Volcanic 'Mount' Morris Cools Down to Become King of the Hill for Detroit
07/16/1984 at 01:00 AM EDT
Jack Morris was a precocious child. Early on—very early to hear him tell it—he had a lifetime game plan. "I figured out when I was 1 that I liked to win," he says, "and that's been my goal ever since."
Win, win, win is all 29-year-old Morris seems to do these days. The 6'3", 200-pound right-handed ace of the Detroit Tiger pitching staff has a 12-5 record (including the season's only no-hitter), tops in the American League. "Jack's my horse; he's the best pitcher in baseball," says manager Sparky Anderson, whose Tigers, with almost half the season gone, are 55-24 and dominating the sport like no club since the 1954 Cleveland Indians.
Morris, who has learned to combine natural talent with hard-won self-control, came up to the Tigers in 1977, after a scant year and one month in the minors. He arrived from the Triple A Evansville Indiana Triplets with a scorching fastball (it has been clocked at 97 mph) and such an explosive temper that sportswriters nicknamed him Mount Morris—as in large volcano. If a game or an umpire's call went against him, he waved his arms, punted the rosin bag, destroyed bat racks, water-coolers and locker stools.
Cooling down Morris, whose rage got in the way of winning, became an ongoing Tiger project, undertaken first by Anderson but mainly by all-star catcher Lance Parrish. For example, in one game Parrish, seeing Mount Morris about to erupt, trudged to the mound and said, "When you act like this, nobody wants to play behind you." Parrish further psyched Morris by telling him he was "a great pitcher, a supposed leader" and "too good for those tantrums."
Gradually the medicine took. "Lance saved me," said Morris recently. "I was my own worst enemy. These days I have it under control." While mellowing out he picked up a new pitch from coach Roger Craig, a sinking pitch thrown with a split-fingered delivery, to vary against his fastball. With temper and pitching repertoire in hand, Morris roared through the end of 1983 with 10 straight victories to finish with a 20-13 record and the AL lead in strike-outs.
This year, cocky and very much together, Jack Morris is sure he and the Tigers are destined to keep right on rolling. "I am going to win from now on," he says. "It's the castle or the outhouse; I'll take the castle."
The second child and oldest son of Arvid and Dona Morris, Jack grew up in St. Paul, Minn. His father, a systems technician for 3M Co. was determined to make his two boys into ballplayers. "They could hardly walk and Arvid was throwing hardballs at them," recalls Dona Morris. "I asked him, 'Aren't you going to hurt them?' and he said, 'No, they'll catch it.' "
"He pushed us so hard it was almost unbearable at times," says Jack. Among Dad's motivational devices was food. "If Jack played well he got a steak dinner. If he didn't," shrugs Arvid, "no steak." The regime never really took on brother Tom, who dropped the game after two years in the minor leagues to become a geologist. Jack played for the hardball steaks. "My father was the best influence in baseball I ever had," says the top Tiger.
In his teens Jack became a sports machine: a scholarship-level athlete in basketball and baseball, and a good enough ski jumper to beat future Olympians. But baseball remained his real passion. "I had no social life at all," he recalls. "Girls were untouchables. They clog your mind and keep you away from baseball." A Mormon, he attended Brigham Young University, where his mind remained mostly un-clogged. He dated a bit, "but the girls weren't chasing me. BYU is not a jock school. If you're a returning missionary, maybe. But for a jock, forget it."
Back home on the summer break after sophomore year, he became reacquainted with a high school friend, Carolyn Blake, and thereafter had eyes for no one else. They wed in 1977. "I married the girl who lived two blocks away," says Morris. "We were best friends long before we were lovers."
Jack and Carol, 28, now live in Birmingham, Mich. in a four-bedroom ranch house with their towheaded sons, Austin, 3, and Erik, 1, a Cabbage Patch lookalike. She takes the kids to the Tiger home games, arriving with a huge diaper bag full of Pampers, juice, graham crackers and books. And when Jack appears she will say, "There's Daddy, there's Daddy!" The kids love it and carry the excitement home, where they sometimes wear T-shirts given to them by Jack's sister, inscribed, "Our Daddy is awesome."
Though Carol too enjoys going to the games—or watching on TV when she can't be at the park—she admits that being married to a jock who travels half the year "is not glamorous. I can identify with single parents because he's gone so much."
However, she also knows Jack to be a loyal, generous husband who plays no part of the runaround sports celeb. "I don't want to put him on a pedestal," she says, "but I know that I can trust him." With his $800,000 salary Jack bought a retirement home in Michigan for his parents and another in Florida for hers, plus matching red Ford Escorts for each of the folks. A devout sportsman with a 32-foot fishing boat he keeps at his parents' place on Lake Michigan, Jack takes the gear to custom-make his own fiberglass trolling rods with him on team road trips. And to pass the time he fusses with the angling equipment in his hotel room.
At home, he enjoys puttering with his cars (two BMWs, a Ford van and a Pontiac Trans Am) and mowing their three-quarter-acre lawn, which abuts the exclusive Oakland Hills Country Club. He is, in all, a man without pretense who feels "pretty comfortable with myself. It doesn't take much to make me happy." Carol concurs. "Jack is a very simple person," she says. "He may pitch a no-hitter, but he still takes out the garbage."