ON THE MOUND, SWEATING, IS WHERE MORRIS BELONGS

“Jack, if . . . ” a reporter began.

“Jack, but . . . ” a reporter began.

Oooh. This was too good. Jack Morris couldn’t resist. He leaned back smugly against his locker and began to sing.

“If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Mer-ry Chris-tmaasss.”

Pause.

“Dandy Don Meredith,” he quoted, “Monday Night Football.”

Jack Morris, Monday afternoon baseball.

Welcome to the return of a pitching legend. Sort of. It was Opening Day, it was cloudy and gray, he had the same locker, the same uniform, the same wait before the game started. He was richer, he was wiser, he was older, he was madder, but he was here. Above all else, he was here.

That counts for something, doesn’t it? It’s more than we could say for Lance Parrish. Besides, when we last left this drama at Tiger Stadium, no one was sure Morris would pitch in Detroit again. Remember? Can you remember back that far? Last year, when Morris won his 21st game?

How much had happened since then?

Who can keep track? There was the Jack Morris Over America Tour. Five days. Four cities. No takers. There was the midnight agreement, the arbitration hearing, a thousand newspaper stories and a thousand TV interviews. There was Jack Morris during football season, and Jack Morris during hockey season. Wasn’t that Jack Morris in the Wall Street scandal? Wasn’t that Jack Morris helping the contras?

“Can this even be fun for you anymore?” someone asked Morris as he stretched for Monday’s opener. “With all that’s happened, can you still just innocently go out and pitch?”

“Well, I’ve learned this,” he said. “The only way a baseball player can last these days is if he’s a star and if he keeps completely quiet.”

He paused, then grinned. “People like me, in other words . . . ”
‘Hey, Palmer, you’re a bum’

In other words, what? Are always going to be in the limelight? Well, that’s fine. He handles it well. He is poised and intelligent and generally cooperative.

But enough. Because Morris is a baseball player, and he was starting his eighth Opening Day in a row, a major league high, and as he sat there watching the clock, waiting for the call, touching his arm unconsciously, just making sure it was there, you realized that he was as tired of the bull as the rest of us. Let’s go already. Pitch.

“BOOM BOOM!” yelled Darrell Evans.

“Let’s get out there!” Morris answered.

And when he went out there, in the cold and the wet, and the Tiger stadium announcer called his name, there was a mixed reaction from the sellout crowd. Mostly cheers. Some boos. Didn’t matter. He was here. He could win them over.

“You know,” he had said minutes earlier, “If I were in the stands, I would never yell at a player. I did it once in my life, a few years ago. There was a seniors golf tournament going on at Oakland Hills, where I lived then. Arnold Palmer was getting ready to tee off. I was out mowing my lawn.

“So I leaned over the fence and yelled, just to see what it was like, ‘Hey Palmer, you’re a bum!’ “

He shrugged. “And you know, people looked at me and said, ‘You’re a real bleep.”‘ Best dressed in sweat

Well, leave it to Morris to make Arnold Palmer the object of his one heckle in life. Take on the big boys, why don’t you?

But then, that has always been his pattern. How else does one become the winningest pitcher in the ’80s? You watched Morris go one-on-one with the Yankees’ Don Mattingly Monday. Morris got Mattingly to ground out with men in scoring position, and here is what you realized: this was his element. Not some board room. Not the pale glare of a TV light. Jack Morris is best dressed in sweat, in anger, pitching mound anger.

He was good Monday. He pitched nine innings and didn’t allow an earned run, but he was the loser, 2-1, because the Yankees took the lead in the top of the 10th. Still, it was clear that Morris will be the glue this year. So fine a pitcher is Morris, he is considered a “given.”

“Morris will get his 20 games, of course,” the pundits write, “but what we really have to focus on is Dan Petry. Now there’s a guy who . . . “

What a statement. Morris will get his 20. Do you know how hard that is? Morris knows. He doesn’t mind. As long as he can get on with it.

Until that first pitch Monday, the load of winter headlines weighed on Tigers fans like old snow on a car roof. But when Morris struck out Don Pasqua in the second inning, the winter finally began to melt, slowly, gradually, but definitely.

No more Wall Street. No more if and buts, or candy and nuts. Baseball. Finally baseball.

“Did you buy anything with all your new money?” came the last question to Jack Morris about money, hopefully for a long time.

“I bought a puppy,” he said.

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