Though the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, Morris’ skills were debated while he played and during his bid for the Hall of Fame. While Morris was a consistent workhorse, notching double-digit wins in 14 of his 16 full seasons in the majors, his ERA hinted at the benefit of run support. He finished in the top ten in Cy Young Award voting seven times, but never won the coveted trophy; his heralded 1984 and 1991 World Series performances were somewhat tempered by his subpar postseason play in 1987 and 1992. However, Morris was a tenacious performer on the mound, relegated to the disabled list just twice in his 18-year career, and helped anchor three different teams’ victories in the World Series. At the peak of his game, Morris’ ferocious competitive nature added an extra edge to his fastball, slider, and excellent split-finger, making quick and easy work of opposing batters. But occasional outbursts and displays of tension that stemmed from his aggressive mentality often caused a rift between him and some sportswriters. On one less than couth instance, a female reporter attempted to interview him in the Detroit clubhouse and he replied, “I don’t talk to women when I’m naked unless they’re on top of me or I’m on top of them.”
Having accelerated through the Detroit Tigers farm system, Morris joined the team as a spot starter in 1977 and 1978 before landing a starting job for good in 1979. That season he went 17-7 with a 3.27 ERA, establishing himself as the undisputed ace of the staff, a title he held for the next decade with the club. Along with the keystone combination of Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and manager Sparky Anderson, Morris became a cornerstone of the rebuilding project that turned Detroit into a contending team for most of the 1980s.
While streaky during the regular season, there was a certain consistency to Morris’ sporadic quality. His statistics evened out at the end of each season, and despite allowing a large number of home runs and walks, his ERA generally stayed within the three and four range. Morris led the club in wins in each of the eight seasons following his breakthrough 1979 performance, a stretch unprecedented in Tigers history. Even though he was mainly a power-pitch hurler, from 1980 to 1988 he made 33 or more appearances every season, except for the strike-shortened 1981. A testament to his stamina and tenacity, he pitched into the seventh inning in 26 straight starts in 1983.
Morris’ championship season of 1984 with the Tigers may have been his finest hour. It started off auspiciously, as the mustachioed righty hurled a no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox on April 7, 1984, matching the earliest date in a season a no-no was thrown. Helming a solid Detroit rotation that included Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox, Morris tallied 19 wins and a 3.60 ERA to lead the Tigers into the championship. Morris was sparkling in his three postseason appearances, notching an ALCS win against the Kansas City Royals and two complete game triumphs in the World Series against the San Diego Padres.
Morris racked up 70 more wins over the next four years, including a remarkable 21-6 campaign in 1986, when he notched a 3.27 ERA and 223 strikeouts, though his season would be greatly overshadowed by Roger Clemens’ Cy Young / MVP effort. The following year, Morris led the Tigers back to the ALCS, but took a loss as Detroit fell to the Twins in five games.
After a 14-year span with the Tigers, Morris finally left Motown in 1991. In his wake the righty ranked among Detroit’s all-time leaders in wins, games, starts, complete games, innings pitched, strikeouts, and shutouts.
Signing with his hometown Minnesota Twins in February 1991, Morris embarked on another fine season. After recording his “usual” 18 wins, he started three times against the Atlanta Braves in what would be one of the finest World Series ever played. After notching a Series victory in the first game and getting a no-decision in the fourth, Morris strode to the mound in the seventh. In an extraordinarily clutch performance, the aging righty tossed ten innings of shutout ball to clinch the game and the Series for the Twins, and was rightfully awarded the World Series MVP Trophy.
Morris wasn’t long for Minnesota. In December 1991, he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, and quickly rattled off a 21-6 record despite posting a 4.04 ERA. But despite the obvious run support, Morris bore down when it counted, and went 9-2 in August and September. The Jays became the third club Morris would lead to the World Series, and though he didn’t record a win against the Braves this time, went away with his third championship ring.
The next year, Morris was a different pitcher. Plagued by a sore shoulder, he went 7-12 and recorded a 6.19 ERA, and became testier with the media. Released by the Jays in the off-season, he signed on with the Cleveland Indians in February 1994. Though he managed ten wins that year, his ERA ballooned to 5.40, and his solitary attitude strained his relationship with the rest of the team. During the dog days of summer, Morris took time off between his starts to fly back to his Montana farm to tend to his wheat crops rather than stay with the team. The Tribe let him go that August, a week before the season ended.
Though he attempted a comeback with the Cincinnati Reds the following season, Morris realized he couldn’t compete as he once could. Just a month before his 40th birthday, the aged starter tearfully announced his retirement, saying, “I don’t want to be second-best, and I think I would have been.”
Morris picked up the old horsehide a year later to be the ace of the Northern League’s St. Paul Saints, a team that also featured once and future slugger Darryl Strawberry. The competitive pitcher retired just halfway through the season, but ended up leading the league with a 2.61 ERA. (AG/ME)