Jack Morris: Workhorse mentality molded by Sparky

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Orlando, Fla. — Who knew?

Who knew the thing Jack Morris took the most pride in as a major-league pitcher, the very thing he built his legacy on would end up being the thing that delayed and delayed and delayed his acceptance into the Hall of Fame?

“There is a whole world of analytics and sabermetrics in the game now that weren’t part of the baseball world that I played in,” said Morris, who along with Tigers teammate Alan Trammell will finally be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 29. “Now I am being analyzed by a bunch of numbers that didn’t even exist when I played.”

The only statistics that Morris wanted to be judged on were starts made, starts finished, innings pitched and, most significantly, team wins accrued. He didn’t care what his ERA was, and there was no such stat as WAR or WHIP back then.

“Maybe if they did have that stuff in my time, I would have had a better understanding of what it meant not to pitch through pain,” he said. “Or not to go deeper into games when I told my manager I was fine — when I wasn’t.

“But I don’t regret doing any of that because if you go to the wall and never try to push the wall down, you will never know if you can.”

Morris found out he could. He posted 527 starts in his career and finished 175 of them. Unfathomable in today’s game. He pitched 3,824 innings and was the winningest pitcher in the 1980s.

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“I am a product of what I know and what was taught to me when I was young in the game and that’s what became important in my career,” he said. “Definitely the complete games and innings pitched and going deep for a starter — that’s changed now. The game has evolved.

“But in my time, a couple of years into my career, I was asked to finish games.”

Sparky Anderson. The legendary Tigers’ skipper, who until this year was the only representative of that championship 1984 team with a plaque in Cooperstown, molded Morris into the workhorse he became.

“He told me I had the makeup to do it and he needed me to do it,” Morris said. “He basically said he wasn’t coming out to get me and I had to finish my own stuff and figure out how to win these games.”

Morris still vividly remembers the conversation with Anderson.

“Sparky said, ‘I don’t know how to pitch and I certainly can’t tell you how to pitch,’ ” Morris said. “ ‘But you are going to have to figure it out because I’m not coming to get you.’ It taught me valuable lessons.”

But pitching late in games, facing lineups three and four times — things that modern analytics show greatly favor the hitters — certainly played a role in Morris’ 3.90 ERA and 1.296 WHIP, numbers that writers used to keep them off their Hall of Fame ballots.

“For years my ERA has been an issue for a lot of people who thought it was not great enough for Hall of Fame honors,” Morris said. “But I never once thought about pitching for an ERA. I always thought about completing games, eating innings and trying to win games.”

Through his 18-year career, Morris faced lineups for a third time in 503 games, 4,148 at-bats. Those hitters hit .257 against him, and he gave up 458 runs. He faced lineups for a fourth time in 380 games, 2,309 at-bats — .233 with 242 runs allowed.

“My mindset was, if we won, it didn’t matter if it was seven to eight, or one to nothing,” Morris said. “I was just happy if we won.”

Morris also debunked a myth about his legendary split-fingered fastball, which he developed in the early 1980s and became his signature pitch. It wasn’t pitching coach Roger Craig who taught it to him — it was teammate Milt Wilcox.

“Roger’s gotten the credit for it, and he did help me perfect it and guide me into when to throw the pitch,” Morris said. “But I have to give credit to Milt Wilcox. He was with the Cubs and saw Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter have success with it.”

Wilcox approached Morris during a bullpen session in Oakland and asked if Morris had ever tried throwing a splitter?

“I know why he asked me, too — because my slider started to really stink,” Morris said. “I didn’t have an out pitch and I couldn’t put guys away anymore. So Milt showed me how to throw it. It took me about 50 pitches before the first one ever worked right.

“But when that first one dropped and sunk out of the sky, I knew it was something special. I knew I could work on it and two or three starts later I was throwing it. It became my equalizer and for a few years I had it all to myself in the American League.”

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Morris called his 10-inning shutout to beat John Smoltz and the Braves 1-0 in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series with the Minnesota Twins the defining moment of his career. But the no-hitter he threw against the White Sox early in 1984 ranks among his most cherished baseball memories.

“When I think about that no-hitter, I remember Greg Luzinski was up with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and home-plate umpire Durwood Merrill failed to call strike three when he should have,” Morris said with a laugh. “He swung, missed the ball by a foot and Durwood called it a ball, ball four, and I had to pitch to Ron Kittle.

“I don’t know if it was possible, but I was thinking, ‘Durwood, I’m going to come and try to rip your mask off if I blow this no-hitter now.’ But I was good enough to strike out Kittle.”

Merrill died in 2003, but Morris said he would kid him about that call for years after.

“I would tease him, ‘Durwood, how could you miss that call,’” Morris said. “And he’d say, ‘Jack, that was a Hall of Fame pitch — but it was a ball.’ ”

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Morris also wondered if the baseball strike in 1981 didn’t cost him a record for most consecutive complete-game wins. Morris pitched complete-game victories in seven straight starts before the strike. In those starts, his ERA was 1.57 and opponents hit .199.

“I will go to my grave wondering how many more straight wins I would’ve got had the strike not hit,” he said. “Because I was at some kind of confidence level then and honestly, it never came back.”

Until the vote on Sunday, Morris had garnered the highest percentage of votes by the Baseball Writers Association of America without getting into the Hall of Fame. It was an agonizing process for Morris and he was often outspoken about his bitterness.

But all’s well that ends well.

“Time has been wonderful for me,” Morris said. “I didn’t know that during the earlier years of the ballot. But the older you get, the more you can appreciate what it all means. It’s overwhelming to know I finally made it.

“Because I did taste it. I was close and it just didn’t work out. … But all the time I spent wondering if this day would ever come, it seems to have vanished or been erased right now. It did come and it’s amazing.”