You could think of the 1980s, during which he was baseball's winningest pitcher, as practice years for Jack Morris. They count, sure. His 162 victories for the Detroit Tigers in those 10 seasons reflected a sustained excellence unmatched by any other pitcher. But those were also years of puzzlement. All those games that he'd won, and still nobody seemed to like him—not enough, anyway. As far as that goes, even Morris, winningest pitcher or not, didn't always like what looked back at him when he shaved.
He averaged 16 wins a year—twice he won 20 or more—and this guy could not be cheered up. When they didn't call him Black Jack, they called him Mount Morris. If he wasn't grouchy, he was fixing to be. On the mound he was as likely to self-detonate as gel through an inning. He was the pitcher every hitter hated to face but loved to ride. A ball hobbled in the infield? Black Jack would stare down his shortstop. A blown call at the plate? Mount Morris would percolate.
"Jack had a few buttons you could push," admits Joe Carter, now his teammate with the Toronto Blue Jays. Buttons you could push? The man was an elevator-car panel, and batters of no special talent could make him go up and down. Once, his catcher, Lance Parrish, tried to calm him by explaining, "When you act like this, nobody wants to play behind you." Surely that was tranquilizing. Another time pitching coach Roger Craig told him he was "acting like a little baby."
It was—never mind all those wins—a disappointing time. "I wanted to be liked, just like everybody else," Morris says. But he understood that he often didn't deserve to be, not the way he treated others. But those were the '80s. "Can't people grow?" Morris asks. "Can't they change?" In the '90s they can. They must. This is the decade Jack Morris plans to get right.
"I see people that haven't changed a bit," he says. "What a shame."
The amazing thing, quite aside from his transformation, is that he has this second chance at all. When the '80s ended, Morris was turning 34 and performing what appeared to be a death spiral in Detroit. It looked as if the decade was going to outlast him. He completed that 1989 season, his worst ever, with a 6-14 record and a disposition to match. He'd had his run, and he could be remembered as a crank who could throw 240 innings a year, every year.
And now here he is, 37 years old, about to win 20 games (he won 18 last season for Minnesota) and possibly lead his team into the World Series for the second year in a row, that is, if the Blue Jays can hold off the hard-charging Milwaukee Brewers. And if he is not as beloved as he would like—"Nobody really knows me," he says with that vintage Black Jack scowl—he nevertheless betrays his old orneriness with what is, coming from him, the oddest of proclamations. "I guess I have a zest for life," he says. Huh?
On this particular day, the day in Baltimore last week when he went for victory number 20, he is buoyant beyond expectation. He is in a city he does not like—he doesn't like any cities, so no letters, you Baltimore boosters—on a day that might strike sonic men as stressful When you make $5 million a year, expectations during a pennant race tend to be crushing. "I'd probably rather be fly-fishing in western Montana," he admits, "yet here I am, looking out on the harbor, the sun's out, it's a beautiful day. In fact, it's a great day. And tonight I've got a chance to pitch in a major league ball game. Think of that! After dreaming about that as a kid for all those years. Do you understand how fortunate I am? Finally I do."
Seriously, somebody used to call this guy Black Jack? He draws himself up and can't help but look forbidding. He's all boots and belt buckles and whiskers, looking much more like a gunslinger than the Great Falls, Mont., farmer he is in the off-season. "At some point," he says, "you have to grow up." The Grinch reborn.
What matures a man most? The usual stuff: the parent company denying him his due (i.e., dough) and then allowing him to shuffle out of town after 15 years of service, the ups and downs of a highly visible occupation, divorce. Just the usual stuff. Getting older. Odd proclamation number 2: "Now I want people to see how fun this game really is." Huh?