Ex-Tigers ace Jack Morris caps 'incredible journey' with Hall of Fame induction

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Former Tigers pitcher Jack Morris gives his induction speech during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday in Cooperstown, New York.

Cooperstown, N.Y. — One of baseball’s biggest-game pitchers delivered one last gem.

Jack Morris, 18 years after first appearing on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, 24 years after last throwing a major-league pitch, and 41 after throwing his first, finally took his turn in the ultimate rotation among the game's legends early Sunday evening.

Morris went in about a half-hour after Alan Trammell, giving Tigers fans the sweetest double play they've seen in years.

"I had no idea how much I would come to appreciate and love the hardworking people of Michigan and Detroit," Morris said during a speech during which he paused several times as tears began to well up. "I will always cherish the friendships I made there.

"Nineteen-eighty-four was an incredible year: 35-5 start, wire to wire in first place and a world championship that brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

"I owe a huge 'thank you' to Detroit."

Morris, unlike Trammell, wasn't a Tiger lifer — leaving after the 1990 season for free agency, first to his hometown Minnesota Twins, then the Toronto Blue Jays. He won a world championship with both, three for his career.

But he made his longest impressions on Detroit, if not his greatest — that, of course, would've been the 10-inning epic performance for the Twins in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

For the Tigers, however, the big, mustachioed right-hander was 198-150 with a 3.73 ERA, threw a no-hitter and was the only Tigers pitcher to start on Opening Day from 1980-90.

While Trammell's speech, predictably, was more modest and humble, Morris' had more emotion, and, yes, more humor.

He even smirked when, yes, he actually thanked the sportswriters — the same sportswriters he sparred with for the 15 years he fell short of election, all before the call finally came from the Hall of Fame in December, as he got in on his first appearance before the oversight, veterans committee.

"Whether you voted for me or not," said Morris, "thank you for keeping my name alive."

Morris thanked a slew of people, many from his Detroit days, including his old pitching coach, Roger Craig, who taught him the pitch — the split-finger — that would make him the Hall-of-Famer he, finally, is today. He thanked the owners he played under and even ones he didn't, like the Ilitches. Morris thanked Trammell, sitting over to his left, and another old coach, Dick Tracewski.

Morris also heaped praise on his old minor-league coach, some guy named Jim Leyland, for "encouragement that helped me to realize that I never wanted to go back to the minor leagues." He even worked in a mention of Ron Gardenhire, now Tigers manager but then a Twins coach, and, Morris said, the only coach he ever played for that was younger than him.

And, like Trammell, he paid special mention to the late Sparky Anderson, Morris' manager from 1979 until he left following the 1990 season.

He credited Anderson with teaching him that it was his responsible to finish a ballgame, not the bullpen's, no matter if he had given up no runs or a dozen. It was that tough love, Morris said, that made him the pitcher he became — the pitcher who eventually outdueled fellow Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz, sitting right behind him on this day on the dais, in that historical Game 7.

"He taught me a valuable lesson of allowing me to fail," Morris told the crowd of more than 53,000. "I had plenty of challenges and failures, but it only made me work harder. It also didn't hurt to have a short memory."

Morris, now working in broadcasting, had some good one-liners in his speech, like in his ode to his old coach at BYU — "I went skiing waaaaay more than you realized." And there was a good one about Paul Beeston, CEO of the Blue Jays when Morris was signed with them prior to the 1992 season. At dinner the night of the contract signing, Beeston delivered a toast with a zinger, "May you never know how much more I was willing to pay you."

More: Chipper Jones: 'Nothing better' than Whitaker, Trammell turning 2

More: What it says on Jack Morris' Hall of Fame plaque

He also told the story of his first encounter with Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski, when Morris was a youngster. By Morris’ account, he threw three perfect pitches, all called balls, then on the fourth, gave up a scorched double. Plate umpire Ron Luciano, a character in his own right, approached Morris and said, “Jack Morris, that’s Carl Yastrzemski. He’s one step away from the Hall of Fame. Welcome to the big leagues.”

Morris finished his major-league career in 1994, his lone year with the Cleveland Indians, a team with which he believes he could've won his fourth ring, if not for the labor strike that wiped out that year's World Series.

Morris, whose father, wife, three children and six grandchildren were in attendance, has been a hot topic among Hall-of-Fame voters for years, with equally passionate voters on both sides of his candidacy. Critics don't like his bloated ERA (3.90); the analytics community never gave him the time of day. But supporters praised his gritty, win-at-all-costs demeanor.

It's been a long time coming to get this point, 15 years of waiting for a phone call that never came — and one when it finally did. When the process first began, he still had all of that auburn hair. It's all gray now. He talked earlier in the weekend about not having to wait for the call next year, joking that he now gets to pass the baton on to the next "poor SOB" whose credentials get debated for years and decades.

He did answer the call one more time Sunday.

"Baseball is a team sport played by individuals, and so is life," said Morris, 63, amazingly the third native of St. Paul, Minn., to go into the Hall of Fame — along with Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor. "Winning and losing are facts of life, but it's how you deal with life which defines you.

"God blessed me with a gift. My life in baseball has been an incredible journey and I am grateful for everything."