TORONTO — Jack Morris objects.
To all of it. The losing, the last-place standing, the ballooning ERAs, the stranded base-runners, this talk about Kirk Gibson being the Tigers’ only leader, this talk about Alan Trammell being a culprit, the no-movement stance by management, the “cheap shots” from the media, his problems, the team’s problems, the losing, the losing, the losing.
No good. None of it.
Jack Morris objects.
“You might write what I’m telling you now,” he said, after a workout Friday
— a day before the Tigers would again lose a game he started, this time 6-5 to the Blue Jays. “You might write it, and my teammates might read it and maybe some will think I’m accusing them. Maybe they’ll be apprehensive towards me. I know that can happen.”
He sighed, and ran a towel over his head. “On the other hand,” he said,
“I’ve never been one not to state my mind. I’ve never been afraid to tell the truth as I see it.”
The truth, as he sees it, is that the poor performance by the Tigers this season is a cancer in danger of spreading to the very heart of the team, eating away the desire. Death by complacency.
“It’s gotten to the point where we’re accepting mediocrity,” he said.
“We’re realizing that we’re playing bad and nobody’s really caring. To me, that’s the ultimate sin in baseball, or any profession. When you get like that
. . . you’re just lost.”
How can you tell it’s like that?
“You can see it in players’ faces,” he said. “In the attitudes after a game that you lose. Before we’d be somber, quiet or ticked off, literally fuming at times — which indicated to me that we cared.
“Now guys come in, take the uniform off, eat the food, and five minutes later they’re talking about whatever the hell they want to talk about just like an everyday situation. We used to die a little bit when we lost. But now
. . . ” Now is different. Clearly. The Tigers — who by nearly everyone’s pre-season reckoning had one of the better teams in baseball — have slumped to the bottom of the AL East. Their hitting has been mild and poorly timed. Their starting pitching, which was to be their strong point, has wilted like wax under a heat lamp.
Morris, the ace of the staff, has been part of that. He has surrendered 21 home runs and is dragging around a 4.84 ERA. Not the kind of person to be throwing stones from his own glass house, one might think.
“I accept that,” he said, pushing a fist through his thick brown hair. “I accept that my year hasn’t been acceptable. Not in my eyes or in your eyes. The only hope I have is that before the year is over I can get back to where I should be.”
But, he added, he has never considered losing a coat that comes in his size. This is a man who blows smoke through his nostrils after a defeat, whose voice takes on a hard edge, whose eyes go steel-cold. How competitive? How proud? How high can you count?
Because of that, what he says he senses from the clubhouse this year sends bells off in his head. In most cases, a ballplayer can only grimace and bear it. But Jack Morris has a choice.
He is a free agent at the end of the season.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said, “I’m not gonna accept a horsebleep attitude for money. I’ve got a choice this year. This organization has got to prove to me that they’re gonna be winners down the road or I’m leaving. Period.
“I don’t care about the money. I’ll get my money. But damn it, it’s no fun to lose. I’ve had a taste of the good life and to be back in this rut is just no fun . . . “
Too much losing. Not enough caring.
Jack Morris objects. Now maybe what he objects to is the Tigers’ unwillingness to talk contract during the season. Maybe what he objects to is his own less-than-great performances. Maybe what he objects to are games like Saturday’s, where his eight good innings were trashed by two lousy Willie Hernandez pitches. Morris is proud yet emotional, the type of man for whom words can mix with frustration, until the two become inseparable.
But make no mistake. What Morris thinks is important. Like it or not, he is a linchpin on the Tigers, one of four or five players whose success seems to have a domino effect on the rest of the clubhouse. As Sparky Anderson admits, every winning team needs a “stopper” — a la New York’s Dwight Gooden or Boston’s Roger Clemens this year — who the players know is going to go out and most likely win. “Then if you lose two or three in a row,” Anderson said,
“you don’t get shook up, because you know he’s coming around again.”
Morris has been viewed that way before. He has led the Tigers in victories for the past seven years. But he shrugs off the idea that one player makes that much difference.
“I read all that crap about Gibson being a leader and how, when he was gone, we were lost,” he said. “I think that’s bullbleep. Period. I ain’t afraid to say that to the whole world. I don’t think any one guy can do anything to change the team. It’s a culmination of guys picking the team up that shows leadership.”
“As far as I’m concerned, there are three guys that have to go good to get us going. Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish. When Trammell and Whitaker were going good in ’84 we’d have a lead by the first inning. I wish people could see how hard Tram tries. That guy puts the weight of the whole team on his shoulders. I read something last week that we should trade Trammell. I can’t believe that bleep! You trade Trammell, you trade the heart of this team.”
You left out Gibson.
“Well, Gibby can carry you for a week or two and just be awesome,” he said.
“But then he can also play the way he has the last two weeks and nothing happens. I don’t consider him a Wade Boggs or a Don Mattingly. He’s not.
“But look. Basically what I’m saying is we’ve all been horsebleep. No one is picking each other up.”
So what should be done? What is the answer?
“To be honest,” he said, pulling a shirt over his broad frame, “I expected a few changes to be made. I thought by now there’d be one or two players on this team moved. But it hasn’t happened.”
He paused, then shook his head. “I can’t say,” he said. “I can’t. But I just hope to God the front office knows which guys, or we’re in worse shape than I thought.” Going into Saturday’s game, Morris’ biggest problem was the home-run ball. In a game against the Yankees last week, he gave up four. And on Saturday he gave up another — a two-run pinch- hit homer by Rick Leach. Bad pitch placement, he said. Bad decisions. Lack of concentration.
“Because I’ve been around a while, guys know what I have. They’re waiting for certain pitches, looking in a certain zone. So I have to change things a little. Maybe more brushback pitches. I won’t ever throw at a guy’s head, but I can make him think.”
Indeed, on Saturday, the first pitch Morris threw to Toronto’s clean-up hitter George Bell was within inches of his nose. A few pitches later, Bell hit a soft out to the infield. But the result was still disappointment. Another Tigers loss.
Who knows? Maybe he can turn it around. Maybe the team can. Maybe the whole reason Morris got all this off his chest — knowing full well that much of it would end up in print — is because he wants to light a fire under the team. Anger them into winning.
Or maybe he is simply looking out for himself. He said that the more the Tigers lose, the greater the danger of the team dividing into two factions — the players who lose sleep over the losses and the players who don’t. He doesn’t want to be part of that kind of organization, he said. “I’ve seen situations where guys throw in the towel way before the season is mathematically over,” he said.
Is it getting that way around here?
“Let’s just say it’s too late to say it’s still early,” he said. He pulled on his blue cap and reached around for his glove. You can accuse Jack Morris of many things — belligerence, selfishness, impatience — but you cannot fault his desire to win. At 31, he still burns with the fuel of a rookie, still works out harder than most third-year men, still stalks the mound like a grizzly bear in search of breakfast.
“I’m gonna be around for a few more years,” he said. “I’m still taking care of myself. I’m still healthy, my arm ain’t broken, I ain’t hurt, I may be going through some problems because I need to be more selective in my pitches. But you don’t see everybody taking care of themselves the way I do.
“You’re gonna see me pitching next year,” he said, standing up. He then added the warning: “Somewhere . . . “
He headed for the field, for another game, for another step in this strange and so far disappointing season. Call his the voice of a leader. Or call it bailing out. But Jack Morris objects. And, if this season keeps sinking, he could well be gone.