Sunday, December 11, 2011
It started in the early 1970s after I discovered this small, but dangerous second baseman in Cincinnati. Like anyone that saw him play, I respected his abilities as a ballplayer and feared what he could do to my team. There was no question about it: Joe Morgan made the Big Red Machine purr. He won the NL MVP in both 1975 & 1976 - the 1st time a second baseman had won back to back trophies. It seemed like overnight these clean shaven conservative Reds replaced the mustached green and gold drama in Oakland, delivering two straight world series wins and a dynasty of their own.
I think the first time I ever noticed Joe Morgan in the batters box "chicken" flapping his left elbow as he waited for a pitch was in the 1975 World Series. It looked to me like he was ratcheting his grip and increasing the tension for a more powerful swing. Of course, I tried to mimic it the next spring during little league practice before my coach convinced me it didn't help.
When the Reds dismantled the machine in after the 1979 season, little Joe reappeared as a free agent down in Houston wearing those ridiculous tequila rainbow stripes. He still scared me because despite the drastic change in his outfit, one thing looked the same, he kept winning. The 1980 NLCS between the Phillies and Astros remains the best playoff series I have ever watched.
In 1982, as a member of the San Francisco Giants he hit a home run in the last game of the season to eliminate the hated Dodgers from the playoffs.
My relationship with Joe moved from fearful respect to adoration when he joined his former mates Pete Rose and Tony Perez on my Phillies in 1983. I couldn't believe it... these three great former tormentors were now wearing the uniform of my team. It was surreal and Joe's late season heroics leading to the NL pennant cemented him as a baseball hero in my book. Sadly, he played only a single season in Philadelphia before the club decided to start a youth movement. It took a lot of restraint for me not to show him in a Phils uniform for this post.
His final season was as a member of the Oakland A's, where he became the only player to homer twice on his 40th birthday.
To me, his Hall of Fame numbers and position as one of the best second basemen in the history of the game is secondary the uncanny way he had of playing winning baseball. No matter where Joe Morgan went, his teams won. In 22 seasons in the big leagues, his teams made the post season 7 different times, with three different teams.
But that isn't the end of this story. Our relationship has now moved from fearful respect through joyful adoration and into contempt borne out of familiarity. After he retired, Joe followed the path of many former ballplayers into the broadcasting booth. He soon became a regular on national and post season broadcasts working for ABC, NBC, and finally ESPN. I am not a huge fan of national broadcast teams because they lack the intimacy of the local crew and many try to explain the game in a over-simplified manner. As it turned out, Joe Morgan went from the hall of fame directly into the realm of a kindergarten teacher. Much to my horror, behind the microphone Joe had the same effect as finger-nails on a chalk board.