“This is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave, right? Well, they proved to me it wasn’t the land of the free.”
— Jack Morris He sat at a table in a back room of the Ginopolis restaurant, as people outside the glass doors peered in, trying to catch a glimpse. His eyes were red, his voice was scratchy. It was after midnight, and he was bone-weary from a week’s worth of plane trips and meetings. He looked across the table and shrugged his shoulders in a simple surrender.
“What would you have done?” he asked.
What would you have done? Jack Morris was getting a raw deal; nobody would sign him, even though he is the top pitcher of this decade. A few years ago he would have been gobbled up. But this is not a few years ago. Within three hours Friday afternoon, Morris was turned down by all four clubs he had hoped to sign with — Minnesota, New York, California and Philadelphia — even though he was offering exactly the same thing his old team, the Tigers, had proposed: a one-year arbitration deal.
And he had until midnight before that option was gone as well.
What would you have done? He took a late plane home from New York; rode out to Ginopolis, because he had to be somewhere public to accommodate the press; and at 11:45 p.m, just 15 minutes before deadline, he slipped into a small office behind the kitchen and called Bill Lajoie, the Tigers’ general manager. And according to Morris, this was pretty much the conversation:
“Bill,” said Morris, “the reason I’m calling is to show you I have more class than you do. I’m gonna accept the arbitration offer. I wanted you to be the first to know, because it’s the only right thing to do.”
And Lajoie said: “Good.”
They hung up.
And Jack was back. He rubbed his eyes. “I’m so tired I’m slap-happy,” he said. Understandable. When baseball’s history is written from this decade, Jack Morris’ Four Days Across America may well be a red- letter period. And this story is not over. Hardly.
Morris — who felt the Tigers were not dealing fairly with him — tried to buck the system, to challenge the owners’ sudden resistance to signing free
agents. He shopped himself to four teams in broad daylight. No secrets. No details left out. He was saying, “Look, you can have me for the same offer as the Tigers. How can none of you be interested — unless you’re in some sort of agreement with them not to touch me?”
Yet nobody bit.
Minnesota balked. Twice. New York took the procrastinator’s way out. And California and Philadelphia simply said no.
Four up, four down. So, with time running out, Morris took arbitration with the Tigers because it’s the best chance of getting the salary he feels he’s worth (presumably $1.85 million a year — the same as the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela, the highest-paid pitcher in the game, will earn in ’87 — versus the $1.25 million offered by Detroit).
But remember, for Morris, this whole thing was not just about salary — it was about proving a point. This point. That the 26 major league owners are banding together to force free agents back to their teams.
The owners call it “fiscal responsibility.”
The players call it “collusion.”
The latter is illegal.
“Did you prove that point?” Morris was asked. “Did you prove collusion exists with what you went through this week?”
“I absolutely think so,” he said. “Proving it in a courtroom will be more difficult. But I think they’re making it too easy for us to at least attempt to prove it.
“Hey, I believed George Steinbrenner when he said Thursday, ‘Nobody’s gonna tell me what I can and cannot do.’ But obviously someone told him what to do. Same thing goes for the other teams.
“Arbitration is supposed to be the fair way to decide, right? But when Andy MacPhail (Twins’ vice-president, player personnel) told me today he was turning down my arbitration offer because he was too afraid I’d win, I said,
‘Andy, you don’t want to be fair to me, then?’ And there was silence on the other end of the phone. Dead silence.”
Morris stopped and exhaled, a deep breath. He knows a grievance is currently being heard on the collusion question. He knows there could be more serious action taken by the Players Association. He knows he has helped spark it. What was the deep breath, one wonders? Exhaustion over the last four days
— or preparation for what is yet to come?
“Look,” said the man with more wins than any pitcher in the ’80s, “in the end I did what was best for me and for the other guys in baseball. By going to arbitration I can establish the fair market value for a top pitcher in baseball.
“At least in the public’s eye I’ve eliminated any doubt as to the way the owners operate.”
“Does that matter?” came the question.
“It does to me,” he said.
“Because maybe now people won’t be so hard on the players, always calling them spoiled and overpaid.”
He sighed. “Maybe they’ll realize now, it’s all a relative thing.” The door swung open momentarily, and some half-drunk patron screamed in:
“Jack! All right, Jack!” Morris did not even turn around.
Maybe they’ll realize it. And maybe they won’t. It is hard for everyday people — like the patrons peeking in from outside that glass door — to sympathize with Morris, who has already made more than $4 million for throwing
Maybe if they pictured themselves in a similar situation — a top-notch salesman, let’s say, who saw other salesmen making more money and decided to interview with outside companies, only to find none willing to take him on, even those competitive with his firm.
How would they feel? How did Morris feel?
“Helpless is a fair word,” he said. “You feel like somebody else is completely controlling your fate. The owners were saying, ‘You’re a fine athlete and you can play this game but you’re gonna play it by our rules or else you’re not gonna play.’ “
He shook his head. The issue goes ’round and ’round. True, Jack Morris makes great money, but in pro sports that is not uncommon. True, the owners have traditionally paid higher and higher salaries to free agents — but it is also their right to pull in the reins. What frustrates Morris and other players like him is that the owners are all pulling the reins in simultaneously.
And Morris, after 10 years with the Tigers, finds his “best option” is to sign on for just one more, at a figure that is now in the hands of an outsider.
“Is this the worst thing you’ve had to go through in baseball?” someone asked Morris.
“Well,” he said, “when I was growing up dreaming about the big leagues, I never realized someday I’d be involved with these kind of business-and-business-only transactions.”
“Then again,” someone said, “you never dreamed you’d be making millions of dollars for playing, either.”
Morris is honest. He nodded.
“No, I never did,” he said.
And that about sums up the stalemate. It was after 1 a.m. Morris’ wife phoned to say she was feeling ill, and asked when he was coming home. The crowd in Ginopolis was thinning, but the curious eyes stayed glued to the door. “Jack Morris is in there,” went the buzz.
“He’s back with the Tigers.”
Yes, he is back. For one year. He will wear a Detroit uniform. He will likely be on the mound Opening Day, and he will throw hard and he will want to win, and when the season ends he will be a free agent again.
“Only one thing has changed,” Morris said, his voice suddenly firm.
“Instead of four good reasons to play baseball, I’ve now only got three. No. 1 is my family. No. 2 is my teammates. No. 3 is the fans who supported me.”
“What used to be No. 4 ?” he was asked.
“A ball club that liked me,” he said.
Someone suggested that the Tigers probably still liked him.
“Yeah,” he said, “how can they not like a guy who’s going to do for them what I’m gonna do? Come back, give them another year of hard service, and for basically the same kind of ‘long- term commitment’ they give every rookie who makes the team. . . . “
He lowered his voice, as if verbalizing for the first time what this crazy week had finally yielded.
“One year, kid,” he said. “Good luck.”
The episode is over. The week is history. Jack Morris was shopped and Jack Morris came back unopened. And whether the whole thing dissolves or turns into the tinder for a baseball explosion — a major lawsuit, even a players walkout — no one knows. Not yet, anyhow.
What would you have done? What could you have done? You begin the week by making a decision. You end it with a decision being made for you.
“Listen, my wife’s sick,” he said, getting up. “Call me tomorrow.” He pulled up the zipper on his jacket, and headed for the glass door.
“Where you going?” asked one of the club staff as Morris walked past.
“I’m going home,” he said. CUTLINE A tired Jack Morris relaxes at a Farmington Hills restaurantearly Saturday after phoning general manager Bill Lajoie toaccept binding salary arbitration with the Tigers.