by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He is making a point. You have to be blind to miss that. Here is Jack Morris, maybe the top pitcher of the ’80s, telling the baseball world smack in the middle of its winter meetings that he is through with the Detroit Tigers,

that there are four teams now — and only four teams — he wants to deal with, and knock, knock, he’ll visit the first one, the Minnesota Twins, on Tuesday morning, and they better have their pens ready.

“Go ahead,” he seems to say, as subtle as a brick through a window,
“just try to ignore me.”

Beautiful. Jack Morris is taking on the whole damn game, all 26 major league owners, putting the whispers of collusion right out there on the bargaining table. Now we’ll see what is what. Four teams. Yes or no. If free agency is really being threatened, it’ll show this week. And if greed still rules, well, we’ll see that, too. Morris has put it all under the spotlight. And don’t think every man who wears a glove for a living and every big shot who pays him isn’t watching to see how this all turns out.

“I think,” Morris said, grinning, “I surprised a few people, huh?” He was sitting at a table inside a West Bloomfield restaurant Friday, eating fish, even as his agent, Dick Moss, was on the phone arranging meeting No. 1 with the Twins. Technically, Morris works for no one right now. The Tigers have dragged their feet on re-signing him, and he knows it, because hey, you can’t use the same trick over and over. “We all watched what happened to Kirk Gibson last year,” Morris said. “That’s where everything I’m doing now began.”

Morris had no intention of waiting “until 10 o’clock Jan. 8” (two hours before deadline) to sign. So he’s walking. The Tigers can go home now. By approaching his four designated teams, Morris is heading straight for the mountain to see whether he can move it.

“Three options,” he said, putting down his fork to explain. “We’re going to present the Twins three options (essentially different lengths and values of contracts) and believe me, they’re not ridiculous options. And they’re not going to get to think about it for 24 hours. We’re saying this is it, now, period. I’mready to sign. If you’re not, we go to team two (either the New York Yankees, California or Philadelphia).”

“And if team two says no?” he was asked.

“We go to team three,” he said.

“And if none agrees?”

“Then,” he said, raising his eyebrows, “we have another case, don’t we?”

He was talking, of course, about collusion, owners collectively deciding a player’s fate. He was talking about something illegal, a firecracker on top of a time bomb, something that cuts the very flesh of free enterprise. It was a grievance the players raised last season when, suddenly, not one big-name free agent — most notably Gibson — was offered a contract by an outside club, even those clubs that used to all but deliver the money to a player’s hotel room.

Know whom you’re dealing with here, baseball. Jack Morris is not the type to crawl into a hole. On the mound, when he is cooking, he is overpowering. Even off the mound, he speaks fastball. When the Tigers slumped this season, Morris — who wound up winning 21 games — was the only one to openly accuse certain teammates of slacking. Later, he took to walking through the dugout, swinging a bat and chanting, “National League, National League . . . ” a less-than-subtle suggestion that he could end up there by next April.

“Right is right,” Morris is fond of saying. When Detroit won the World Series in 1984, the organization gave him a ring, as it did to all his teammates, including relief pitcher Bill Scherrer. Except that Scherrer — who’d been with the club just a few months — soon discovered his was not as gem-studded as the rest. He complained. The Tigers called him ungrateful. When Morris found out, he took his own ring off his finger in support of Scherrer. He does not wear it to this day.

Get the picture? This is a proud man, an excellent athlete, 31 years old, who feels he has reached the peak of his bargaining power in a career where 35 is over the hill. He knows he is valuable. He doesn’t want to be jerked around by the Tigers. And he doesn’t want the 25 other clubs to avoid him out of some unstated agreement.

And he is sure both things have already happened.

Seattle called me a while back,” he said, “and I can tell you Seattle isn’t any more interested in me than the man in the moon. In my opinion, they called to find out what I wanted, so they could tell the Tigers. Because I wasn’t telling the Tigers what I wanted.”

“You think the two teams are that connected?” he was asked.

“They’re all connected,” he said.

A similar thing happened, he believes, with the Angels, who called a few weeks ago and wanted “a figure.” His agent balked, saying there were other things to talk about first. “After that, they avoided us,” Morris said. “We couldn’t get in touch with them for a solid week.”

“Why would they do that?” he was asked.

“Because if they said no to that figure,” Morris said, “then the whole baseball world would know my demands, and therefore, they could group together and make a decision how to handle it from there.”

Call it a conspiracy. Call it paranoia. But Morris has made his move, thrown down the gauntlet in front of everyone, and targeted his test markets. If one of the teams signs him, fine. He gets the contract he wants, and he breaks the free-agency stalemate, at least temporarily.

And if no team signs him, the real trouble could begin.

“I cannot believe that will happen,” Morris said. “But . . . who knows?” The waitress took away the fish and brought over some coffee. Morris took a sip. A teenager sitting in the next booth got up to leave, leaned over, and said, “Stay in Detroit, dude. We need you.”

Morris laughed. “Dude?” he said.

