By Robert Grayson
If you’re an athlete, and you’re lucky enough, you’ll have a “moment.” That one defining play, game or series that stands out in sports history forever. An event that takes on a life of its own and becomes so much a part of sports lore that people remember what they were doing or where they were when it happened.
Think of a home run like Bill Mazeroski’s game-winning round-tripper in the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series or Kirk Gibson’s game-winning two-run blast in Game 1 of the 1988 Fall Classic. These are two that quickly come to mind. The perfect game Don Larsen threw in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series is another and so is the masterful 10-inning shutout pitching performance by Minnesota’s Jack Morris in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, which gave the new Hall of Famer’s hometown Twins the world championship.
Morris will be inducted into baseball’s shrine in Cooperstown on July 29. Now, as Morris joins baseball’s elite, that Game 7 on Oct. 27, 1991, has come to exemplify the right-hander’s 18-year major league baseball career (1977-1994), even though he only spent one of those seasons with the Twins. That game showcased the veteran hurler’s tenacity, his knack for working in and out of trouble, his steadfast refusal to give in to the opponent, and his determination to finish and win the contest.
The 1991 Fall Classic, which pitted the Minnesota Twins against the Atlanta Braves, went the full seven games. It is considered by many as the best World Series ever played, with three games going into extra innings and four games being won on the final at-bat. In five of the games the margin of victory was one run, and the seventh and final game was a 1–0 contest that took 10 innings to decide.
Morris came to the Twins in the 1991 season after playing 14 years with the Detroit Tigers (1977-1990). In a way, he had been preparing for that grueling Game 7 in the 1991 World Series his entire career.
Baseball had started making a transition by the time Morris got to the Bigs with Detroit in 1977. The major leagues were putting more of an emphasis on bringing in relief help earlier in the game than pushing a starting pitcher to work out trouble and complete a game. But the Tigers didn’t have the reliable bullpen help it needed to do that in every game, or even in most games.
In spring training of 1979, Detroit manager Sparky Anderson came to Morris with what, for the revered skipper, was an unusual request.
“He asked me to go out there and finish games. He told me I had the makeup to do it, he needed me to do it and I needed to help the bullpen,” Morris recalled. “He told me outright, I’m going to have to finish my own stuff and figure out how to win those games, because he’s not coming out to get me.”
Not only was that a different direction than most baseball strategists were heading in at the time, it was a stark departure for Anderson himself. The Hall of Fame manager was at the helm of the Detroit Tigers (1979-1995) during Morris’ tenure with the team. Before that, Anderson had been the skipper of the Cincinnati Reds (1970-1978) when that club was known as the Big Red Machine, and earned the nickname “Captain Hook.” He got that moniker with the Reds for being quick to pull his starter at the first sign of trouble and go right to the bullpen.
But while the Reds had some dependable arms in the pen, including Rawly Eastwick and Will McEnaney, the Tigers didn’t.
“What Sparky asked me to do taught me a valuable lesson,” Morris noted, who had 175 complete games in his career.
“I knew what my role was and I understood it. I went out there to complete games and eat up innings,” Morris said. “I know for years my earned run average had been an issue for a lot of people who thought it was not good enough for Hall of Fame honors. (Morris had a 3.90 career ERA.) But I never once thought about pitching for an ERA. I always thought about completing games, starting games, eating up innings and trying to win games, which I felt was more important than anything else. I’m not using that as an excuse for a high ERA. My mind-set was, if we won, it didn’t matter if it was 8-7 or 1-0. I was just as happy one way or the other.”
The St. Paul, Minnesota native added that his teammates, his coaches and his managers always knew what his mind-set was and “That’s why they let me go deeper into games.”
Evaluating starters in the game now, he added, “Today’s generation is different. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think for a second that the guys starting games now, especially the elite guys, could not do what we did. I know they could. But they haven’t been conditioned to do it, physically or mentally. That’s just how the game has evolved. It’s a different time.”
