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January 13, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

Jack Morris in Motion

by Jonathan Bernhardt

The broadcast is about him from the very first moment: as soon as the CBS logo has disappeared from the screen, the hosts are talking about his postseason success so far in the games leading up to this, Game 7 of the World Series, the biggest night on the grandest stage of his career. Then they discuss the girl who sang the national anthem, but they don't spend long on her; meandering back to the baseball at hand, they remark that before the game tonight, it is only fitting to retrace the steps that brought them here. They transition into a highlight reel for a tall, moustached, intense pitcher; they don't bother to identify him. There's no need. I've never seen this man before, but I recognize Jack Morris immediately.

Morris, who retired following the 1994 season, has been on the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame since 2000. The rules are simple: five years after a player retires, he is eligible for the Hall. If he receives a vote from 75 percent or more of the participating members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, he is inducted into the Hall. If he receives a vote from five percent or fewer of those voters, he is off the ballot. If he receives a vote from any percentage of the electorate between those two extremes, he remains on the ballot for the following year. After his fifteenth year on the ballot without induction, a player is removed from consideration.

Jack Morris has spent 13 years on the ballot. He does not have much time left. He should take heart, however; just one year after his candidacy seemed dead in the water, his percentage of ballots increasing from 52.3 percent in 2010 to only 53.5 percent in 2011, Morris has renewed life: his name was present on 66.7 percent of the ballots submitted for the Hall of Fame's 2012 class, putting him in second place behind Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who was elected to the Hall after receiving votes on 86.4 percent of the ballots.

Morris, who was the face of the Detroit Tigers' pitching staff for the entirety of the eighties before spending the early nineties hopping between the Twins, Blue Jays, and Indians, has every right to be thrilled at the news. And the rest of us, especially those who were too young to see him pitch, have every right to ask...why Jack Morris? Why now?

To answer that question, I decide to watch the most famous performance of his career, the game that proved once and for all that he was a true ace and a true winner. Without commercial breaks, Game 7 runs just under two hours and 45 minutes. The starting pitchers are Morris for the Twins and John Smoltz for the Braves. Jack Buck is there, too; he probably doesn't know it yet, but this will be the last televised baseball game he ever calls for CBS Sports. The reason for his departure, Tim McCarver, is sitting next to him in the booth. Over the next few hours, Jack Morris will throw 10 shutout innings of baseball. He will allow seven hits and strike out eight batters while only walking two, one of whom he will walk intentionally. The Twins will win 1-0 in the bottom of the 10th, winning the second World Series title in franchise history and solidifying Jack Morris's place in baseball history.

And when it's over, I will be more convinced than ever that Jack Morris is not a Hall of Fame pitcher.

***

Article Five of the Baseball Writers' Association of America Election Rules codifies the qualifications of a Hall of Fame player. It reads in full:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

Exactly 23 words long, Article Five is by far the shortest of the Election Rules' nine articles. This is intentional: the Hall of Fame wants its electors to have as much leeway as possible when deciding who best deserves the highest honor that professional baseball can confer on its practitioners.

But of the six criteria listed, the very first is "record." This does not refer to the winning percentage of the teams the candidate played for, nor does it refer to an individual pitcher’s wins weighed against his losses. In this context, a player's "record" is, broadly speaking, that which he’s accomplished in the game. In baseball, that record is composed of two things: the statistics that quantify what he did in the games he played, and the awards that define his excellence among his peers.

Before we can talk about what Jack Morris's Hall of Fame candidacy is, we must first establish precisely what it is not. Morris's candidacy is not, in any credible way, based on his record. For the most part, not even his supporters pretend it is.

Nevertheless, it's instructive to see just how much of a non-factor Morris's stats are in this discussion, no matter what sort of metrics are used, and to do that, we must understand how the voters approach baseball stats in general. To almost criminally oversimplify the past 20 years, a vast gap has opened in the ranks of those who analyze the sport on a professional and sometimes near-theological level, splitting baseball writers into two vague camps.

On one edge of the chasm stand the traditionalists, favoring the familiar statistical tradition descended from Henry Chadwick, the father of baseball scorekeeping: Pitcher Wins and Losses, Earned Run Average, Batting Average, Runs Batted In, and eventually, Saves. They favor counting stats and are likely to use milestone numbers—300 Pitcher Wins, for instance, or 3000 strikeouts—but if one were to summarize their ethics in one word, it would not be "volume" but "consistency," for the latter begets the former: consistent, sustained levels of superior play lead to superior numbers.

