If your team’s season came down to one game, and you could choose your starter from a list including every pitcher who’s ever played for the team, who gets the ball? If that option were open to the respective fans of the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers, tomorrow’s one-game playoff to decide the A.L. Central might just feature Jack Morris facing off against Jack Morris.
This is Jack Morris’ first solo card after being featured the year before along with Tim Jones and others in a “rookie pitchers” card. When I got it, I doubt I had any idea that I was looking at the man who would win more games than anyone else in the coming decade. There’s nothing particularly promising about the card, neither in the somewhat chinless grimace of the thin figure on the front nor in the so-so minor league stats on the back. The speed of his fastball is mentioned (94 MPH), but I doubt it impressed me, since by then I knew such a speed was not on the level of the top flamethrowers in the game, such as Nolan Ryan and Goose Gossage. Two other pitches besides a fastball are mentioned as the Topps copywriter strains to fill out the blank space on the card, but neither of the pitches are the split-finger sinker that Morris became known for. I’d like to think that the grip he’s hiding in the photo on the front of the card is for that revolutionary pitch, and since Morris hadn’t mastered it quite yet he was shy about showing it to the world.
Once he had his pitching repertoire in order, the St. Paul, MN, native settled in for over a decade near the top of list of major leaguer aces. Beyond being the winningest pitcher through the 1980s, he also built a reputation as a guy who could thrive in the pressure of a big game. He pitched well in the 1984 playoffs, and kept his team in the game with 8 innings of 2-run ball in a do-or-die game 161 of the 1987 season (the Tigers won that game in 12 innings, and a Frank Tanana 1-0 shutout the next day in the final game of the year clinched the division).
That actually seems to be the extent of his big game heroics through the 1980s. Morris’ start in Game 2 of the 1987 A.L. Championship Series proved an unhappy homecoming to the Twin Cities, and he got hammered in the Metrodome for 6 runs in 8 innings. The following year, the Tigers finished just one game out of first, but that’s because the division winners, the Boston Red Sox, kept stumbling farther and farther back toward the pack as they neared their eventual playoff annihilation at the hands of the Oakland A’s. Morris did win his last three starts that year, so he deserves credit for that, but the Tigers were all but eliminated from the race during those starts.
However, his status as a big game pitcher became bulletproof in 1991, when he won two ALCS games for his new team, the Twins, won the first game of the World Series, pitched well enough to win in the fourth game (Twins reliever Mark Guthrie took the loss), and got the ball again for the seventh game, back home in the Metrodome.
What he did in that game is for many the cornerstone of the argument that Jack Morris should be in the Hall of Fame. Or maybe not the cornerstone (the win-based “Best Pitcher of the 1980s” claim probably has that distinction), but the shiny, fancy part at the very top of the argument, the thing you’d see first, gleaming in the sun, if you were miles away. And if one game could ever get a guy into the Hall of Fame, it would indeed be that game, a 10-inning 1-0 shutout win, probably the most amazing pitching performance that I’ve ever seen, all things considered.
Both the Tigers and the Twins have more accomplished pitchers in their history to choose from, if they could choose one pitcher to toe the rubber in a do-or-die game (Johan Santana, Bert Blyleven, and Jim Kaat come to mind—not to mention Walter Johnson, if the precursor to the Twins, the Senators, are included in the discussion, and, judging from the voting on this site for the all-time Tigers team, either Hal Newhouser or Mickey Lolich would be the top Tiger), but if you ascribe to the belief that there are certain unique demands on an athlete during the white-knuckle pressure of an elimination game, and that some people are better able to handle, and even thrive on, those demands, then it’s hard to argue with the idea of handing Jack Morris the ball.
Would this be a foolish decision? Is there such a thing, in other words, as clutch pitching? Mathematically, such notions as clutch pitching and clutch hitting have proven to be difficult, if not impossible, to support. But for me it’s hard to discount my own athletic experiences: in crucial moments, it was (and still is, even in a game of miniature golf) harder to concentrate on the game, harder to turn off the shrill narration of trepidation and doubt in my head. And it’s hard to discount my own eyes, which have seen Jack Morris engage in a ten-inning seventh-game staring match with oblivion and win.