Considering the philosophy behind his pitching, it’s easy to see how Morris entered Game 7 of the 1991 World Series ready to pitch a complete game. The hurler toeing the rubber for the Braves, right-hander John Smoltz (himself now a Hall of Famer), was in his fourth year with Atlanta and was considered a strong and solid arm in their rotation. Smoltz was certainly capable of pitching a complete game and keeping the Twins at bay.
Morris was keenly aware that winning Game 7 wasn’t going to be an easy task. The crowd was buzzing with anticipation as Game 7 got underway at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Morris and Smoltz didn’t disappoint fans: The game lived up to the hype and both hurlers matched each other just about pitch for pitch for the first seven innings.
The Twins got a runner to third in the bottom of the third inning but couldn’t score. Likewise, the Braves got a runner to third in the top of the fifth inning, but failed to knock him in. That was the closest either team got to scoring until the eighth inning.
In the top of the eighth, the Braves’ designated hitter, Lonnie Smith, led off with a single against Morris. The Atlanta third baseman, Terry Pendleton, then hit a line drive into the gap in left center that should have scored the speedy DH. But Smith hesitated around second and only made it to third. Nevertheless, it was still second and third for the Braves with nobody out.
Morris remembers that he had such confidence during the game, such focus, that he never doubted himself, not even in that moment.
“I never thought I was in trouble and knew I could get out of it if I was,” he said.
The next Braves’ batter, Ron Gant, weakly grounded out to first and the runners couldn’t advance.
After a brief meeting on the mound with Twins manager Tom Kelly, Morris intentionally walked right fielder David Justice to load the bases and set up a double play. The Braves’ first baseman, Sid Bream, came to the plate and did just what Morris wanted him to. He smacked a grounder to first, where Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek gobbled it up and threw home for the force-out and then got the return throw from Twins catcher Brian Harper for the 3-2-3 double play. Morris escaped without giving up a run.
The Twins threatened in the bottom of the eighth when Randy Bush, pinch-hitting for Minnesota shortstop Greg Gagne, got a single off Smoltz. Then after Twins left fielder Dan Gladden was retired, Minnesota second baseman Chuck Knoblauch slapped a single, putting runners at first and third.
Braves manager Bobby Cox then pulled Smoltz from the game in favor of formidable Atlanta reliever Mike Stanton. The bullpen ace intentionally walked Minnesota superstar Kirby Puckett to load the bases and then got Hrbek to hit into an inning-ending double play. Both teams had put runners in scoring position in the eighth inning but neither side had scored.
Morris went out in the ninth and easily retired the Braves in order. The Twins almost won the game in the bottom of the ninth, getting a man as far as third with two out, but they couldn’t push the run across. The seventh and deciding game of the 1991 World Series would go into extra innings.
Tom Kelly was going to yank Morris after the ninth inning.
“When I came in after the ninth inning, he told me I was out of the game. ‘You’ve done enough,’ he said. I just told him I had a lot left in me,” Morris said.
As Morris recalls, Twins pitching coach Dick Such cast the deciding vote, telling Kelly he might as well let Morris go back out for the 10th inning. Kelly reportedly responded, “OK. It’s just a game.”
Looking as strong as he had at any point in the game, Morris steamrolled through the three Braves batters who came up against him in the 10th. The Twins pitcher, who had 10 complete games during the regular season, insists he was ready to keep going and there probably wasn’t a Minnesota fan in the Metrodome who didn’t want him to, but it wouldn’t be necessary.
Dan Gladden led off the bottom of the 10th for the Twins, facing Alejandro Peña who was now on the hill for the Braves. Gladden looped a ball into left center and hustled all the way to second on the lazy fly ball. Knoblauch moved Gladden to third on a sacrifice. Then Peña intentionally walked both Puckett and Hrbek. That brought the light-hitting Gene Larkin to the plate with the bases loaded with Twins. The Braves’ outfield moved in to try to cut the run off at the plate on a fly ball. But Larkin slapped the ball over the drawn-in outfield and Gladden scored, giving the Twins the world championship and Morris a complete-game win.