On the other edge stand the sabermetricians, who represent a new school of thought that can be very loosely traced back to Bill James, though he is certainly not responsible for all—or even most—of its innovations: Wins Above Replacement Player, Equalized Runs Created, Fielding Independent Pitching, Win Shares, Strikeouts Per Nine Innings, Walks Per Nine Innings, Stikeout-to-Walk Percentage, and perhaps the narrative root of the entire movement, On-Base Percentage and On-Base Plus Slugging. There are almost as many sabermetric statistics as there are sabermetricians, but if their ethics were to be summarized in one word, it would be "efficiency." After all, the entire loose school of thought is built around the concept that baseball's most important unit of measure is the out, and baseball's most important question is how best to record or avoid making one.

These are, of course, imperfect, broad-brush distinctions; there are many who straddle the gap. It is entirely reasonable to put no faith in pitcher wins but believe ERA is a very useful tool, or that K/9 and BB/9 are reliable indicators of pitcher ability but that HR/9 is suspect because the pitcher has no influence on whether a flyball will become a homerun, or conversely that most advanced pitching stats are fine but that pitchers can influence the kind of contact hitters make on their pitches and therefore a stat like xFIP, which normalizes a pitcher's HR/9, is unreliable. But in general, the two camps are very real—and neither of them likes Jack Morris's record a whole lot.

First, the old school.

Jack Morris: 254W, 2478K, 3.90 ERA (105 ERA+)

These three stats—pitcher wins, strikeouts, and ERA—form the backbone of any starting pitcher's Hall of Fame bid from a traditionalist perspective, and they don't do Morris many favors. In an 18-year professional career, Morris racked up 254 wins, which ties him for 42nd all-time. The milestone he needed to reach was 300, and he fell far short. Additionally, he had only three 20-win seasons (1981, 1986, and 1992) over the course of his career. His 2478 career strikeouts put him 32nd overall but 522 short of the fabled 3000 milestone, and he recorded 157 of them per season on average, which is good but not especially great. Of course not every pitcher needs 300 wins and 3000 strikeouts to make the Hall, but those totals certainly help.

Finally, and most damningly, we come to Morris's ERA. ERA is the best pitching metric in the traditionalist arsenal—over large enough sample sizes, it generally correlates with most advanced metrics—and Morris's 3.90 is mediocre at best. In fact, that's what the 105 ERA+ right next to it means: on the whole, Jack Morris was very slightly better than league average at preventing runs from scoring. That 3.90 puts him 738th all-time. It's very telling that this is the only rate stat, as opposed to counting stat, the traditionalists really use for pitching performance, and it's the one that hurts him the most: ERA doesn't care that Morris pitched for 18 years.

There are other things brought up to help bolster Morris's case from this camp—Opening Day starts, for instance (Morris had 14)—but while these look like stats, they're really something else that we'll get to in a bit. There are additional pitching stats that traditionalists look for from starters, such as complete games and shutouts, but there's no reason to move to those: Jack Morris did not reach a prestigious milestone in either wins or strikeouts and had a career ERA that is not worthy of consideration for the Hall. Were he inducted, his ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in Cooperstown, a full tenth of a run more than Red Ruffing's 3.80. So, excluding those Opening Day starts for now, there is no traditionalist statistical case for his candidacy.

The other component of Morris's traditionalist record would be his awards, which would tell us to what extent the writers of his day thought he excelled against his peers. But Jack Morris has none. The highest he ever finished in Cy Young voting was third, which he did twice in 1981 and 1983. No complex archival search necessary—if Jack Morris had been regarded as a great pitcher during his career, he would have some hardware to prove it. He doesn't. The lack of a Cy Young doesn't torpedo his case, but never finishing higher than third in award voting doesn't help it, and right now Morris needs all the help he can get.

Now, the new school.

Jack Morris: 5.8 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.78 K/BB, 4.54 FRA, 33.4 WARP

There’s a wide array of sabermetric stats we could use to analyze Morris, but we'll use strikeouts per nine, walks per nine, strikeout-to-walk ratio, Fair Run Average and Wins Above Replacement Player. The first three form the basis of all pitcher peripherals, because strikeouts and walks are the two outcomes the pitcher has the most direct control over, with the least statistical "noise" from the defense behind him and the environment around him. The latter two are proprietary stats, the first of which applies situational linear weights to ERA as well as adjusting for defense and park, and the second of which is a component-based counting stat that quantifies the positive (or negative) value of the player's outcomes on the field. In short, you want to have a low FRA and a high WARP.

