Change Up

A rosier outlook on the game—and life—has made Blue Jay ace Jack Morris tougher than ever
October 04, 1992

You could think of the 1980s, during which he was baseball's winningest pitcher, as practice years for Jack Morris. They count, sure. His 162 victories for the Detroit Tigers in those 10 seasons reflected a sustained excellence unmatched by any other pitcher. But those were also years of puzzlement. All those games that he'd won, and still nobody seemed to like him—not enough, anyway. As far as that goes, even Morris, winningest pitcher or not, didn't always like what looked back at him when he shaved.

He averaged 16 wins a year—twice he won 20 or more—and this guy could not be cheered up. When they didn't call him Black Jack, they called him Mount Morris. If he wasn't grouchy, he was fixing to be. On the mound he was as likely to self-detonate as gel through an inning. He was the pitcher every hitter hated to face but loved to ride. A ball hobbled in the infield? Black Jack would stare down his shortstop. A blown call at the plate? Mount Morris would percolate.

"Jack had a few buttons you could push," admits Joe Carter, now his teammate with the Toronto Blue Jays. Buttons you could push? The man was an elevator-car panel, and batters of no special talent could make him go up and down. Once, his catcher, Lance Parrish, tried to calm him by explaining, "When you act like this, nobody wants to play behind you." Surely that was tranquilizing. Another time pitching coach Roger Craig told him he was "acting like a little baby."

It was—never mind all those wins—a disappointing time. "I wanted to be liked, just like everybody else," Morris says. But he understood that he often didn't deserve to be, not the way he treated others. But those were the '80s. "Can't people grow?" Morris asks. "Can't they change?" In the '90s they can. They must. This is the decade Jack Morris plans to get right.

"I see people that haven't changed a bit," he says. "What a shame."

The amazing thing, quite aside from his transformation, is that he has this second chance at all. When the '80s ended, Morris was turning 34 and performing what appeared to be a death spiral in Detroit. It looked as if the decade was going to outlast him. He completed that 1989 season, his worst ever, with a 6-14 record and a disposition to match. He'd had his run, and he could be remembered as a crank who could throw 240 innings a year, every year.

And now here he is, 37 years old, about to win 20 games (he won 18 last season for Minnesota) and possibly lead his team into the World Series for the second year in a row, that is, if the Blue Jays can hold off the hard-charging Milwaukee Brewers. And if he is not as beloved as he would like—"Nobody really knows me," he says with that vintage Black Jack scowl—he nevertheless betrays his old orneriness with what is, coming from him, the oddest of proclamations. "I guess I have a zest for life," he says. Huh?

On this particular day, the day in Baltimore last week when he went for victory number 20, he is buoyant beyond expectation. He is in a city he does not like—he doesn't like any cities, so no letters, you Baltimore boosters—on a day that might strike sonic men as stressful When you make $5 million a year, expectations during a pennant race tend to be crushing. "I'd probably rather be fly-fishing in western Montana," he admits, "yet here I am, looking out on the harbor, the sun's out, it's a beautiful day. In fact, it's a great day. And tonight I've got a chance to pitch in a major league ball game. Think of that! After dreaming about that as a kid for all those years. Do you understand how fortunate I am? Finally I do."

Seriously, somebody used to call this guy Black Jack? He draws himself up and can't help but look forbidding. He's all boots and belt buckles and whiskers, looking much more like a gunslinger than the Great Falls, Mont., farmer he is in the off-season. "At some point," he says, "you have to grow up." The Grinch reborn.

What matures a man most? The usual stuff: the parent company denying him his due (i.e., dough) and then allowing him to shuffle out of town after 15 years of service, the ups and downs of a highly visible occupation, divorce. Just the usual stuff. Getting older. Odd proclamation number 2: "Now I want people to see how fun this game really is." Huh?

The Blue Jays needn't worry that Morris has become unhinged or, worse, soft and dreamy on the mound. Like the Twins before them, the Blue Jays now start the fiercest pitcher in baseball. A man can change some things, perhaps even stop glaring at his infielders and barking at impudent hitters and chilling the media, but Morris can't sacrifice his competitive nature afield. You don't win 236 games with just a forkball. You need attitude, too, and Morris has plenty left over from the '80s.

Dave Winfield, who became his teammate this year, says all he knew of Morris through the seasons was that attitude. "Never spoke to him." Winfield says. "Growled at me once. But the main thing about Jack is what a competitor he is. Most pitchers, when they're getting beat up, come to a point in the game when they just quit. Now, Jack can get beat up, but he's never quit. As far as the pitchers I've faced in my career go, that puts him in a category with Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson and Juan Marichal. How's that for a category?"

In the old days his terrible determination could make a fool of him as easily as it could the batter. "If things weren't working out," Morris says, "I tended to lose it." The tantrums were not spectacular, but they did seem selfish and mean-spirited. Morris says now that he never meant to criticize his Tiger teammates when they made mistakes behind him, but that's sure how it looked. "Maybe my old teammates do think I'm a jerk," he says with regret. "When I looked at myself from their point of view, well, I didn't like what I saw either."

