Morman was much better than that. When the 1990 Triple A playoffs rolled around, he put Omaha on his broad back and carried it to a championship. "Every time we needed something, he'd come up and hit a homer," says Sal Rende, his manager there as well as at Appleton, Edmonton and Charlotte. And Morman was still on a tear when he arrived at Kansas City's training camp early the next spring. He came to take a whack at catching, an experiment based on the theory that versatility adds to value. He left as the Royals' fourth outfielder and wound up platooning at first base after George Brett, their aging legend went on the disabled list. "That was the only time I ever made a big league team out of spring training," Morman says.
He and Loretta were fresh from buying their first home, in Blue Springs, Mo., 15 minutes east of Royals Stadium, and their daughter, Katelyn, had just turned one. For once, everything seemed right with their world. Maybe that should have been a warning. But they never saw trouble coming until Loretta looked up at the stadium's message board less than a month into the season and read that Kansas City had just traded for Carmelo Martinez, a veteran power hitter and, alas, a first baseman. "It made me sick," Loretta says. "I knew right then that Russ wasn't going to get his chance."
The pain intensified when they learned that neither manager John Wathan nor his coaches had lobbied for the trade. It was strictly a front-office maneuver, a deal hatched by men who wear suits instead of uniforms. "We were overruled," Garrett says, "but that's baseball."
It only got worse after that. The Royals released Morman, and he went to spring training in 1992 with Cincinnati, only to have the Reds cut him before they headed north. At first it seemed a blessing that he could be home for the birth of his son, Sam, a thrill he had missed with Katie by half an hour. But after eight weeks of silence, he feared that his career had reached its expiration date. "I was ready to stop hitting and throwing and running," he says. And then the Reds finally called back. They needed his big bat on their Triple A team in Nashville. The catch was, they would pay him only $5,000 a month instead of the $8,000 his original contract called for.
Morman took what they offered. He always does. Without rancor or spite, he signs the contracts that are the bane of the minor league free agent and returns to the game that has a claim on his life. "I've played for as low as $25,000 a year," he says. "It was only a couple of years ago that I finally made $100,000." But that was just once, when the Florida Marlins summoned him as a fifth outfielder at midseason in '96. The rest of the time his pay check has been no more than half that for doing something that might have paid him millions if only he had caught a break or been born with the ability to hit his longest balls 10 feet farther.
And still Morman has plugged away in the tradition of Joe Hauser and Stout Steve Bilko and all the other storied minor league sluggers who traveled this trail of tears before him. Since his 30th birthday, he has batted .310 at Nashville in '92, .320 in a return engagement at Buffalo in '93 and .350 at Edmonton the following year—and then came those three lustrous seasons at Charlotte. "Guess I'm a late bloomer," he says.
It was that or be gone, and he has steeled himself against the latter since his final days with the White Sox. He settled under the wing of hitting coach Walt Hriniak and soaked up the wisdom of another man whose playing career forever flirted with extinction. "Walt always preached that you've got to keep playing until they tear the uniform off you," he says. "As long as you have a uniform on, you still have a chance." If Morman didn't believe it, he wouldn't be in Durham.
There have been bad times that somehow gained a certain charm, such as the summer of '87 in Hawaii when Russ hurt his ankle trying to break up a beanball brawl. With only themselves to entertain in those child-free days, he and Loretta wound up visiting all the out-of-the-way beaches they had ever seen on Magnum P.I.
And there have been times that didn't seem funny until they were over, like the year Loretta and the kids arrived in Edmonton to discover that Russ had unknowingly rented an apartment over a karaoke bar. He had seen it only during the day, but the bar didn't open until night.
And then there have been times that were pure magic, like the day last season when, with Loretta and Katie videotaping everything, Sam got to be Charlotte's batboy and Russ toasted the occasion by hitting two home runs. "Sam was just this little stick figure running around the park picking up bats," Russ says. "He had his sweatbands on and an oversized helmet, and when I crossed the plate after my homers, he was waiting to high-five me."