Morris's peripherals are underwhelming, but not bad. A 5.8 K/9 is middle-of-the-pack for Hall of Fame starters since integration and barely above league-average for the years in which he pitched. A 3.3 BB/9 would be fifth-highest behind Bob Feller, were Morris to get in. A 1.78 K/BB ratio would put him well into the bottom third of this portion of the Hall, 18th of 22. The only real conclusion to draw from this is that, compared to other Hall of Fame pitchers from the modern era, or even his non-Hall of Fame contemporaries, Morris was not particularly successful at striking out batters or preventing batters from walking, and he did not strike out noticeably more batters than he walked. None of this is good news for him.

That brings us to his FRA, which for a Hall of Fame candidate is atrocious. Read FRA the same way you would ERA, in terms of runs per nine innings. As Jay Jaffe has already covered, Morris's induction would make him the third-worst starter in the Hall by FRA; the average FRA for a pitcher in the Hall is 4.05. No help there. Then there's his WARP of 33.4, which is less than two-thirds the average WARP of a Hall of Fame pitcher.

That's no help, then. But Jack Morris does have some pretty good playoff stats, right? Not really. They look a lot like his regular stats: seven wins, four losses, 3.80 ERA in 92.1 IP, 6.2 K/9, 3.1 BB/9. What that overall survey misses, though, is that he has two elite postseasons (1984: 3-0, 1.80 ERA, 17 K, four BB; 1991: 4-0, 2.23 ERA, 22 K, 10 BB) and two horrific ones (1987: 0-1, 6.75 ERA, seven K, three BB; 1992: 0-3, 7.43 ERA, 18 K, 15 BB). That's not very consistent at all, which makes sense, because Morris's 92.1 playoff innings came in four separate chunks across a decade. Either way, it's hard to make a case that his playoff numbers should put him in Cooperstown.

So if he's not in by the old stats, and he's not in by the new stats, and his playoff stats are inconclusive, then what is the statistical case for putting Jack Morris in the Hall of Fame?

It's this:

3824 IP

Jack Morris pitched a lot of innings. A whole lot of innings. Once he became a full-time starter, Morris averaged 229 IP per season, and he was among the top three in innings pitched in the 1981, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1990, and 1991 seasons. Now, these numbers look more impressive in 2012 than they did in the 1980s because of how the game and the use of starting pitchers has changed, but in 1983, Morris topped out at 293 innings pitched—the man was a workhorse, and not getting injured is as much a physical talent as any tool in baseball.

Innings pitched is something of a bridge stat between the traditionalists and the sabermetricians when it comes to pitchers, because it has implications for both consistency and efficiency: a high number of innings pitched in a season for a starter shows that he is durable, dependable, and able to go deep into games, while it also means that he has more opportunities to provide value to his team than a pitcher with fewer innings pitched over the same period of time. From a team-oriented perspective, the more often you can use your good pitchers, the less you have to use your bad ones, and Morris was a good pitcher.

There will be many articles in support of Jack Morris's candidacy written over the next year, especially as the 2013 ballot submission deadline approaches. When reading them, if you find Jack Morris at the top of any list of his contemporaries, check what modifiers the writer is using to make the list, specifically the years the list spans and the average number of innings pitched on the list. For example, let's look at the top 10 pitchers in MLB by Adjusted ERA+ from 1982 to 1987 who averaged 210 IP per year or better:

Dave Stieb 131 ERA+ 1488.1 IP
Jack Morris 116 ERA+ 1590.1 IP
Charlie Hough 116 ERA+ 1512.0 IP
Bob Welch 116 ERA+ 1273.0 IP
Fernando Valenzuela 113 ERA+ 1595.2 IP
Floyd Bannister 110 ERA+ 1287.0 IP
Rick Rhoden 110 ERA+ 1361.2 IP
Jim Clancy 109 ERA+ 1298.2 IP
Frank Viola 106 ERA+ 1341.2 IP
Joe Niekro 100 ERA+ 1280.0 IP

On first glance, this list makes it seem like the mid-eighties were a bad time for starting pitching, but that after Dave Steib, who was head and shoulders above the pack, Jack Morris was among the best in the league for a six-year stretch. On second glance, this list is misleading and utterly useless.

