MINNEAPOLIS — He stood alone on the mound, glaring at the hitters, the roar of 55,245 frenzied fans ringing in his ears. Up came his leg, back went his arm, with a whiplash twist the ball was coming home. . . .
Coming home. That was the theme, wasn’t it? Jack Morris was coming home. He grew up here. Across the river. He was pitching Thursday night at the Metrodome before his parents, uncles, aunts, cousins. . . .
“BIG DEAL!” the sellout crowd seemed to roar. Tonight he was the enemy. Tar him.
This was home? Better they should make him take out the garbage and sweep the basement. From the start of this second game of the American League playoffs, it was clear that Morris was less than welcome. And — what was worse for Tigers fans — he didn’t have the stuff to tell the Twins fans where they could stick their reception. By the second inning Morris had given up three runs. By the fourth inning he had walked his way into more trouble; two more runs before the inning was over. A home run in the fifth. Nothing was coming easy. Counts were going high. And the crowd! Good night. Every ball was greeted by a New Year’s roar; every Twins hit shook the bubble roof. And ho, God forbid they scored a run! You were deaf for an hour.
“The most incredible, amazing, exciting crowd I have ever pitched in front of,” Morris would say. Too bad they weren’t on his side. They sang his name,
“MORRRR-ISS!” They sang the “NA- NA-NA-NA” song, and when the game was over, and Morris popped out of the dugout to acknowledge his parents in the seats, this was what he saw: a standing, whooping sea of humanity, waving white hankies, stomping to the loudspeaker music, high on the 2-0 lead their underdog Twins suddenly held in this crazy playoff series.
We know you’re not supposed to be able to go home again. But they might at least treat you with some civility.
Tigers lose, 6-3? Uh-oh. This was not at all what Detroit fans had figured when they saw that Morris — the biggest winner on the Tigers’ staff — was pitching Game 2. Hadn’t Doyle Alexander, Mr. Never Lose, already been beaten in a maddening roar Wednesday night? And now Morris had been racked for six runs, albeit on six hits. Whoa. Enough kidding around here.
It certainly wasn’t what Morris had in mind. Remember that he grew up here, was a high school star, played baseball, basketball, football — and when he wasn’t doing that he was in the woods, or in a cabin, fishing, camping, hunting. He loved it here. And last winter, as a free agent — and the most successful pitcher of the decade — he tried to come back. Offered his services. And the Twins said no thanks. “I really want to win this,” Morris had said before Thursday’s game, “to show (the Twins) they made a mistake.”
All he showed them was that he was a good sport. Morris smiled through much of the night, despite the score, despite the verbal storm. “Hey, that is what the game is all about,” he said in a mob of reporters afterward. “The crowd really helped them.”
“Can you assess your pitching?” someone asked.
“You guys do that better than me,” he said.
“Did you think the Tigers could lose two here?”
“Yeah. It was you guys who told everybody we would sweep.”
“Do you think the crowd back in Detroit will be able to counter the enthusiasm of the crowd here?”
“I think,” Morris said, smirking, “when the organist plays, ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window,’ the place is gonna rock.”
These were unwise answers, sarcastic answers. Morris smiled and laughed through them, and no doubt many out-of-town reporters went away thinking that Morris doesn’t care who wins or loses. Detroit people know otherwise. The Tigers needed this game, and while Morris did not pitch badly, he got a few pitches up to the wrong guys, he made a few bad walks, and it was over. “Bert
(Blyleven, the Twins’ winner) pitched good. I gave up a few hits that cost me, that’s it, end of story.”
So this was his homecoming. A crazed Metrodome crowd, waving “Homer Hankies,” yelling for blood. When Morris was introduced Thursday there was a roar — a sprinkle of applause over an explosion of boos. And that was the kindest moment. Three doubles in the second inning, by Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, Tim Laudner. Tim Laudner? Isn’t he the ninth man in the order? “My worst mistake,” Morris admitted. That’s the kind of night it was.
Trouble in the batter’s box. Trouble with men on base. “I wasn’t struggling,” Morris said. It sure looked that way. In the fourth, he surrendered a single to Randy Bush, who promptly stole second, then third. Morris walked Brunansky. He reached 3-2 on Greg Gagne, then walked him. One out later, he got two strikes on Dan Gladden, then gave up a single, and two runs scored.
Sure, Morris would complete the game. He would actually retire the last 11 batters in row. But it meant nothing. It was just sweat. A hailstorm of jeers. Too many Twins had crossed the plate, and the Tiger bats appeared to be swallowed by the noise.
“The crowd wasn’t a factor,” said manager Sparky Anderson.
“The crowd was the biggest factor,” said Morris.
Come on, guys. Get your stories straight.
And fast, before it’s too late. This isn’t funny anymore. Wednesday night’s win was written off to youthful Twins enthusiasm, dome-field advantage, the odds catching up with Alexander. But Thursday was not a game to be lost. Thursday was to be the night the Tigers took off the Clark Kent clothes and showed their real identity. After all, the Twins’ pitcher was Blyleven, all of 15-12 on the mound. A right-hander. Don’t the Tigers kill right-handers? And Morris had never lost in the Metrodome.
“AND SO WHAT?” screamed the Minnesota fans.
And this is where we are this morning. What was once a good competition has now become an awfully serious situation. The Twins — terrible on the road — could theoretically lose all three at Tiger Stadium and still win this series at the Metrodome. And then again, who knows at Tiger Stadium? The Twins have already shown strength in areas few expected. Their hits have been powerful, and, more important, timely. The Tiger bats, meanwhile, have been either quiet, or loud at the wrong moments.
“It’s not a good situation to be in,” admitted Kirk Gibson, who struck out three times Thursday, “but it’s also not a good time to quit.”
The optimistic say this is but another challenge, the umpteenth challenge in a Tiger season that is nothing if not one little mountain after another. The optimistic say the Tigers will find a way out. The optimistic say the Tigers have done it all season.
The pessimistic say, “HELP!”
And the haunting, jeering, thunderous Minnesota crowds that invaded the Tigers’ eardrums these first two games have said just one thing to homegrown hero Morris and the rest of the Detroit roster:
“Hit the road, Jack.”