SI Vault
 
Mission Morman's
John Schulian
June 29, 1998
No one has ever chased his baseball dreams with more purity of purpose than Russ Morman of the Durham Bulls. But after 16 pro seasons, has his devotion been richly rewarded or cruelly punished?
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 29, 1998

Mission Morman's

No one has ever chased his baseball dreams with more purity of purpose than Russ Morman of the Durham Bulls. But after 16 pro seasons, has his devotion been richly rewarded or cruelly punished?

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Travelin' Man

When he's finally finished with baseball (and vice versa), Russ Morman could probably teach a course on North American geography. The man has been all over the map, including Chicago, where he had five truncated stints with the White Sox (left, in 1986) in three seasons.

YEAR TEAM (LEAGUE)

G

AB

R

H

HR

RBI

AVG.

1983 Glens Falls (Eastern)

71

233

29

57

3

32

.245

1984 Appleton (Midwest)

122

424

68

111

7

80

.262

1985 Glens Falls (Eastern)

119

422

64

131

17

81

.310

Buffalo (Amer. Assoc.)

21

64

16

19

7

14

.297

1986 Buffalo (AA)

106

365

52

97

13

57

.266

Chicago (AL)

49

159

18

40

4

17

.252

1987 Hawaii (PCL)

89

294

52

79

9

53

.269

1988 Vancouver (PCL)

69

257

40

77

5

45

.300

Chicago (AL)

40

75

8

18

0

3

.240

1989 Vancouver (PCL)

61

216

18

60

1

23

.278

Chicago (AL)

37

58

5

13

0

8

.224

1990 Omaha (AA)

121

436

67

130

13

81

.298

Kansas City (AL)

12

37

5

10

1

3

.270

1991 Kansas City (AL)

12

23

1

6

0

1

.261

Omaha (AA)

88

316

46

83

7

50

.263

1992 Nashville (AA)

101

384

53

119

14

63

.310

1993 Buffalo (AA)

119

409

79

131

22

77

.320

1994 Edmonton (PCL)

114

406

69

142

19

82

.350

Florida (NL)

13

33

2

7

1

2

.212

1995 Charlotte (IL)

44

169

28

53

6

36

.314

Florida (NL)

34

72

9

20

3

7

.278

1996 Charlotte (IL)

80

289

59

96

18

77

.332

Florida (NL)

6

6

0

1

0

0

.167

1997 Charlotte (IL)

117

395

82

126

33

99

.319

Florida (NL)

4

7

3

2

1

2

.286

1998 Durham (IL)

43

166

20

43

2

27

.259

Major League Totals (9 years)

207

470

51

117

10

43

.249

Sometimes it feels like baseball dares you to love it. That's the part they don't tell you about when they hand you that first bonus check. They don't tell you that 15 years later you could find yourself in Charlotte on a Saturday night, with a head full of the hits you should have had and the image of Greg Maddux taunting you from the TV in the visitors' clubhouse.

In the rightfield pavilion at Knights Stadium the Famous Chicken is clowning around with a flock of screaming kids, and you're down here with the Durham Bulls wondering if you have stripped the gears in your swing. It is a minor league life in a world that cares only for the majors, a life long on frustration and short on rewards, and you have to love it deep in your soul to stay at it this long. You have to love it the way Russ Morman does.

He has carried the torch for baseball from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Hawaii, up to Edmonton and down to the Dominican, and now back to an old tobacco town with the team that was immortalized in Bull Durham. Kevin Costner played the movie's hero, Crash Davis, a star-crossed wanderer whose past was strewn with home runs, just the way Morman's is. When Morman arrived in Durham this spring, imaginations didn't have to soar very high before the Bulls' new slugger was christened Crash. All Morman asked for in return was the uniform bearing his lucky number, 45. It seemed an easy request to fill until he discovered that at 6'4" and 235 pounds, he would have split the jersey's seams. So he took number 27 without complaint, and the kind hearts and gentle people in Durham knew that this is a man built to pull a heavy load.

At first glance the burden doesn't seem to have worn on Morman. For someone who has squinted in so much afternoon sunshine and frowned at so many bad breaks, his countenance remains remarkably free of crags and crow's feet. It's no exaggeration to call him boyish looking, even at 36. But then there are his eyes, looking for something he will never find in the Triple A International League. His eyes are where the hard times show.

They are showing them now in Charlotte, and who would have thought that could happen here? This is where he prospered the last three seasons—never an average under .314, a personal-best 33 homers in '97, and Tommy John, the team's radio color man, joking that the ballpark should be renamed the Morman Tabernacle. But in his return, as Durham's designated hitter, Morman has come up empty. So he stands in the clubhouse, a towel around his waist and an 0-for-4 weight on his shoulders, and he thinks of the two hits he might have had to help the Bulls win. One was a line drive, the other a flare, and both wound up as outs. "You needed those balls to sit down for you," a sympathizer tells him.

A moment passes before Morman says, "I know"—and all the air goes out of him. Then he stares across the room at the TV, where it's still Atlanta at Houston and Maddux doing his old soft-shoe. The sound is off, and the silence makes the big leagues seem further away than they already are.

She was still Loretta Ragan when she flew into Buffalo to spend that weekend with Russ. Their first stop was the ballpark, of course, but the game and what he did in it have long since been forgotten. The only thing they remember is how he bounded out of the dugout afterward and motioned her down to the screen separating the field from the box seats. "I got called up," he said. "I'm going to the big leagues."

It was Aug. 2, 1986, and nothing like this had ever happened to him before. The White Sox had lost first baseman Greg Walker with a broken hand, and they needed Russ in their lineup the next day at Comiskey Park. He wanted Loretta to be there with him. Typical Russ. They were going to be married two days after Thanksgiving, and the sentimental side of him said they should have this memory to share for all their days together.

But they would have only one chance at it, the chance that was beckoning now. So after she dropped him off at Buffalo International at seven o'clock on Sunday morning, Loretta set out for Chicago in his Chevy Blazer, racing the clock and wondering what would happen when she got there. "I didn't have any idea how to get to the ballpark," she says.

Somewhere in Indiana, she stopped hoping she could make it by the first pitch and started twirling the radio dial. She found the game on a Detroit station—the Tigers versus the White Sox—and she heard what happened when righthander Randy O'Neal threw Russ a 3-2 fastball in his first major league at bat: single up the middle. Loretta screamed for joy and rapturously pounded the steering wheel. The other drivers out there on I-90 could stare all they wanted. For the boy she had fallen in love with back home in Independence, Mo., was making the big time.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6