Nowadays he is more careful about displaying any emotion on the mound. Instead, his intensity is more constructively channeled, as it was in Game 7 of last year's World Series when, making his third start against the Atlanta Braves in eight days, he pitched and won a 10-inning shutout. Morris did not display anything but a grimness of purpose in that game, which is now hailed as his signature moment in baseball. He wouldn't quit, or couldn't. "Who was going to take him out of this game?" wondered Twin outfielder Randy Bush. "Who would have had the courage to say, Jack, you're done?"

That determination is spaced fairly evenly throughout a season, or else he wouldn't be winning so many games. But it really gets dialed up as the season winds down. "I've always known him as a second-half pitcher," says Carter. "Most especially as a postseason pitcher. When you think postseason, you think Morris."

This season follows along those lines. He's 10-3 since the All-Star Game, gearing up for another postseason, this one with the division-leading Blue Jays, and everybody knows what Morris does in the World Series: Including the 1984 World Series, he is 4-0 with a 1.54 ERA.

In fact, some people in Toronto think he was snapped up in free agency not so much for 20 wins during a season but for two in the playoffs. After all, this is a team that has no difficulty getting to the championship series; it just can't seem to get any further. And when you draw four million fans, is it really an extravagance to commit $15 million over three years for a World Series appearance?

Morris doesn't like to think that his talent is something he can turn on and off, but he does agree that he reaches terrific levels of concentration when the game demands it. Says Morris, "There's something to be said for adrenaline."

This probably explains why a player with so many victories can have an ERA that hovers around 4.00 (this could be the sixth season he exceeds that number). He coasts when he can, buckles down when he can't. "For some reason," he says with the tone of a man who has answered this complaint all too often, "I thought the purpose of this game was winning."

It is for the teams who bid on his services, although they came late to the bidding. Morris had to suffer through the collusion years; in 1986 he shopped himself around after a 21-8 season and—amazing, isn't it?—found no takers. It was seemed in decline and his leverage forever gone. Records of a small revenge when he won a $975,000 raise in arbitration with the Tigers in '87, but after that point his career 18-11, 15-13, 6-14 and 15-18 from '87 to '90 were poor bargaining tools as he explored his options.

Minnesota was his eventual suitor, and there did seem to be some romance involved. Morris, who grew up in St. Paul, made much of "coming home" when he signed with the Twins, but it is now clear that this move, from both points of view, was not as sentimental as the press played it. The Twins wanted to hedge their bets by loading his new contract with incentive clauses that would reward his famous durability. But Morris insisted on a three-year contract that gave him the option to declare himself a free agent after each year. Now, if only he could have another 1986 season....

He had a 1987 season, more or less, with an 18-12 record plus a spectacular postseason. The Twins wanted him back under the same terms, but Morris had regained the whip hand in negotiations. And Toronto's deal, nearly $11 million for two years, sounded like a nice payback for all those underpaid seasons in Detroit.

Morris understood that he would henceforth be viewed as a mercenary. Hadn't he once said, "I play for all the money I can make. If I played for the love of the game, I'd go back to the minors and play third base"? Yet he begs you to consider that "things do change in life. I meant what I said about coming to Minnesota. But I want to meet the man who, placed in my special circumstances last year, would have done differently."

One of those circumstances was the opportunity to make $5 million rather than $3 million. At any rate, by the time negotiations were under way with the Twins, Minnesota seemed less like a home for Morris. Another consideration was his divorce last year from his wife of 14 years, Carolyn. "I suppose it was a typical divorce, and I guess about one in two people go through the same thing," he says. "But it was all new, and hurting, to me." Yet a year removed from the marital mess, Morris acknowledges a wonderful parting gift from Carolyn. It was delivered during that prelitigation give-and-take when the spouses expose their wounds to each other. "She said I'd spent my entire life chasing my own tail, chasing my dreams, that I forgot how to live for today," Morris says. "That hit me right between the eyes. She was right, of course."

The lesson has allowed him to relax, to enjoy a day in Baltimore, to enjoy even his struggles as a pitcher. That night last week, his second stab at his 20th win, Baltimore roughed him up early, and the milestone was put off. (He would get number 20 four days later, with six shutout innings against the Yankees.) There was a bases-loaded jam, a botched play and one bad pitch—"just one," he pointed out later. It was not a postseason performance, but then the Jays were six games ahead of the Orioles at the start, and where could the adrenaline be?

Yet through it all Morris remained composed, even finishing the game. Got beat up but didn't quit. And maybe that was a smile that flickered beneath his mustache when catcher Pat Borders visited him on the mound in the three-run third. Maybe old Black Jack was remembering when he and his brother played catch in St. Paul, dreaming about the day they would pitch big league baseball. Maybe, down 3-0, he still felt lucky. After all, he's only three years into the '90s, the decade he's sure to get right.

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERNobody focuses better than Morris, who saves his best for when it counts. PHOTOBILL SMITHMorris's exploits as a Tiger, including a no-hitter in '84 (above), made him a favorite in Detroit even after he joined the Twins (right). PHOTOAL TIELEMANS[See caption above.] PHOTOJERRY WACHTEROnce known as Black Jack, Morris has lightened up with reporters and his teammates.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)