Detroit Tiger Burning Bright: An Ode to Jack Morris

By: Dan Grant

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball.

As he again leads the Detroit Tigers into the World Series (with a Game 1 start tomorrow), this fact can no longer be in dispute. Over the past two years, Verlander has dominated the league unlike anyone since Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez; he, quite simply, is feared on the mound. He’s the reigning AL Cy Young and MVP Winner and he’s making his second World Series appearance. In 2006 he won the AL Rookie of the Year award and was the Game 1 World Series starter. This year, he made his fifth all-star appearance. He has thrown two no hitters, one of only 30 pitchers to do so in MLB history. If he can add a World Series ring to his resume, it seems like, at the age of 28, his resume will be complete. He will have reached the ‘Sandy Koufax’ level and as such, even if his career were to suddenly or prematurely end, he would likely be a Hall of Famer, even without hitting the ‘automatic’ statistical benchmarks normally associated with starting pitchers – 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts.

All those accolades and he’s dating Kate Upton.

The Hall of Fame is meant to be the ultimate honour for a retired MLB player. 71 pitchers have been elected to the Hall in its 76 year history. The election process has evolved over the years; so too has the criteria for selecting members. Wins were long the standard by which pitchers were measured. Of late however, baseball has been dissected and broken down by sabermetric statistics to the point that traditional stats such as wins have been devalued as a means by which to judge a player, and rightly so. However, in terms of the Hall of Fame, the 300 win benchmark is still significant- 24 pitchers have achieved the feat, 20 are in the Hall and the other four- Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens – are likely to be elected once eligible (although Clemens is a difficult question and a story for another day).

So if we do the math, 71 pitchers are in but just 20 of those have reached the 300 win benchmark. That means it must be possible to get in without it. That benchmark is actually as much a signifier of longevity in the game as it is of a pitchers elite skill and voters have certainly recognized that. The aforementioned Koufax really only broke out during his age 25 season and retired at age 30 due to arthritis in his pitching arm. Due to his dominance over those 6 seasons, however, he has was a no doubt first ballot Hall of Famer and is considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of all time. But what happens when someone isn’t quite that transcendent? What happens when a pitcher is simply very good, occasionally great, but ultimately not one of the best ever? What role does the Hall of Fame play then? Is it a collection of the best of the best of the best? Or is it a museum that is meant to remind us of who and what was important in baseball during past eras?

The Detroit Tigers have had an elite starter before. Verlander is not their first rodeo. From 1977-1990, the Tigers were the home of a bulldog right-hander, with a tremendous mustache, named Jack Morris. Over that time period, Morris was the Tigers unquestioned ace, their number one starter each year, signified by his opening day starts each year after his rookie season (he eventually started in a record 14 consecutive opening days: 11 with the Tigers, 1 with the Minnesota Twins and 2 for the Toronto Blue Jays). He was the winningest pitcher of the 1980’s, and while that statistic has been devalued, it is still a signifier of tremendous consistency. He was a five time all-star. He finished in the top 5 in Cy Young voting five times, placing third in both 1981 and 1983, but never actually won the award. Perhaps more significantly, he finished fourth and fifth in 1991 and 1992 respectively, at ages 36 and 37.  He led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts once, both falling in the 1983 season. He threw a no hitter in the 1984 season, a season in which he led the Tigers to a World Series title. He won four World Series rings, submitting a dominant performance for the 1984 Tigers, a clutch performance for the 1991 Twins and a solid regular season but unspectacular playoffs for the 1992/93 Blue Jays, actually missing the playoffs entirely for the 1993 team. The question is, is it enough? I contend that it is, or at least it should be, for several reasons (besides selfishly wanting to see that mustache bronzed):

Gaze upon the majesty of the mustache.

  1. Morris was one of the top 5 starting pitchers in baseball for fifteen consecutive years. He coincided with Dave Stieb and Dave Stewart, two of his fiercest rivals (and future teammates), but started well before both. He was around for the flash in the pan of Dwight Gooden, the beginning of Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux and the end of Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan but from 1978-1992, he was always there. His five all-star appearances were spread over ten years, falling between 1981 and 1991. He was always in the conversation as one of the top pitchers in baseball. Whether statistics bear that out now is debatable, but at the time, he mattered.
  2. In the true capping performance of his career, Morris submitted what I consider to be the greatest clutch pitching performance of all time, in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. At home against the Atlanta Braves, Morris threw a 10 inning 1-0 complete game shutout to win the whole thing. It was his third start of the series and he was later named the World Series MVP. Though it might have been sweeter if it had come with Detroit, for native Minnesotan Morris, you have to think it was a dream come true. You can’t ask for more than that.
  3. More than anything else, Morris was a mentality. With the exception of an injury plagued 1989 season, he was remarkably durable, remarkably consistent and gave his team an identity. Along with Alan Trammell, ‘Sweet’ Lou Whitaker, ‘Big Wheel’ Lance Parish and manager Sparky Anderson, Morris was the 1980’s Tigers. They were crusty, they were nasty and they were always in contention. An absolute throwback to an earlier time, Morris frequently pitched on short rest, and threw more than 235 innings in 10 separate seasons. With his fiery demeanour and his undeniable presence on the mound, Morris was synonymous with the Tigers. When he went to Minnesota and Toronto, that mentality and that toughness went with him and put both teams over the top.

This bring us back to the question: what is the Hall of Fame for? Personally, I think it’s a museum and should be treated like any other. If I’m taking a kid to see that museum in 20 years, I want Jack Morris to be in there, because Jack Morris mattered. He shouldn’t be banished to annals of history simply because he didn’t meet some arbitrary statistical benchmarks. Does Jack Morris merit the ‘Sandy Koufax’ zone? Probably not. He was very good, but never truly great pitcher. But he has his own niche in history and he should be remembered. In 20 years or so, Justin Verlander will be entering in the Hall of Fame. Let’s hope Jack Morris is waiting there to greet him.

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