Being from Minnesota helped inspire Morris to victory. He remembers hearing the fans cheering at the Metrodome as Game 7 went along and thinking, “I’m part of this and we’re not losing. Those are my neighbors out there and I can’t let them down.”
Morris, born in 1955, grew up in the Highland Park section of St. Paul. Naturally, as a youngster, he was a fan of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins came into existence when the Washington Senators left the nation’s capital for the Twin Cities in 1961. The budding major leaguer attended Highland Park High School, where he showed off his strong arm, not on the mound but at third base and as a shortstop.
He was so much a Minnesotan that he had hoped during his high school days to play baseball for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. But then in 1973, his senior year of high school, the young Morris decided he wanted to play for a school where the college baseball season was longer. Winter weather limited the season in Minnesota. He was recruited by Brigham Young University (BYU), in Provo, Utah, where the head baseball coach was interested in turning Morris into a pitcher.
One of the players at BYU was Vance Law who played in the major leagues for 11 years, from 1980 to 1991 (with one season in that span, 1990, spent in professional baseball in Japan). Law’s father, Vernon, had been a Cy Young Award-winning pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960, and worked with the BYU pitchers in the 1970s. Morris credits the elder Law for turning him into a good enough pitcher at BYU to catch the eye of a major league scout.
The Detroit Tigers drafted Morris in 1976 while he was in his junior year at BYU. By the summer of 1976, Morris was playing in the Southern League for the Tigers’ Double-A team, the Montgomery (Alabama) Rebels. Morris had a high ERA (6.25) with Montgomery, but the Tigers liked what they saw and moved him up to the Triple-A Evansville (Indiana) Triplets in the American Association in 1977. He won six games and lowered his ERA to 3.60 by July, when he was unexpectedly called up to The Show.
The Detroit Tigers had to reach down into their farm system and bring up a starter when one of the team’s star hurlers, Mark Fidrych, was sidelined with knee and arm problems. Morris got the call. He had roughly a five-week stint with the team, which was managed by Ralph Houk at the time. Morris got six starts before running into arm trouble himself and being shut down for the rest of the season. He had a 1-1 record with the Tigers in 1977.
Arm problems recurred for Morris in 1978, and his struggles led the future major league starter to spend much of the 1978 season in the Tigers’ bullpen, though he did get seven starts that year. He finished the 1978 season with a 3-5 record. The right-hander’s issues in 1978 prompted the Tigers to have him start the 1979 season back at the Triple-A level with Evansville. The future Hall of Famer worked out his problems during the spring with the help of Triplets manager Jim Leyland, and Morris was back with the Tigers on May 13 for good.
By the time the feisty moundsman returned to the Tigers, the team had made a managerial change and Sparky Anderson was then the club’s skipper. Anderson challenged his players, and Morris welcomed the opportunity to show what he could do. He won 17 games for the Tigers in 1979 with an ERA of 3.28.
Over the next four seasons, Morris won 67 games. He was establishing himself with a Tigers team that was poised to be not only a contender, but a world champion. The team included up-and-coming players like Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker and Lance Parrish, a core that would develop into the powerhouse 1984 Detroit Tigers.
That team got off to a 9-0 start, winning 16 of their first 17, with Morris winning four of those games. They were 35-5 after 40 games for an .875 winning percentage. The 1984 Tigers ended up winning 104 games. Morris collected 19 of those wins. The team led the American League East wire to wire in 1984 and easily went on to win the American League pennant and the World Series. During that Fall Classic, Morris pitched two complete games (Games 1 and 4), both wins for the unstoppable Tigers.
Not to be overlooked in that 1984 season is a 4-0 no-hitter Morris pitched on April 7, 1984 against the Chicago White Sox in the Windy City. The game happened to be televised as the NBC Game of the Week and garnered Morris national recognition. The Tigers ace struck out eight on his way to pitching the first no-hitter for the Tigers since Jim Bunning pitched a no-no for Detroit against the Red Sox in 1958.
