When the Dodgers acquired righthander Mike Morgan from the Orioles in March, nobody doubted that he had good stuff. The question was, did he have the right stuff? Throughout his career Morgan has lacked the confidence and concentration to fulfill the promise he exhibited in 1978, when A's owner Charlie Finley signed him for $50,000-plus and put him on the mound against Baltimore, at age 18, a week after he graduated from Las Vegas Valley High.
"I got a lot of recognition for that," says Morgan of his debut, "but it crushed my development." That might be an understatement. In eight seasons with the A's, Yankees, Blue Jays, Mariners and Orioles, Morgan was 34-68, the worst record among active pitchers with at least 20 wins. Even more to the point, he had a 4.89 career ERA.
But the 29-year-old Morgan started pitching for L.A. this spring and—presto!—he turned into a world-beater. At week's end he had held opponents to a .213 batting average and was leading the majors with a 1.55 ERA, .63 points below the National League's second-best starting pitcher, Rick Reuschel.
Why the Morgan miracle? Here are a few theories:
The Natural. Mike's mom, Nellie, recalls, "He told his second-grade teacher, 'I don't have to do my homework because I'm going to play [professional] baseball.' " Perhaps, as destiny's child, it was only a matter of time before Morgan became a force to be reckoned with. After all, he does have a 90-mph fastball, plus a slider, a curveball and a changeup. "Teams have gone after my arm, not my numbers," he says. In that first outing against the O's, Morgan scattered 10 hits in a 3-0, complete-game loss, and said afterward, "I wouldn't mind going for the Cy Young one of these years."
You Can't Go Home Again. Shortly after he bought his houses in Seattle and Baltimore, Morgan was traded. "It's an omen," he says. This year he is renting a condo in Santa Monica, Calif., from Dodger pitcher Tim Leary and—local realtors, take note—he has no plans to buy.
I Love L.A. "Being with a successful pitching staff has had a lot to do with my turnaround," says Morgan. Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski had him switch the grip on his fastball from across the seams to along the seams. The change cost Morgan a little velocity, but it added movement to the pitch. "My confidence level is probably as high as it's been my whole career," says Morgan, who credits manager Tom Lasorda for helping in that department. The only thing the Dodgers haven't been able to give Morgan, it seems, is enough run support. That's why his record on Sunday was only 5-5.
The new Mike Morgan is philosophical about that, too. "Each season is like a horse race," he says. "It's not how you get out of the gate, but how you finish."