed to a year ago. It's an exercise in simple physics. So simple, you wonder why the 27-year-old Morton didn't do it years ago, before his career nearly died. He wonders the same thing.
"I was manipulating my body to throw the ball over the top,'' he's saying. Morton cocks his right arm so far behind his head, you'd think he'd hit his ear on the follow-through. "I was pulling my body this way,'' he says, leaning noticeably left, "to get my arm this way'' which was straight over the top.
It wasn't natural. It didn't feel right. It started when he was a kid. A big kid, long and lanky. Coaches and managers looked at Morton -- now 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds -- and saw a big, overhand delivery that supported a 95 mph fastball and a sweeping 12-to-6 curve, typified by Roger Clemens. Everyone wants to develop the next Roger Clemens. But it's not that simple. Maybe that's why there's been only one.
Morton isn't a guy to speak up for himself. "I'm into my head, mostly,'' he explains. So, he listened. And got his hat knocked off.
"I felt like I was trapped in a situation I couldn't get out of,'' Morton said of last season. After the 1-9 disaster, the Pirates demoted him. "I'm sitting in Triple-A wondering what I'm going to do with my life,'' Morton recalled.
He'd heard how great his stuff was, and that made things worse. If I'm so great, why am I pitching this way? "Not only are you dealing with the opposing hitter, you're dealing with yourself,'' Morton explained.
He made it back to the majors last season, in time to finish 2-12. No one knew what Morton would do this season.
Desperation is a great motivator. After last year, Morton was willing to try anything. "He was pliable,'' was how Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage described it.
How bad was it?
Early last season, Morton befriended a TV cameraman, whose post was next to the Pirates dugout. The guy offered Morton a quote from Shakespeare:
"Be not afraid of greatness.''
Morton, being Morton, took it to heart. "Last year, I had a fear of what was going to happen, every time I pitched,'' he said. "I wasn't mature enough to accept the responsibility of taking the ball every fifth day.''
Searage and Jim Benedict, the Pirates minor league pitching coordinator, went to the video tape. They studied Morton from high school on. They saw a pitcher too good to be getting hit so hard, and they figured they knew why. The reasons delve deeply into the entirely rational yet completely mystical realm of pitching mechanics: arm slots, release points, fastball grips. Ask a golfer to describe his putting stroke, he'll tell you it's all about feel. Pitching isn't much different.
"Everybody has his own natural arm slot,'' Searage says. "Charlie's is three quarters, away from his head.''
In February, Searage and Benedict brought Morton in, showed him the tape and started the sell job: "Throw the way God intended you to throw,'' Searage told Morton. "Get away from your head. It'll give you more freedom for your big muscles to move.''
It didn't take much convincing. A starving man will dine in a Dumpster without regret. As Morton says, "I'm fighting for a job. I don't have any options. I'm pretty much all ears.'' Morton began by long-tossing. He couldn't believe how good it felt, how easy it was. Morton was overwhelmed. His eyes welled up, part relief, part gratitude, part where-the-hell-has-this-been-all-my-life.
"Damn, Ray,'' he said to Searage, "it's coming out good.''
"Go with it, Chuck,'' Searage said. "Go with it.''
Morton threw live batting practice next. Lyle Overbay stood in. Overbay, 34, is in his first season with the Pirates. He played three years in Arizona, two in Milwaukee and five in Toronto. Morton came at Overbay with a 95 mph sinking fastball and, then, well. . .
"He threw a curveball that dropped off the table,'' Overbay recalled last week. "I said, whoa, he's got that, too? Then he threw me a 92 mile-an-hour cutter (fastball) and I'm saying, 'What is going on here'?''
That's when Overbay compared Morton to reigning NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay of the Phillies. Last week, Overbay added this: "This is Roy Halladay with better stuff. Roy's location makes him the elite of the elite. Charlie's not there yet with his location. But once he is. . .''
Morton started watching video of Halladay. "They tell me they want me to go three quarters. I need a reference. Overbay tells me I look like Halladay, so I watch some video. I want to see what he's doing with his body,'' says Morton. Morton resists the notion he "copied'' Halladay's delivery:
"From behind, our motion looks similar. In profile, from the side, we're not the same.''
Not that it matters. Anyone can mimic a delivery. Not anyone can throw a sinking fastball 95 miles an hour.
Fellow Pirates starter Jeff Karstens does much of his off-day work on the same days as Morton. He's openly jealous of Morton's stuff. "I watch him throw and I act like I'm sick," says Karstens. "His stuff is just nasty. We're just touching the surface with Charlie."
Morton has symbolized the revival of the historically moribund Pirates. Until the Mets hammered him for six earned runs in four innings in his last start, Morton had ranked among the top five NL starters in ERA. Still, at 6-3, his 3.08 ERA ranks 9th in the league. That sinker has made Morton the major league leader in groundball outs.
Meanwhile, the Pirates have the fifth-best team ERA in the National League. Their starters rank fourth in the same category. That's helpful, given that their offense is 26th in the majors in runs scored.
Morton knows his fortunes have changed with a simple drop of his arm. He understands that his delivery has been unshackled, that he's throwing free. He knows the early success this year has bestowed him with a confidence he has never had. Be not afraid of greatness.
"He was scared of contact'' last year, is how Karstens puts it. "He was tentative. Now, he's throwing sinkers 90 percent of the time, and even the mistakes get beaten into the ground. Now, Charlie's like, 'Here it is. Hit it'.''
Morton understands the physics of all of it. That doesn't make him any less amazed at the turnaround. "All those years,'' he says. Morton is a heavy thinker, as ballplayers go. He tried to analyze his way out of the depths of last summer; he sometimes tries to over-understand the success he's having now. "I do think a lot,'' he says. "That's probably one of my downfalls. Analyzing situations gets me in trouble.''
Occasionally during games, Pirates catcher Chris Snyder has made visits to the mound to tell Morton, "You're being too cute. Stop thinking and just throw.''
When he was at his lowest, Morton gravitated toward the mournful tunes of a Texas twanger named Ryan Bingham. A singer-songwriter, Bingham left a broken home in his teens, to ride bulls and play guitar in honky-tonks. After years of scuffling, Bingham won a Grammy for his song "The Weary Kind" that appeared in the Academy Award-winning movie, Crazy Heart.
"Pick up your crazy heart and give it one more try,'' Bingham sang.
"His story is pretty inspirational,'' says Morton, who can relate.
Morton himself collects guitars. Eight years ago, he taught himself to play. He likes the blues, the work of the late Stevie Ray Vaughn in particular. It's not hard to imagine Morton last season, giving his own blues some guitar therapy. "I played quite a bit last summer,'' he says.
"My whole career I've been told I have the talent to do good things. I never did them. We made a change, and things are going better. Did I re-invent myself?'' Morton asks, repeating a question. "Reinventing is a fairly accurate term.''