The easy thing would be to rip Jack Morris for acting like a jerk. After all, this should have been a moment for celebration; his first victory of the 1989 season after six agonizing losses. But here was the scene by Morris’ locker following Saturday’s victory:
Reporter: “Are we talking today?”
Morris: “Not about baseball.”
Reporter: “Why not?”
Morris: “I’ve learned my lesson.”
Reporter: “No questions about management. Just about today’s game.”
Morris: “I’m not talking. You can’t help me pitch and I can’t write your stories. You’re on your own.”
And he walked out.
The sports writers grumbled and cursed his rudeness. You could hear the poison slurping up the pens. Finally, he had won a game — and he still wouldn’t talk? He insulted us? He walked out? To hell with him. He had given us every reason to rip his childish, boorish attitude.
I’m not going to do it.
Here’s why. I know whom I’m dealing with. Jack talks. Jack doesn’t talk. Jack mopes. Jack makes cynical remarks. If you know this guy, then you know he is moody, hot-tempered, likable and probably too smart for his own good. Brains can be a liability in baseball. (“Don’t think!” was the operative advice from catcher Crash Davis in the movie “Bull Durham,” remember?) But Jack thinks. About management and traded teammates. About getting older and his one-year contract. About the fickle press, the losing season, the unforgiving nature of baseball — and he explodes. He plays media baby. He cries and goes silent. And I promise you he will talk again this season.
Big deal. Who listens to him? The point is, I never saw a guy win a baseball game by talking. Players get paid to give everything on the field. And for all his rudeness, stubbornness and suddenly low popularity, Jack Morris has never gone out to the mound with less than his soul.
That’s what counts, folks. On Saturday, he didn’t have his best stuff. Manager Sparky Anderson called it
“the worst fastball Jack’s had all year.” But he battled. He gave up just one earned run. He was willing, as always, to challenge the hitters. In the sixth inning, with Oakland runners on first and second, and having already thrown almost 90 pitches, he dug in and struck out Stan Javier swinging and got Walt Weiss on a fielder’s choice grounder. End of rally. And the Tigers won, 6-3, to break a four-game slump.
The essence of Jack Morris is out there on that pitcher’s mound. It is the one place he has never departed with a “no comment.” He is a workhorse, fiercely addicted to victory, the winningest pitcher in the ’80s — despite his 1-6 record this season.
Unfortunately, he has to leave that mound sooner or later. And he goes into the locker room.
And he blows it.
“Jack, you’re not being smart,” I whispered to him Saturday, as he paused on his way out after his tirade.
“Maybe I’m not. But you guys have drilled me enough.”
“Come on,” I said. “It’s just baseball.”
“I know. Look. Write your own stories. I’ll tell my story when I write my book.”
“Nobody’s after you, Jack.”
“Hey, I’m not talking. It doesn’t help me.”
“It doesn’t hurt you.”
“Well, sometimes it does.”
What bugs him? Most recently, he seemed to be ticked off because comments he made to a Minnesota writer — concerning Tiger management and the players it has let go — appeared in Detroit newspapers. It is a dumb gripe. What did Jack think? No one would notice?
Personally, I didn’t find anything wrong with what he said. The departure of Darrell Evans and Tom Brookens? The tightwad ownership of Tom Monaghan? The questionable value of some of the guys for whom the Tigers traded last winter? Is Jack the first to gripe about that stuff? Come on. I hear it on the street every day.
But somehow, I guess because he is an opinionated man on a conservative team, he stands out as a malcontent, a prima donna, a selfish jerk. He isn’t, really. The sad part is, he doesn’t do a lot to try to prove otherwise. Back in February, I ran into Morris at a Pistons game. We were joking about the upcoming season.
“I’m not going to say anything controversial this year,” he said. “I’m shutting up from April to September.”
I shook my head. “You’ll never be able to do it.”
He thought about it for a minute. And he laughed. “Ahhh, you’re right. I’ll get ticked off and open my mouth about something.”
It’s almost as if he has accepted the role. Jack the Villain. Jack the Malcontent. There are plenty of people out there who figure if the Tigers have to go down the tank this season, let Morris lead the way. Serves him right, they say, for shooting off his mouth.
But think for a moment about the subjects of his controversies. Jack cried collusion back in 1985 and 1986. And there was collusion. Arbitrators already have agreed with that. Morris opened his mouth about the Tigers letting go players such as Kirk Gibson, Lance Parrish and Evans. You find me one person right now who doesn’t agree with him.
His manager, Anderson, constantly calls him “the MVP of the 1980s” — he said it again Saturday — yet at the prime of his career, Morris did not get even a three-year contract. He knows he is on a one-year deal now, and you can bet if he goes to arbitration next winter, the Tigers won’t be singing his MVP praises, or hailing his work habits — like only two missed starts in 10 years. Nuh-uh. They’ll be pointing out how he couldn’t win a single one of his first six decisions in 1989.
Take those situations and toss them on the embers of a naturally explosive man, and there will be smoke, there will be fire. And, with Jack, that means periods of self-bloated silence. Big deal. We should ignore it the way one ignores the silent treatment by a child. It will pass.
The easy thing would be to rip him, teach him a lesson, slap his butt for being a nasty interview. But you know what I think? I think on the way home from the ballpark, Morris says to himself, “Aw, damn it, I sounded like a jerk again.” Too proud to take anything back, he lets the words stand and they become his armor.
He is not king of the hill these days. But I have seen him pitch when he was in pain, I have seen him put himself through off-day workouts that make me sweat just looking at him. I have seen him late at night, in a dark and empty Tiger Stadium, running in his underwear with Jim Walewander and Scott Lusader, racing from first to second, like little kids, reveling in the sheer joy of the game.
So the guy gripes and goes silent and walks out. So he has cheated reporters, he has cheated fans, and ultimately, he has cheated himself.
But he has never cheated the game. And until he does, I’m just going to write off his tantrums as the frustrations of a winning pitcher who suddenly finds winning tougher than ever, and doesn’t think any of us understands.