But mostly it has been Russ by himself in another strange town and Loretta back home in Blue Springs, holding things together until school is out and she and the kids can leave for their two-month summer sojourn with Daddy. This spring Russ missed Katie's first communion and Sam's first T-ball game, and he always misses Easter, Sam's and Katie's birthdays, and his own birthday. "Every once in a while, Sam will just put his face in his hands and cry," Loretta says. He is six, his sister is eight, and only time will help them understand the nomadic life into which they were born.
While the Morman kids are at it, they would do well to appreciate the strength of a mother who, at 5'4", is a foot shorter than their father. Loretta had to contend with Katie as a two-year-old in the foreign environs of Nashville—"I never saw the city, I was always tired"—and she had to drive from Blue Springs to Edmonton with nobody for company but Sam at two and Katie at four. Staying home with the kids for months after Russ has left for his next port of call isn't that much easier than a cross-country road trip, however. Then she must balance raising them with her own job for the local school district's Parents As Teachers Program. And every day there is a phone call from Russ. "As soon as he says hi," Loretta says, "I can tell if he had any hits."
His joy is hers. The same goes for his sadness. There is never any talk about what lies beyond his life as a player, never any discussion of his becoming a manager or a coach, or maybe just going back and getting his degree. "I know that's not very far-sighted," Loretta confesses. But that's the way it has been through 11 years of marriage, and that's the way it will remain as long as Russ is chasing his dream. "She's the most loving, supporting wife anybody could ever have," he says over lunch one day in Durham, his voice thick with emotion. "I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have her."
The depth of his feelings is equaled later that week as Loretta sits in their dining room in Blue Springs, her legs pulled tight against her and a cup of tea going cold on the table. She's thinking about everything that baseball has put Russ through, and she's struggling not to let the memories overwhelm her.
"It's hard to watch," she says, her words coming slowly. "I don't know how else to describe it. I don't want people feeling sorry for Russ. He's had a great career and he's playing the game he loves. But he does so well and he tries so hard, and sometimes he's not given a chance. It hurts him. He doesn't show it, but it does. And I just...I just...." Her voice trails off, and then it's her turn to cry.
The ring came Federal Express. It was waiting in his hotel room the day Durham opened the season in Norfolk, and when he took it out of the box, he was surprised how much heft there was to it. Must have been all the diamonds. But the diamonds didn't matter as much to him as the sight of his name and number on the ring: RUSS MORMAN 45. A lot of good men played this game for years, played it with love and honor, and rode into the sunset without a prize like the one the momentarily regal Florida Marlins gave him. All he had done for the Marlins was come up at the end of last year's pennant race, tip his cap after hitting a home run in the first game he started for the Marlins and then head for Blue Springs to watch them win the World Series on TV. But he still got a ring, and when he talks about it now, he always says, "I'm lucky to have one."
No sarcasm, no bitterness, nothing except sincere gratitude—and there you have the essence of the man. Somehow he has endured into his 16th season in baseball's hinterlands without succumbing to the ugliness that we have come to take for granted among athletes making seven-digit salaries. He is the kind of ballplayer everybody in the stands always says they would be, a ballplayer who thanks his Maker that this is how he can earn a living.
The proof lies in more than the gaudy numbers Morman has in Triple A or even the workmanlike way he has gone about ringing them up. There is the wise counsel he offers young teammates, just as Carlton Fisk and Brett offered it to him when he was the one with the bright future. And there is the simple courtesy he shows the Famous Chicken by asking, "Hey, Teddy, are we doing anything tonight?"—because he knows that Ted Giannoulas can't make his routines as the Chicken fly without volunteers. There are all those things done so frequently for so long that even the flinty characters the game prides itself on breeding can't help being moved by the man.
Rende, his manager for six seasons in four towns, will tell you he loves Russ Morman like a brother—"and I'm not afraid to say it." Neither are Boles and Garrett, who go all the way back to the beginning with him. "Without a doubt, he is as good a guy as I've ever been around in baseball," says Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild. If Rothschild didn't feel that way before this spring, he did after he handed Morman his ticket to Durham.
Morman never really had a chance to make the expansion Devil Rays, who had Fred McGriff and Paul Sorrento, two established thumpers, ahead of him at first base, and yet he had gone out and hit .450 in the Grapefruit League this spring. He had earned himself the right to gripe. But when he saw Rothschild walking toward him during batting practice, Morman broke the tension by cowering like the next victim in a slasher movie and shouting, "Stay away!"