As a normal American citizen, I worry about many things. Taxes. World peace. What Michael Jackson did with his other glove. I do not worry about Jack Morris. Worrying about Morris has become fashionable of late. So far this season, Morris, the Tigers’ star pitcher, has been like a cat declawed; he has had trouble even scratching the surface. He hasn’t won a game in a month, and before Tuesday night, he had an ERA of 9.97 at Tiger Stadium. His fastball, they said, was suddenly mortal. His split-finger pitch was landing in the dirt.
I did not fret.
Is that foolish? Oh, maybe to the purists whose score books are open to the flops of this 1988 Morris season. And there have been many. But when I see Morris, I see a snarl. I see a fighter. I see a guy who is high-torque, who can lapse into bad habits and frustrate himself into more bad habits but who will, in the end, punch his way out.
And, on Tuesday night, I saw a man who has been pounded in two of his last three starts hold the Kansas City Royals to one run and four hits while striking out 10. He single-handedly kept his teammates afloat while their bats were sleeping. In the ninth, with two men on and one man out, he retired George Brett and Danny Tartabull on a strikeout and a liner to the mound.
And in the 10th, the Tigers rallied and won.
So what’s all the fuss?
‘Better this than a loss’
“Did it feel good to see the ninth inning again?” Morris was asked, after the Tigers beat KC, 2-1, although Morris did not get the decision.
“Yeah, it’s been a while,” he said. “You hear so many people talk about your age (33), I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve thought about it myself. But when I go out and do what I did tonight, well, that’s as good as stuff as I’ve had whole my career. . . .
“I just hope now that I can keep it up.”
Will he? Who knows? This is baseball, remember? As predictable as Wall Street. Before the game, I had asked Morris whether his problems this season were psychological or mechanical.
“Mostly mechanical,” he had said. “But we’re not all robots, you know.”
He shrugged. “I wish I was.”
Sure. Then he could punch up the perfect form, press “EXECUTE” and throw a two-hitter every time out. But Morris has never been a robot. He is not Don Mattingly, swinging at that ball on that batting tee for hours. He is not some NFL place kicker, methodically booting one after another. Morris is moody, introspective, his emotions boil and bubble then simmer and cool. And they are strongest when directed at himself.
So it doesn’t surprise me that he could get into a bad groove, get angry with himself, make matters worse, lose again, get frustrated, make matters worse, spin his psyche until he’s dizzy, then actually believe he doesn’t have it anymore.
But then some cool breeze blows in from the east, the mound feels right, the motion is good, and, presto! Nine innings, one run, 10 strikeouts. Morris was not a problem Tuesday night. The only problem was the Tiger bats: They didn’t come unglued until Morris was finished for the evening. Mike Henneman got the win.
“Hey. Better this than a loss,” Morris said, grinning at the happy mood of the post-game clubhouse. “I’ve had enough of those.” No Morris, no AL East title
Now. OK. One game, good or bad, does not a season make. There is talk that Morris’ age may indeed be catching up with him, that his fastball no longer frightens batters. Perhaps there is some truth in all that.
“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” Morris admitted before taking the mound Tuesday night. “And I’m not as young as I used to be, either.”
These are not words you expect from the mouth of the Big Cat. But then, Morris has never been beyond self-criticism. Sometimes, it is his most charming feature. Last week, after he blew a 6-5 lead in Seattle with two late-inning home runs, he was disgusted with himself.
“I should have quit when I knew I should have quit,” he groaned.
“When was that?” someone asked.
These are the facts: Without Morris returning to some kind of form, the Tigers will not win the AL East. I say that because guys like Jeff Robinson and Luis Salazar should not be counted on for a full year of miracles. If they can deliver, great. But there’s a reason the stars get the big money, and over the long haul, they’d better deliver something or you’ll sink under their very weight.
I am not worried about that. Not with Morris. Not yet. I’ve seen the guy fight too much, work too much, enjoy competition too much and believe in himself too much to bury him prematurely. He is a moody, hard, funny and strangely driven man with an iron will that has taken him over rough spots before. Maybe Tuesday was a turning point. Maybe it was just one more peak in the roller coaster ride of 1988 — with more dips to follow.
Whatever. I am told that 33 is old for a power pitcher. I am told that when you lose your good stuff, it is gone forever. But I go to the ballpark Tuesday night, and I remain unconvinced. Jack Morris, the cat with claws, is too strong an image to be erased just yet. Give him time. I wouldn’t worry if I were you.
Don’t make me look stupid, OK?