Morris has thought about what distinguished his pitching performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series—which he calls his defining moment in baseball—from his no-hitter.
“There’s a dominance in both—no doubt. But here’s the difference, and I’ve always said this about a no-hitter or a perfect game. I think you need a break or two. You need some lady luck on your side. And I had some lady luck on my side in my no-hitter. I had some bounces that went right into guys’ gloves. My teammates made some catches that I hadn’t seen before. I got some breaks.”
Case in point. In the bottom of the first inning of Morris’s no-hitter, Chisox leadoff hitter Rudy Law sent a rocket into right field that everyone in the ballpark thought would fall in for extra bases or leave the stadium altogether. But Tigers right fielder Kirk Gibson sprinted to the wall and made a spectacular catch. It was a harbinger of things to come on that chilly afternoon at Comisky Park. In some sense, that entire April 7 game was a harbinger of how the 1984 season was about to play out for the Detroit Tigers.
Morris said the historic 1984 season came about because of lessons learned by the young team as they grew and matured.
“We all had chances and opportunities. We were on the quick path to the big leagues because the Tigers were a rather poor team at the time we broke in and were in a rebuilding stage. But we had to take advantage of our chances, and we were lucky enough to be able to do that. Then it all started to blossom,” said the 1980s’ winningest pitcher. Morris amassed 162 wins during that decade.
“I think the greatest lesson we learned to enable us to have a year like 1984 was that we took a whooping for a couple of years when we were young in the big leagues. But you keep battling, and if you’ve got any heart at all, you look across the field and say, ‘Why are those guys whooping us? Getting tired of this. We’ve got to do better.’ And we did. We started getting better. Pretty soon we could look across that field and say ‘we’re as good as you and now we’ve got to prove it.’ Then in ’84, we proved it.”
Morris gives Tigers manager Sparky Anderson, a fellow Hall of Famer, much of the credit for the team’s success and fighting spirit, especially in 1984.
“Sparky made us ballplayers,” Morris said. “He made me a ballplayer. He brought out the best in the team.”
Though the ’84 Tigers left their mark on baseball history, they were not well represented in the Baseball Hall of Fame until this year, when Morris and Trammell were put into the shrine by the Modern Era Committee. Morris said he had a great sense of pride being able to represent the 1984 Detroit Tigers in Cooperstown.
“I think a lot of people in Michigan wondered why a team so good and so dominant had nobody to represent them in the Hall of Fame,” said Morris, who won 198 games during his tenure with the Tigers. “I’m proud that Alan and I made it together. I can’t think of a better scenario than to go into the Hall of Fame with a former teammate and a guy I respect and love so much. And I know it’s got to be good for Tiger fans because the tradition of Tiger baseball is magnified by having the great ’84 team acknowledged in this way.”
Following his 14-season run with the Tigers, Morris became a free agent and put in his memorable one-year stint with the 1991 Twins. After the 1991 season, the premier pitcher was once again on the free-agent market. Morris wanted to stay in Minnesota, but was lured away by the Toronto Blue Jays, where he played for two seasons (1992 and 1993). He ended his career with the Cleveland Indians in 1994, though he did try to make a comeback with the Cincinnati Reds in spring training of 1995, but retired before the start of that season.
In his 18 seasons in the Bigs, the right-hander was on four world champions—the 1984 Tigers, the 1991 Twins, and the 1992 and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays. The right-hander had seven wins in the post season, four of them in the World Series—two apiece in 1984 and 1991.
“How do you pick a best team from the clubs you were on when four of them were world champs? That’s the ultimate question. I’ve just got really good memories from all those teams,” Morris said. “I look back and I’ll honestly admit that our Toronto Blue Jay teams were the most talented teams. We were almost like All-Star teams in Toronto. The 1984 Tiger team was the most determined of the group. Guys that were not household names were everyday heroes for 35 of the first 40 games and it was a different guy every night. And the teammates—the clubhouse camaraderie of the ’91 Twins team was the best of them all as far as I’m concerned. We cherished each other—the way we teased each other, the way we just got along and fought hard to win games.”
