Morris enjoying Tigers' run, Verlander's rise

Morris enjoying Tigers' run, Verlander's rise

Morris enjoying Tigers' run, Verlander's rise
DETROIT -- Cool fall night, big game and stage to match, electricity in the air. Jack Morris was back in his element on Tuesday night.

Summoned from his Minnesota home to deliver the ceremonial first pitch before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, Morris could have been more excited only if he -- not Tigers ace Justin Verlander -- was throwing the first pitch with meaning against the Yankees.

ALCS

"This is a thrill," Morris, 57, said. "I'm overwhelmed really. I'm not a guy who needs a lot of attention, but for them to invite me to be here, and with Justin Verlander pitching, it's really a huge honor.

"Obviously, I have got a tremendous amount of great memories wearing the Tiger uniform. Just to be in this environment again in Detroit, I would have paid to come watch this tonight."

With the Comerica Park crowd on its feet, greeting No. 47 with a rousing ovation, Morris reached back and threw a strike to Tigers coach Tom Brookens, a former teammate he'd requested as his catcher.

"All the way," Morris said, pointing toward the Tigers' dugout as he came off the mound to a roar. "How cool is that? If that doesn't give you goose bumps, I don't know what will.

"What a special feeling. I'm choked up."

Morris spent 14 of his 18 Major League seasons with the Tigers, registering 198 of his 254 wins in their uniform. A postseason analyst for MLB.com, he made the rounds during batting practice, greeting old friends and rivals.

He reconnected with John Smoltz, his adversary in what many consider the greatest Game 7 of them all: 1991, Minnesota's Metrodome, Morris' Twins over Smoltz's Braves, 1-0, in 10 innings.

"John and I had a nice little chat," Morris said, grinning. "Yeah, that game did come up."

Morris went all 10 innings, unloading 126 pitches. He would not let the Braves score. The Twins finally pieced together a run against Atlanta's bullpen, and Minnesota -- Morris was born and raised in St. Paul -- hailed its conquering native son.

Morris pitched in four postseasons and three World Series, starting Game 1 in each of his three Fall Classics -- for the 1984 Tigers, the '91 Twins, and '92 Blue Jays. Each time, his team celebrated a championship. His 1987 Tigers lost to the Twins in the ALCS.

Asked if he had one team he favored over all the others, Morris, against character, waffled.

"That's like asking which Miss America you prefer," he said. "They all wore crowns."

Morris has been on the Hall of Fame ballot for 13 years, his approval rating with the Baseball Writers' Association of America rising. He increased his percentage in 2012 from 53.5 the previous year to 66.7. A comparable gain in the next election would lift him above the 75 percent threshold into Cooperstown.

"Let's just say I would be honored," Morris said. "What's important is a healthy family and food on the table for your kids. For me, it's the highest honor in baseball. A lot of guys are in [the Hall of Fame] who never won a world championship.

"I'm trying to keep it all in perspective. I don't think it's going to change my life. I've learned a lot over these 14 years. Some things are out of your control, and there's no willing it to happen. It's a process that happens the way it's supposed to happen."

Naysayers point to his 3.90 career ERA and absence of a Cy Young Award. Yet he was the game's dominant pitcher of a decade, winning more games than anyone in the 1980s. Five times he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting. He was in the top five in the league nine times in victories, seven times in innings, eight times in complete games.

Walking away after the 1994 season with the Indians, his fourth club, Morris carried into retirement a 254-186 record (.577 winning percentage) with 175 complete games and 2,478 strikeouts in 3,824 innings.

He was 7-4 in 13 postseason starts with a 3.80 ERA, his team winning six of the seven series in which he appeared.

Big-game pitchers, he said, "just relish in the concept of being on center stage. I think they realize their peers are at home, most of them, watching the game. To be able to perform when you know your peers are watching, if that doesn't give you a warm fuzzy in baseball, then you should look for some rock 'n' roll job or something."

Morris was a rock, and he rolled more often than not.

"Actually, what I'm proudest of is 14 straight Opening Day starts," Morris said. "That tells you what your manager thinks of you. You earn that."

Morris was 22 when he made his MLB debut in 1977. He was the same age as Mark Fidrych, the late, legendary "Bird" who took flight the year before with one of the great seasons -- and stories -- in the game's history.

"We both had bursitis in our shoulders [after the '77 season]," Morris said. "I recovered from it, and he didn't. To think, we could have been pitching together all those years. He was a great pitcher. Everything was on the corners, at the knees, great movement on everything. What a pitcher. There's never been anything like we had with Mark and Fernando Valenzuela."

Verlander is the Morris of his era, with superior raw stuff.

"A few years back," Morris said, "I saw a young kid with more God-given ability than 99.9 percent of the world ever sees. I wanted to make sure he knew that I recognized that ... and that I am on his side. So, I had some words with him last spring to let him know those things ... and how I anticipated these kinds of days would come."

Morris encouraged Verlander to "take it to the next level." The 2011 Cy Young Award and AL MVP trophy lifted the Tigers' ace to a level few have reached.

"Justin is his own guy, and I am not taking any credit for changing anything," Morris said. "He should stay there for a long time. I am super proud of him."

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.