Tigers' Jack Morris gushes about Detroit during number-retirement ceremony

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Jack Morris talks about his experience during the special pregame ceremony to retire the No. 47 of Tigers pitcher and Hall of Famer.

Detroit — On a glorious Sunday at Comerica Park, the temperature on the left-field scoreboard was perfect.

It read 80, on the dot.

And few were baseball players were more defined by the '80s — from that period-piece mustache, to those major-league best 162 wins during the decade — than Jack Morris, who, 28 years after last throwing a pitch for the Detroit Tigers, finally saw his number retired.

Morris' last name and No. 47 is painted in white, with blue trim, on the left-center field brick wall — starting a second row of immortals, just below Hank Greenberg's No. 5 and Charlie Gehringer's No. 2, and near Al Kaline's No. 6, Hal Newhouser's No. 16, Willie Horton's No. 23 and Ty Cobb's name (there were no numbers when he played).

Shortly after 1 p.m. Sunday, following a classy ceremony that featured several of Morris' Tigers teammates from the 1980s, stadium workers pulled down the black cloth and revealed the No. 47.

More: 'It was an honor': Tigers' Boyd twirls gem on Morris' day

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Morris, who stayed tear-free during his speech moments earlier — unlike during his Hall-of-Fame speech in Cooperstown, N.Y., last month — seemed to finally succumb to the emotions of the moment, letting out a visible, "Wow."

"I guess part of me selfishly always wondered what it would look like if it ever happened," Morris said after the half-hour-long ceremony. "Now, here it is."

Morris, 63, is the first Tigers player to have his number retired since Willie Horton's No. 23 in 2000.

Alan Trammell, who went into the Hall of Fame alongside Morris, will have his No. 3 retired Aug. 26 — his number likely going to the right of Morris'. There's actually room for two more numbers to the right of Morris', and he hopes, as do all of his former Tigers teammates, that the space is reserved for Lou Whitaker's No. 1, someday.

Trammell, Whitaker, Dan Petry, Lance Parrish, Kirk Gibson, Larry Herndon and Dave Rozema were among Morris' former teammates who attended the ceremony -- which, fittingly, came on an afternoon when the Tigers played Morris' hometown Minnesota Twins, with whom he also won a World Series championship.

The Twins will honor Morris on Saturday, prior to a game against the Tigers.

But Sunday was all about Detroit, a blue-collar city that Morris knew nothing about when the Tigers drafted him out in the fifth round out of BYU in 1976 — but a city that Morris learned quickly was a perfect fit.

"It didn't take me long to figure it out, it was right in my wheelhouse," said Morris, who strolled onto the stage Sunday with The Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" blaring over the loudspeakers. "Hard-working people, salt-of-the-earth, great, loyal sports fans.

"It's something truly special for all of us athletes that played here in Detroit.

"I can't thank you enough for what you've given to me, what you mean to me and what you'll continue to mean to me as I get older and older."

The ceremony, emceed by Dan Dickerson, featured a couple very poignant videos — one a montage of Morris' career, set perfectly to the soundtrack of Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" and featuring some great calls from the likes of Ernie Harwell and George Kell, and another video of congratulations from luminaries throughout baseball, including Morris' old Twins manager, Tom Kelly, and fellow Hall-of-Famer George Brett.

Brett was on the veterans committee that elected Morris and Trammell in December, and made it clear how he voted, even though the voting process is technically secret.

"I hated facing ya," Brett, the Kansas City Royals legend, said in the video, saying Morris' famous split-finger — actually taught to him by Milt Wilcox, and refined by pitching coach Roger Craig — "murdered me."

It was the splitter that, more than anything, probably made Morris the Hall-of-Famer he finally is, after 15 years of falling painstakingly short on the writers' ballot.

But it was his former manager, Sparky Anderson, who got the process going when he challenged Morris early in his career. Anderson told Morris it was his responsibility to finish the games he started. Anderson didn't have a blueprint for Morris to follow, just a directive to do it. Morris went on to throw 175 complete games, out of the 527 games he started — meaning he finished more than 33 percent of his starts.

Petry, who spoke during the ceremony, recalled a conversation he had with Anderson years ago, debating Morris' Hall-of-Fame credentials. Anderson thought his ERA was too high (3.90). Petry reminded Anderson he was the one who left him in the games.

"So it was your fault!" Petry said, drawing laughter from the crowd. "Sparky would just laugh, 'I didn't leave in those games because I wanted to, I was just afraid to go out there and take him out of the game and have him slam that ball in my hand!'

"Jack didn't pitch to a low ERA, he just simply won baseball games.

"He somehow was going to find a way to win."

Other dignitaries in attendance Sunday included owner Christoper Ilitch, general manager Al Avila, Kaline, Horton and Morris' wife, children and grandchildren.

Morris was presented several gifts, including a framed No. 47 home jersey, a No. 47-shaped Waterford Crystal and — this was really cool — a blue seat from Old Tiger Stadium, the number on the seat 47, of course.

Morris plopped right down into the seat and gave two thumbs-up.

Almost all the current Tigers watched the ceremony from the top step of the dugout, and several Twins did, too.

Morris capped off the celebration with a ceremonial first pitch, to, who else, Parrish. It was a bit high, about the only thing that went wrong — aside from an embarrassing shipping snafu delaying the arrival of the 10,000 Morris jerseys that were to be passed out to the fans (they received vouchers, instead) — on a day that, starting with that temperature, was practically perfect.

"I wanted to get on that podium today and say, 'Finally!'" Parrish said of the long-overdue respect being given to the 1984 World Series-champion Tigers this summer.

"Somebody, somebodies, are recognized as part of that era and part of that team. 

"We all felt like we had a pretty special group.

"When I'd watch these shows on TV about the greatest teams in the history of baseball, they never include the '84 Tigers. And we started out 35-5 and went wire to wire. I don't know much better you can get than that."

Morris and Trammell are the first players from that 1984 team to make the Hall of Fame. 

Anderson was inducted in 2000, but his plaque shows him wearing a Cincinnati Reds hat, despite managing nine years in Cincinnati and 18 in Detroit.

Morris made it clear Sunday, as he did during his Hall-of-Fame weekend, that while he and Trammell are getting the official recognition, it's a testament to the whole team — the team that won Detroit's last World Series.

"We brought some happiness to the city," said Morris, whose No. 47 has been worn by eight Tigers over the years — but none since he left as a free agent after the 1990 season. 

"And you can't believe how much happiness you brought back to us."