The sky was so blue that late summer afternoon as I sat nestled in the upper deck before the 2015 All-Star Game. The fans were in full throat. Reverie was in the air. This was an evening that would burnish a 12-year old Great American Ballpark down to its rebar’d foundation, give it the kind of gravitas Riverfront long ago earned hosting all those important 1970s games. Cincinnati was once again the center of the baseball universe.
It was a perfect day, a celebration of what was billed as the “Franchise Four.” Bench. Larkin. Morgan. Rose. I was particularly amused when the big screen caught Mike Trout observing the proceedings from the rail, with an expression on his young face that seemed to ask, “who are these guys?”
Perfect, save for one moment. I was not prepared for the Joe Morgan I would see walk out onto the field that evening. He was frail. No longer the Joe of my youth, he walked oh-so carefully, with such trepidation, it shook me to my core.
He’s gone now. The first of the Great Eight has left us. They were my guys. My youth. And now, one of them is gone.
Joe Morgan could find home plate. Oh could he. Joe Morgan could find home plate, because as a player, that’s the name of the game. If you’re a pitcher, you’d better find home plate with your offerings. And if you’re a batter, you’d better find it with your feet.
Joe could find home plate.
Stand Joe Morgan on first base, put a blindfold on him, spin him around three times and turn him loose and he would cross home plate before you could say “rounding third and heading for home.”
The Reds were plenty good in 1970, winning 70 of their first 100 games. But the Reds were built on speed and Bobby Tolan would tear his Achilles tendon on May 6th of 1971. That wouldn’t work in a new ballpark. As advance scout Ray Shore said:
“At Crosley, you could get by with slower guys, but boy, the minute you move to turf, if you don’t have speed, you can get killed.”
Joe Morgan was the missing ingredient, the kind that turns a good meal into a five star Michelin feast. If Pete Rose was the man who lit the fuse, Joe Morgan WAS the fuse. It wasn’t unusual for the Reds’ first run of the game to come with Joe taking a walk, stealing second base, advancing to third on a ground ball or another steal, then coming home on a sac fly. No hits. One run.
On many nights in the 1970s, the Reds were just going to win. You knew it before fans settled into their seats, before you turned on the television. Why? Because no one could stop Joe Morgan.
When it comes to plate approach, well, listen to Joe:
“I get so many walks because I’m the type of hitter who isn’t strong enough to hit bad pitches for base hits. I need to hit strikes. In many ways batting averages can be misleading. There are players in baseball who hit over .300 and don’t help their teams as much as other players who hit .250. The idea is to score runs, and that’s what I’m supposed to do. A batting average is a personal thing. Unless there are men on base, there is little difference between a single to right field and drawing four balls.”
Remind you of anyone, Reds fans?
Yes. Before Joey Votto, there was Joe Morgan. Even as he’d gone on in retirement to eschew sabermetrics and all it stands for, Joe Morgan played the game in a very sabermetric way. It garnered him two MVP awards. And the Cincinnati Reds two World Championships.
To look at Joe Morgan’s Baseball Reference page is to look through the Hubble Telescope. It’s full of wonder. For example, in 1976, his OPS was 1.020 and his OPS+ was a star-gazing 187.
Stifled by the Astrodome’s dimensions and his manager, Harry “the Hat” Walker, who labeled Joe a “troublemaker,” the young Texan needed a serendipitous change of scenery and Reds GM Bob Howsam was happy to oblige. To this day, I believe the trade for Morgan was the yang to the yin that was the regrettable trade of Frank Robinson. Bill DeWitt had his issues with Frank and was looking to move a troublesome Robinson, who would go on to greater heights, just as Joe Morgan would when the Astros were looking to move the “troublesome” Morgan.
Of course, Joe Morgan was anything but troublesome in Cincinnati—unless you asked opposing pitchers. If pitcher nervous breakdowns were crimes, Joe Morgan’s picture would have been in every post office in every National League city. Those Riverfront sliding boxes. One step outside the first base sliding box raised the alarm bells for the visiting team. Joe Morgan would place both feet outside the box and Riverfront would go nuts.
Lost among all Joe Morgan’s accomplishments on the field were his contributions in that place fans can find no purchase: the clubhouse. Joe Morgan was relentless. His presence in the locker room with Bench, Rose and Perez created a cauldron of competitiveness. Each man challenged the other. All of that spilled onto the field.
If you believe in such things, you may know. Know that he’s up there somewhere. Like he always was at Riverfront. Standing at home. First. That was Joe Morgan.
Great Eight. Great. Number 8.
Steal home one more time, Joe.