DETROIT — Jack Morris is knocking on the door again. Will this be the year the Tigers pitching star gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame?
Morris’ candidacy received a considerable spike in voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America last year, going from 53.5 percent in 2011 to 66.7 percent in 2012. He was just 48 votes short of the 75 percent required for Cooperstown enshrinement last year, when his 382 votes were the second-highest total to that of inductee Barry Larkin.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Morris said, “but I’m still a long way from getting in there. I’ll sit in the same seat I’ve sat in for the 14th year and wait. If it’s going to come, it’s going to come. But it’s not going to be a life-changing thing for me at this point. I experienced the emotional roller coaster early on, and now I’m numb to it.”
I’ve known Morris since 1984, and he’s as fierce a competitor as I’ve been around. He’s saying all the right things right now, but I could hear the desire in his voice on the phone. He wants in, and will learn his fate when results are announced Jan. 9.
I asked what he was proudest of from his career, and what accomplishments make him Hall-worthy?
“I’m proud of everything I did,” Morris said. “I have nothing to hang my head about. It’s been a learning experience and a great lesson for me. If it’s meant to be, it will be. I can accept it, either way. To win championships with great teammates is something I can always cherish.”
Winning it all is Morris’ greatest legacy. He pitched for four World Series winners with the 1984 Tigers, 1991 Twins and 1992-1993 Blue Jays. He was 2-0 in both the 1984 Series against the Padres and the 1991 Series versus the Braves.
Morris had his signature performance in Game 7 on Oct. 27, 1991. He pitched 10 shutout innings for a 1-0 win over Atlanta and John Smoltz (who exited in the eighth inning) at the Metrodome in a true classic. Morris had five 1-2-3 innings and five innings when he stranded at least one runner in scoring position.
Mark Lemke reached third with one out in the fifth, but Morris got NL MVP Terry Pendleton to pop up and Ron Gant on a called third strike.
However, Morris was at his best in the eighth, when Lonnie Smith singled and Pendleton doubled with nobody out. Gant hit a weak grounder to first base for the first out, and Smith could not score. Morris intentionally walked David Justice before getting Sid Bream to hit into an inning-ending double play.
“That was pretty special, wasn’t it?” said Morris.
His teams won six of the seven playoff series he took part in. Morris was 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA for Detroit in the 1984 postseason, and his only miss came with the 1987 Tigers.
Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, noting that Morris was a long-time ace who started three All-Star Games and on 14 consecutive Opening Days, pulled this out of his story files to explain why he votes for Morris: “His manager handed him the ball in Game 1 of six of the seven postseason series he participated in — with three different teams. The Morris detractors have every right to look at the facts they want to look at. But so do those of us who vote for him.”
Morris was 254-186 in 18 seasons with a 3.90 ERA that has come to haunt him.
Alan Trammell played shortstop behind Morris for all of his 14 seasons in Detroit, and had a point to make about that ERA: “If a game was 7-1 for Jack, it would usually end up a 7-4 win. He threw strikes with that kind of lead, and if he gave up some solo homers — so be it. But if it was 3-2 or 2-1, it was going to stay right there with Jack.”
Scott Miller of CBSSports.com wrote in an email: “Because of his career 3.90 ERA, he’s become a flashpoint in the ongoing guerrilla war between the sabermetric crowd (who howl no) and some old school writers (who acknowledge his years of being a staff ace). He was the ace for three different World Series champions — ’84 Tigers, ’91 Twins and ’92 Blue Jays. Yes, his ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall if elected. But he also pitched during the DH era when ERAs were zooming up.
“Morris won more games and completed more games than any pitcher in the 1980s. To me, in his era, if you had to win one game, Morris was your guy. One of his pitching coaches, Roger Craig, told me last year that ‘of all the pitchers I’ve ever been around — Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning, Don Newcombe — he’s as good a big-game pitcher as I’ve seen.’ That’s good enough for me. Had Morris pitched in New York, I bet you he’d be in by now.”
Morris received 22.2 percent of the vote in 2000, his first year of eligibility, and attracted little interest for four years. But he climbed to 41.2 percent in 2006 and 52.3 percent in 2010, and into contention. Players get 15 years on the ballot, and so Morris is down to his last two voting chances.
“Bert, Sutter and Rice all waited until the end to get in,” Morris said. “So, I’m not the Lone Ranger here.”
Jim Rice (15th year), Bert Blyleven (14th) and Bruce Sutter (13th) each were elected over the last seven years.
“I hope that Jack gets in,” Trammell said. “It’s something I know that he wants. He’s that close. To me, the era that you were in is the best way to define careers. And in the 1980s, Jack was second to none.”