He watched the kid walk out. “Hey, no, honestly, I appreciate when someone says that. This is my home. I love Detroit. I’m pretty much sure I’m going to live here in the off-season.

“But my whole point in all of this is to have management treat players differently than I’ve been treated in this town as of late. I don’t think I’ve

been treated right.”

“What’s right?” he was asked.

“Well, the Tigers make policy without considering the individual. That’s one thing. I shouldn’t be told, ‘Look at what happened to Rick Sutcliffe after he signed his big contract.’ I’m not him. I’m Jack Morris. I proved it to them again and again and again! How many times do I have to prove it?”

His voice was rising, and he stopped until he could bring it back to where he wanted it.

“The other thing is, their way of dealing. Completely ignoring me personally. For instance, I had to find out a few days ago that I’m being offered arbitration by reading the newspapers? The Tigers didn’t contact me or my agent.”

He paused. “I don’t think I should be treated that way, do you?”

He insisted he was not being a crybaby, that he did not hate the Tigers’ front office. He was just weary of its policies.

“If the Twins made you an offer and the Tigers called and offered to match it, would you give them a chance?” he was asked.

“No,” he said flatly.

“What if they offered more?”

“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t happen, anyway.”

He has talked plenty with Tigers general manager Bill Lajoie, he pointed out. The GM actually called him last week and asked him to come to the office and they would scream at each other and get everything off their chests. Morris refused.

He is done talking. The wait until Tuesday for Minnesota is only a logistical one, he said, a chance to get all the parties in one place. If he could, he’d be talking to them right now. “This is not a bluff,” Morris reiterated, and everyone who is close to him believes it — his agent, his wife, his friends on the Tigers, like shortstop Alan Trammell.

“Hey, I’ll be honest with you,” Morris said. “I’d like to find a way to take Trammell with me. I’m serious. If they (the new team) wanted to take it out of my contract, you know, take off $100,000 in order to get him, I’d agree, no problem.

“I told Tram that, too. I promised him. He sent me a Christmas card recently, him and his wife, and under where it was signed ‘Merry Christmas, from the Trammells,’ he wrote, ‘Remember your promise, Jack.’ “

It’s pretty hard to call that a bluff. So think what you will, you must admit the move was a master stroke. Morris and Moss timed the announcement to come during the winter meetings. Heck, Moss held a press conference right outside the media working room. The reporters didn’t even have to walk!

And that evening, back in Detroit, Morris showed up at the Pistons’ game at the Silverdome — by his own admission “the most visible spot in town” — so that the people and the press could easily spot him. Let everyone know he was dead serious. Hey. You didn’t think he was that big a basketball fan, did you?

“Unfortunately,” he said, shaking his head, “negotiations have become as big a game as the damn game we play on the field. I don’t think that’s right.”

But he’s playing.

And he’s creating new rules. By focusing on only four teams and contacting them — instead of vice versa — he is magnifying their decisions for everyone to see. He pits the temptation to acquire a star pitcher against a decision to stick together on free agency, if there is such a decision.
“Because if there is,” Morris said, “it’s illegal.”

Of course, Morris’ case is not without its holes. For one thing, he doesn’t want to be categorized with other big- contract failures (such as Sutcliffe), yet he categorizes himself with big contract-getters (such as George Brett and Dan Quisenberry of the Kansas City Royals). And the figures Morris would like (he refused the Tigers’ offer of $2.5 million for two years) may indeed not be in line with what is being offered lately, and there is no law against a marketplace lowering its prices.

But this isn’t only about numbers. This is about the ability to offer one’s services to the most interested party, and have that party be interested
— a privilege most of us enjoy in our careers and simply take for granted. That is what has brought Detroit’s best pitcher to this juncture.

And there is something else. Losing. Morris despises it and, when asked, he admits he sees too much of it on the Tigers’ horizon. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “if I come back and pitch against them it won’t be a cakewalk. But face it. You lose me, you lose Lance (Parrish), you lose Dave Collins. It’s not the same team. The face has changed. If they had signed other free agents like Tim Raines and Andre Dawson you can bet I’d be signed, too. But I asked Bill Lajoie Thursday, ‘What have you done to improve this team?’ “

“And what did he say?” Morris was asked.

“He said I wasn’t seeing it from their point of view.”

Morris finished his coffee and got ready to go. Once again, he was asked about any last-ditch hopes for the Tigers, and once again he said no, that such a concession would defeat everything he was hoping to accomplish for his teammates and his game.

“It sound like you’re trying to teach the Tigers a lesson,” it was suggested.

“Yeah,” he said, after a moment. “I guess I am.”

And there it is. A terribly good pitcher, who is tired of waiting, decides

to shop his services elsewhere, and this week he finds out if the market is legitimate.

So light no candles for Jack Morris. He is doing the logical thing, what most of us would do for ourselves if we stopped thinking like fans. He is going after what is out there. And he is making a point.

Unfortunately, it sticks right in the heart of the Tigers. CUTLINE Jack Morris is going glove-in-hand to Minnesota, and he doesn’t expect to be left out in the cold.


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