Montreal's Jose Morales can now be called the most successful pinch hitter baseball has ever had. His teammates also call him That Man Jose, Ese Hombre José, the Masher and the Hit Man. All of which, he readily agrees, is better than being known as the Morales who isn't Jerry's brother.
Jose Morales, 31, regularly pinch-hits for the Expos. Jerry Morales, 27, is the Chicago Cubs' rightfielder and not Jose's kid brother. "My father has been married about three times and he was a shoemaker going from door to door, so I have something like 18 half brothers and half sisters," Jose jokes. "Jerry tells everybody I'm his cousin, so that's what I say, too." With his alleged cousin Jerry watching from the Cubs' dugout, Jose assaulted the pinch-hitter's record book last week. In one at-bat, Morales: (a) broke the major league record for pinch hits in a season with his 25th; (b) made a record-breaking 74th official appearance as a pinch hitter; (c) drove in his 22nd, 23rd and 24th runs as a pinch hitter, leaving him one RBI short of the big-league record; (d) was used for the 76th time as a pinch hitter—the record is 81; (e) moved one Jarry Park fan to ask if the Cubs' Morales is Jose's brother.
Morales hit a forkball from Chicago Pitcher Bruce Sutter into left field for a three-run double to break the pinch-hit record Baltimore's Dave Philley established in 1961 and St. Louis' Vic Davalillo tied nine years later. It was his third attempt at No. 25, and naturally he was excited. Pulling up at second base. Morales turned and doffed his cap to the people in the left-field bleachers. Except there were no people in the left-field bleachers. "I was hoping nobody would notice that," he said.
Lately, there has been little about Morales that has gone unnoticed. "It gets so you think he's always going to get a hit," says Expo Pitcher Steve Rogers. Morales agrees. "I always expect something from me. The guys depend on me a lot. A pitcher can be throwing a good game and losing, and I have a chance of changing the game around." Morales has changed games around dramatically enough that seven of his RBIs have been game-winners, including the double off Sutter. He has had the decisive hit in one of every seven Montreal victories. He is the last-place Expos' only .300 hitter. He is, proportionately, the most productive hitter on the team. Nonetheless, he is a part-time player.
September 26, 1976
"It's a shame we can't find a spot to use him," says Montreal Manager Charlie Fox. "But we can't, and that's it." The ideal spot would be as a designated hitter, a man the National League so far has refused to add to its lineup. Nothing would delight Morales more than the league's adoption of the DH because he could make more money and because his records, with pinch hitters in less demand, might stand forever. "Since I am known for hitting, that's the way I want it to be, so that it can't be broken," he says.
That he is not known for fielding has been the big stumbling block of his career. The first baseball glove the right-handed Morales had was a lefty first baseman's mitt that he turned inside out and that his mother, angered because he was always using it, tossed into the fire.
"I got it out, and there was a big hole in it," he says. "So I cut a piece of shoe sole and put it in the glove to plug the hole." As he labored through a decade in the minor leagues, scouts never became convinced that Morales actually had plugged the hole, and he continues to have the reputation—not totally undeserved—of good hit-no field. "Boxing gloves for hands but a super guy," is the way Reggie Jackson, briefly Morales' teammate at Oakland, puts it.
Morales signed with San Francisco in 1964 as a catcher because the Giants were looking for receivers at the tryout camp he attended in his native Virgin Islands. Since then, he has at various times also played first, third, left and right while compiling career batting averages of .312 in the majors and .281 in the minors. He made seven minor league stops before arriving in the big leagues with Oakland and eight before he became a fixture at Montreal.
"I made my talent by hard work and dedication," Morales says. "Some are born with it. I wasn't. At certain times this year, I couldn't believe myself. I said, 'Am I alive or what? Am I that good a hitter?' " For a while he was. Heading into the All-Star break, he had seven pinch hits and a .241 average, then came out of his slump with an 8-for-10 tear, during which he had 10 runs batted in and two pinch homers. He slumped through late August and early September, but Expo Manager Karl Kuehl and his successor. Fox, were determined to use Morales daily, if necessary, once the records became reachable. In the Expos' 43 games between Aug. 6 and Sept. 16, he appeared as a pinch hitter 36 times. He went hitless 10 straight times before connecting for his 22nd. "The record, it had been going too easy," Morales says. "It's good to work for something. You enjoy it more. That's the way I was brought up."
At the start of the season, Morales set an impossible goal. He wanted 50 pinch hits. He had no idea what the record was, but he felt that 50 would do the job nicely. If his activity had been restricted to pinch-hitting, he might have come close to getting that number, but with an insipid offense, the Expos needed his bat badly. So Morales started half a dozen games here and half a dozen there, either at catcher or first base. As a "regular" he is batting .325.
Still, it is his pinch-hitting that keeps him in the big leagues. "It takes a special breed of cat who can walk off the bench cold like that and whack the ball," says Fox. Adds Morales, "It's been said that I'm a better hitter when I'm a pinch hitter than when I'm playing. To a certain extent, I'll go along with that. Pinch-hitting is more difficult, but when I have to play in the field, I concentrate so hard on not making errors that I take my hitting for granted."
As a youngster Morales often chopped his bats from bamboo stands with a machete. He always had one in his hand, and even now he and his bats are so inseparable that he keeps one near his bed every night. "When I wake up in the morning, I kind of wiggle it around to get the weight and feel of it," he says. "It's a habit. If you want to be good at something, you have to work at it. I work at being a pinch hitter. I want to be the best at the job in baseball."
Now, perhaps forever, he is.