Jack Morris has had a busy summer. The former Detroit Tigers starting pitcher was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 29, and this afternoon he had his number 47 retired by the Tigers, ensuring that no Tiger player will ever wear the 254 game winner’s number ever again.
I began watching baseball regularly in 1983, about the same time Morris’ name began to be associated with other top starting pitchers of the day. I watched every game pitched, as long as the game was televised. He became more of a strikeout pitcher under the tutelage of then-Tigers pitching coach Roger Craig, who taught his pitchers how to throw a split-finger fastball. This pitch, which became known as a “splitter”, has the same action as a fastball coming out of the hand, but drops suddenly just before reaching the plate. A properly thrown splitter will cause the hitter to swing over top of the ball, and Morris perfected this pitch to his advantage.
Morris won 20 games for the first time in his career in ’83, and started 1984 off with a bang. In his second start of the season, he pitched a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox. At the time, the White Sox were no slouches, having come off a 99 win season in ’83, losing to the Baltimore Orioles in that year’s ALCS.
Morris’ no-hitter was the first one I ever saw on TV, and it was so exciting to watch. I was barely a teenager watching NBC’s “Saturday Game of the Week” , with legendary broadcasters Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola making the call. Not many games were shown on TV in those days the way they are today. NBC chose to cover this game in advance, as future Hall of Famer and new White Sox starter Tom Seaver was originally slated to make his debut with the team. However, a rain-out changed things, bumping all Chicago starters back a day.
The Tigers went on to win 35 of their first 40 games, and they ran away with the AL East Division in 1984. They went on to win the World Series, beating the San Diego Padres four games to one. Morris went on to win 198 games in a Tigers uniform, starting 34 or more games in six of his last seven seasons in Detroit. However, 1984 was the only year he won a ring with the Tigers.
Jack became a free agent after the 1990 season. On February 5, 1991, he signed a one year deal with the Minnesota Twins, getting an opportunity to play for his hometown team, having been born and raised in St. Paul. 1991 would prove to be memorable for the Twins and Morris. They won 95 games that year, and Jack did his part, winning 18 games, logging almost 250 innings en route to the playoffs. He made five starts in the postseason, winning four of them. Morris started Game 7 of the ’91 World Series against the Atlanta Braves, matching zeroes with future fellow Hall of Famer John Smoltz. The Twins’ workhorse threw 126 pitches over 10 innings, when Minnesota pinch hitter Gene Larkin drove in Dan Gladden, ending the game and the World Series. Morris’ 10 inning shutout became his defining moment and cemented his legacy forever.
But his career in Minnesota would prove to be “one and done”, as Morris again became a free agent and signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. Benefiting in large part to Toronto’s generous offense, Morris would win 21 games in 1992, marking the first time any Blue Jays starter would win 20 games or more. Despite a relatively high ERA of 4.04, he would come in fifth in voting for the AL Cy Young Award. Morris did pitch 240.2 innings, the 11th season he would reach that threshold in his career.
The Blue Jays would reach the postseason in ’92 and eventually went on to win the World Series four games to two over Atlanta. To help get them there, Toronto rode Morris hard in the second half of the season. He threw 127 innings over his last 18 starts of 1992, an average of just over seven innings/start, which would be unheard of today. But the 37 year old workhorse seemed to wear down, as he allowed 19 runs in 23 postseason innings. Still, Morris had another World Series Championship.
In 1993, he would earn yet another ring as the Blue Jays won 95 games and the AL East, going on to beat the Philadelphia Phillies in seven games. Joe Carter became Toronto’s Game 7 hero as he hit a walk-off home run to give the Blue Jays back to back championships. Personally, Morris had the worst season of his career, going 7-12 with an ERA of 6.19. Age and injury seemed to catch up to him.
The Blue Jays released Morris from his contract on November 5, 1993, making him a free agent. He would pitch one more season, going 10-6 for the Cleveland Indians with a ERA of 5.60 in 1994 before being released on August 9, a mere three days before a player’s strike wiped out the rest of that season. Morris went to spring training in 1995 with the Cincinnati Reds in a final attempt to catch on with a MLB team, but retired shortly afterward.
This writer believes the Baseball Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee made the right call by inducting Jack Morris into the Hall (along with former Tigers teammate Alan Trammell). He didn’t have the gaudiest of numbers, but he won ballgames and gave his teams a lot of innings. He just seemed to WIN. Morris pitched 3,824 innings over his career, over 549 appearances. That’s an average of 6.97 innings every time he took the mound. He’s the guy I would want standing on the mound in a “must win game”.