The career 254-game winner concluded, “Every team is different in their own way, but there isn’t a bad thing about any one of them because you’ve got a bond, a memory for life. That’s one thing I’ve always said to young players who haven’t gotten to the post season, haven’t won a world championship. You’ll never know what it’s like until you do it, but it (the world championship) is for life. It never goes away.”
One of the pitches that got Morris to Cooperstown was his split-finger fastball, or forkball. It was taught to him by two notables in the game, fellow Tigers pitcher Milt Wilcox and Detroit pitching coach Roger Craig (1980-1984). Morris started developing the pitch at the end of the 1982 season. He was having trouble with his slider and needed a pitch that would finish batters off.
“I had a lot of 2-2, 3-2 counts and I couldn’t put a guy away anymore. My slider just flattened out. I wasn’t getting the strikeouts that I once did,” Morris said.
But throwing a forkball didn’t cross his mind until Wilcox mentioned it to him one day.
“The guy I really have to give credit to is Milt Wilcox. He watched Bruce Sutter throw it and have great success with it. One day when I was throwing a bullpen session, he asked me if I ever tried throwing it,” Morris recalled. “He showed me how to throw it. It took me probably 50 pitches in the bullpen before the first one worked right. But when that first one dropped and sank out of the sky, I knew I had something special.”
Craig, himself a major leaguer from 1955 to 1966, helped Morris perfect the pitch. By the start of the 1983 season Morris was using the forkball in games.
“It became my out pitch, it became my equalizer, and for a couple of years, I had it all to myself in the American League. I could tell hitters that it was coming and, in my heart of hearts, they weren’t going to hit it, even if I told them. That’s how much confidence I had in that pitch. So it changed my career about halfway through. It gave me the pitch that took me to another level,” Morris said.
That first year with the forkball in 1983, Morris won 20 games. That was the first time he had reached that plateau in his career. He would be a 20-game winner twice more, both in 1986 (21) and 1992 (21).
The forkball is not easy on catchers because it winds up in the dirt much of the time. Morris is quick to credit his catchers for staying with the pitch and helping him get outs. Speaking of his backstops, the new Hall of Famer said, “They’re everything. I abused my catchers. Lance Parrish was a man’s man and he got punished because I threw my split finger, my forkball, in the dirt on purpose, knowing that if I started it at the knees, it would break to the ground. But he blocked it. He would bury that ball, pick it up, and throw the guy out if he had to or tag him out. And that’s not fun, I don’t care how big you are, how strong you are, that cannot be fun. He was willing to do it and he did it with grace and class. All my other catchers, Brian Harper, Pat Borders—I had a bunch of them—understood that was part of my game and they had to man up behind the plate to help me win games.”
The 6-foot-3 hurler with the unmistakable moustache spent 15 years on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot for the Hall of Fame. While he came close, Morris was not voted into the Hall by the writers. However, Morris was thrilled to be elected to the shrine by the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Modern Era Committee, especially since people he played against were on the committee. They included George Brett, Robin Yount and Dennis Eckersley.
“The older you get, the more you can be appreciative of what it all means. It’s overwhelming to know that I finally made it because I did taste it, I was close, and it just didn’t work out,” he said.
He read all the pros and cons of him getting into the Hall of Fame, understood them and realized what a hard job the writers had making selections for Cooperstown.
“There’s a world of numbers, analytics and sabermetrics that weren’t part of the baseball world when I played. So now I’m being analyzed by a bunch of numbers that didn’t exist when I played. And had they existed, maybe I would have had a better understanding of what it would have meant to not pitch through pain, to not go deeper in a game on the nights that I told my manager I was fine when I wasn’t,” he said. “I don’t regret doing that because if you go to the wall and never try to push the wall down, you’ll never know if you can. And I would get great results on a lot of days when I didn’t think I could push myself any further and I did.”
Now another wall has come down for the legendary hurler: Morris is going into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.