LAKELAND, Fla. — If you cut him, he says, he will bleed burnt orange. Texas colors. Go Longhorns. Once upon a time, it was Saturday afternoon on the college football field, and 90,000 fans were roaring for him to knock the nasty out of those boys from Oklahoma, or Baylor, or Texas A&M. Push em back, shove em back — aw hell, just break their legs. “There is nothing,” admits Keith Moreland, “like Texas football.”
He smiles at the memory. Kickoffs. Bowl trips. Those were the days when sports were pure glory. Before he chose baseball. Before all those trades. Before the phone calls would send him packing across the country, to Philadelphia, to Chicago, to San Diego.
On Wednesday, Keith Moreland put on his new Tigers uniform and batted cleanup in an exhibition game against Kansas City. He is 34 now, a strong right-handed hitter, a guy who once won a World Series and who once played in a lightless stadium and once had to endure a chicken as his team mascot. Were he British, one might call him “well-traveled.” But if there is a brake pad on his career, he would like to hit it now, please, here, on this veteran baseball team with the white-haired manager. He has seen enough.
“Being traded to Detroit from San Diego was like a blessing for me,” he says, leaning against his locker. “The guys here are my age, the attitude is great, and it’s a team with baseball tradition. They’ve been playing in Detroit for what, almost 100 years?
“I don’t want to knock San Diego, but it wasn’t much fun trying to play in the middle of the desert, with 10,000 fans in tank tops and bikinis, just came in off the beach, and don’t give a bleep whether you win, lose, or draw. If New York, San Francisco or LA came into town, there were more fans rooting for them than there were for us!”
He shakes his head and removes his cap to inspect the Old English D on the front. To his right is Jack Morris. To his left is Alan Trammell. This, he likes. This is good.
“Besides, the Detroit Tigers are responsible for the most trouble I ever got into in high school,” he says. “I was listening to them play St. Louis in the World Series in 1968. I had a radio hooked up to my ear. The teacher walked by and saw the cord and sent me to the principal’s office.
“Got chewed out real bad.”
So maybe Detroit owes him one. Although it is hard to believe that a transistor radio was the biggest trouble Bobby Keith Moreland encountered in high school. After all, he was a star quarterback in a state where football is religion, a red- headed jock in a place where entire towns shut down for the Friday night games.
“I was pretty heavily recruited,” says Moreland, who didn’t even play baseball back then, and whose 6-foot frame still leans toward the thickness of the secondary. “I visited Oklahoma, LSU, Army, Arizona State. But all I really wanted to do was play for Texas and Darrell Royal. That’s all any Texas kid wanted back then. I was kind of disappointed they weren’t recruiting me.
“Then, after Christmas break, I was in class and they got me out and there was Pat Patterson, the defensive coordinator for Texas. He said he was interested. I said, ‘Are you willing to offer me a scholarship?’ He said he thought so. I said, ‘I accept.’ Right there in the hallway. That was that.”
Jackpot! He was finally a Longhorn. He was called up his freshman year. He started the next two seasons as monster back (sort of a roving safety). Played in the Cotton Bowl against Bear Bryant and Alabama. Scrimmaged with the likes of Earl Campbell, Roosevelt Leaks, Jerry Sizemore and Doug English. Laid licks on guys named Chuck Foreman and Tommy Kramer and Greg Pruitt. Geez. After that, hitting a baseball must have seemed . . . serene.
Nonetheless, he took to it naturally. Made the Texas baseball team and was an All-America his very first year. “I just played it for fun,” he says. But when, during his junior year, in a football game against Oklahoma, he was clipped and tried to brace himself with his left arm and it gave way underneath him, fracture, out for the season — he turned to baseball full-time. The NFL was out of reach anyhow. He got drafted by the Phillies, and never looked back.
Well . . . maybe once or twice.
Most athletes find that glory comes in increasing doses. The higher you go, the more wonderful everything gets. But for Moreland, the peak came in college, and the years that followed were almost anticlimactic. He had been on national television, big time college football, a hometown hero, and suddenly, here he was, a minor league ballplayer in Spartanburg, S.C., getting paid to play in ballparks that “weren’t as nice as my high school football field.”
In a way, reality has been setting in ever since. In 10 major league seasons — as a catcher, first baseman and outfielder — Moreland never became an All-Star. “Never will,” he admits. He did not turn around the Chicago Cubs, as some had hoped. He did not mature the San Diego Padres, as some had expected. Which is not to say he hasn’t had his highlights. After all, he does have a World Series ring; he was a clutch bat for the 1980 World Champion Phillies. And he twice hit over .300 for the Cubs, and had 27 home runs in 1987.
But baseball is a business, you hear that all the time, and Moreland has run smack into it every time he calls the moving vans. He has now played on both coasts, and in both leagues. He liked Philadelphia, but they dealt him. He liked Chicago, but they dealt him. He did not like San Diego, and last year, he told a reporter he would not play more than another year. Fortunately, they dealt him, too — along with third baseman Chris Brown for Tigers pitcher Walt Terrell.
“Were I still in San Diego now, this would be my last year,” Moreland says. “They just weren’t into baseball there. It was so depressing. Walking into Jack Murphy Stadium was like walking into a spring training ‘B’ game.”
He rubs a fist through his shock of red hair and gazes around the clubhouse. This — a veteran Tiger team whose fans trek to Florida religiously for spring training — is more his style. He feels younger already. Suddenly he is talking about another two years. Suddenly he is talking about contributing every day, “taking an oath to win if they want me to.”
The Tigers will be happy if he strokes one down the line now and then. Desperately short of right-handed hitting last season, Sparky Anderson is hoping that Moreland’s clutch bat will be for real. “That’s what I’m here for,” says Moreland, who will play first base or be a DH. “If there’s two outs, I can get the hit. If there’s a man on third and less than two outs, I’m gonna get that sucker in. I am a situation baseball player.”
And he is a realist, one who feels that maybe this time, his ship has come in. He entered baseball via culture shock. Perhaps, he’ll get to leave it with style. “This is a great opportunity for me. I can feel it already.”
He grabs his glove and makes his way to the door. His gait is heavy, like the walk back to the huddle. But then, there will always be a little football in a Texan. “I moved back there, you know,” he says. “My daughter’s a
teenager now. I want her to go to high school there, like I did. She’s a cheerleader.”
“Has she started dating the quarterback?” someone asks.
He laughs. “She better not be!” he says, and heads toward the field, pounding his glove happily, as if it’s first and 10 all over again. CUTLINE
The Tigers’ new right-handed power hitter, Keith Moreland, says joining the Tigers may keep him in baseball a few more years than he planned.