Putting aside the arbitrary endpoints that effectively write guys like Gooden or Clemens out of the picture, 210 innings per year for six years is 1260 innings total. Between 1982 and 1987, Bert Blyleven pitched 1254.0 innings of 120 ERA+ ball, and John Tudor pitched 1239.2 innings of 124 ERA+ ball. If we change that 210 IP per year to 205 per year, Morris goes from second to fourth on the chart. If we go with 205 IP per year for the entirety of the 80s, he drops to seventh. And all of this ignores that if during a starting pitcher's peak—which the 1982 to 1987 time frame represents for Morris—the best he can do is a 116 ERA+, he's not a credible Hall of Fame pitcher.

And that's really Jack Morris's record in a nutshell: during the best stretch of his career, Dave Stieb was still better in every way. Dave Stieb received seven Hall of Fame votes in 2004. It was his only year on the ballot.

***

Morris and Smoltz are both impressive early, matching each other nearly pitch-for-pitch in the first inning. The Twins ace throws 12 pitches in the top of the first, inducing an easy flyball to right, a weak grounder to Kent Hrbek at first base, and then getting Ron Gant to strike out swinging to retire the side. Gant, a right-handed hitter, begins what will be a particularly frustrating night at the plate by jumping ahead in the count 2-0, then fouling off a fastball in the lower part of the zone and reaching for and missing a fastball low and outside.

"He can't be any more of a number one guy," McCarver is saying all the while. "He started the first game of the season for the Twins, he pitched in the All-Star game, he pitched the first game of the American League Championship Series, and he pitched in the first game of the World Series. He won all four of those games." McCarver is wrong, of course; Jimmy Key of the Blue Jays was the winning pitcher of record in the 1991 All-Star Game. But Jack Morris is a winner, and it fits the story McCarver's telling better if he wins the All-Star Game, too.

Gant whiffs on a fastball away and tosses his helmet and bat in disgust.

When Smoltz comes out to pitch the bottom of the first, Buck takes over. Aside from pointing out how many wins Smoltz had to end the regular season, McCarver is silent for the first three minutes of the inning. Perhaps he's mesmerized by Smoltz's slider: nasty and quick, coming in low and fast and twisting away out of the hitting window even faster, it's the best pitch in his arsenal and the one for which he'll become famous. Twins leadoff man Dan Gladden swings and misses on a slider, lays off a high fastball, swings and misses on another slider, fouls off a high fastball, then swings and misses on a third slider to make the first Minnesota out of the game. The Twins will not have much more success trying to solve that pitch the rest of the evening.

It takes only five more pitches for Smoltz to retire Chuck Knoblauch and Kirby Puckett, again using the slider to get the number two and three hitters in pitcher's counts and swinging at balls in less than ideal places.

At the end of the first inning, each man has a strikeout and neither has allowed a baserunner, but more importantly, both have figured out that home plate umpire Don Denkinger is calling just about everything low and in the vicinity of home plate a strike, especially if it's low and away on right-handed batters.

The top of the second begins with David Justice taking the first pitch he sees out of Jack Morris's hand into center field for the first hit of the game, and sure enough, Tim McCarver's back, remarking on how deep Puckett plays in center, and how if he’d played in a little more, that single would have been an out. He has nothing to say about the pitch, which was a straight fastball right down the middle of the plate.

***

If Morris's case is not based on his record, then what is it based on?

Narrative.

Recalling Article Five, a player's record is only one of six criteria a voter is supposed to consider when deciding whether or not to vote for a player to go into the Hall of Fame. The others are playing ability (which can reasonably be rolled into a discussion of the player's stats), integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the teams for which he played. At those final four, and especially the final two, Jack Morris would seem to excel.

Earlier, Morris's 14 consecutive Opening Day starts were mentioned, a major-league record that stands to this day. This is not a statistic in any conventional sense; it describes nothing about what Jack Morris did on the mound and gives us no new information about his ability to pitch. In fact, the only thing it has in common with an actual baseball stat is that it's a number. What those 14 consecutive starts represent, instead, are Morris's character and the role he filled on his teams.

Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci, who did not vote for Morris this year, attached a rider to the column explaining his ballot that argued for Morris's induction and implied that he might find room for the man the next time around. It correctly noted that there was no statistical argument to be made for the man, and just as correctly noted that this was only one aspect of a Hall of Fame candidacy. It even had a gerrymandered list: “Pitchers with the Most Seasons of 15 or More Wins and 235 or more Innings Pitched since 1901,” with Morris coming in ninth; every other pitcher on the list was in the Hall. However, the most ridiculous (yet revealing) thing Verducci had to say was the following:

"No, the advanced numbers don't make Morris a Hall of Famer. But the comparison to [Dennis] Martinez indicates the danger in trusting only those numbers. What if Morris' one great skill that was so valued by baseball people—pitching as a true ace for 14 years with more wins and more innings than anybody else—was so extraordinary, like the glove of Ozzie Smith or the bat control of Rod Carew, as to make him a Hall of Famer? Can that skill define him as a Hall of Famer even without a great ERA?"

It seems some sort of bizarre performance art: one of the most respected national baseball writers currently working asserts that having a moustache and being gruffly confident is the secret sixth tool of baseball; will anyone call him on it? But what Verducci is doing, either in good faith or just to drive his hits counter, is making the case that all of Morris's supporters are tip-toeing around when they try to talk about his Wins or his Opening Day starts: if Hall of Fame voters are sufficiently enamored of the narrative they've constructed around a player for whatever reason, then that alone is a good enough case to put him in. And under Article Five of the Election Rules, that's their right.

But a couple paragraphs before he wonders if the big, bushy right-hander is indeed the Truest Ace of All Time, Verducci writes, "This ground-level definition of an ace is what shapes Morris' candidacy. It's not about his ERA+ and it's not even about Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, which has been overblown as defining his candidacy."

He's wrong. Since the moment he hit the ballot, all the "pitching to the score" and "true ace" stuff has been at best a condiment, adding flavor to the argument instead of substance. No, the meat, the bone, the heart and the soul of Jack Morris's Hall of Fame candidacy has always been his 10-inning shutout win against the Braves, the narrative climax of a season and a career. Besides run support, it's just about the only tangible accomplishment he has going for him that, say, Jamie Moyer doesn't. It was the greatest night of Morris's career and quite likely his entire life.

But here's the thing about that narrative: Jack Morris should have lost Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.

***

By the top of the eighth, the big right-hander is cruising. Morris hasn't allowed a baserunner since the fifth and has thrown only 20 pitches over the last two innings. He struck out Greg Olson to start off the seventh and Rafael Belliard to end it; now he steps to the rubber and stares down towards home as designated hitter Lonnie Smith stands in. Smith, the Braves' leadoff man, is 1-2 with a walk and a bunt single; that bunt single, back in the top of the fifth, marks the last time a Brave reached first base.

The first pitch is a fastball low and inside on the right-handed Smith; catcher Brian Harper sets the target at the knees, but the ball arrives almost in the dirt. Smith wisely lays off; the Twins ace steps back, kicks some dirt, takes the sign. Delivers.

Smith checks his swing at the last moment; if he doesn't, he's probably either standing on second base or back in the dugout. Instead, he chips the ball into shallow right field for a leadoff single. As Smith reaches the bag, the ball almost takes a high bounce over Shane Mack's head, but the right fielder leaps up to glove it and Smith retreats to first base.

That brings up Braves third baseman and National League batting champion Terry Pendleton. As Braves third base coach Jimy Williams gives Smith and Pendleton their signs, Buck and McCarver ruminate from the announcers’ booth on whether manager Bobby Cox is going to bunt Smith over, hit and run, order a steal, or just play it straight. Williams's antics cease, and Pendleton steps into the left-hand batters' box.

The first pitch is a ball way outside.

Tim McCarver helpfully informs the listeners at home that Cox probably will not order the best hitter in the National League to bunt a runner over with no outs and a speedster on first.  While he chatters, Morris throws over to first to make sure Smith knows he hasn't been forgotten. "You see Tom Kelly pointing to his head," McCarver says as the CBS camera shows the Twins manager doing precisely that, "we'll see if Harper does the same thing—I think that's the sign to throw over to first base!"

Morris steps and delivers a called strike on the outside corner.

Pendleton stares into the right-hand batter’s box; the pitch was at least six inches off the black. He is not amused. McCarver, oblivious, continues to explain that Kelly touching his head is the sign to throw to first as the count goes even with a ball and a strike.

Now Morris starts throwing over to first; he does it twice, and Smith gets back both times. Cut to the Minnesota bullpen: relievers Steve Bedrosian and Mark Guthrie are warming up. Kelly, clearly worried about the baserunner, wants arms warm and ready if things go south.

The third pitch is a fastball letter-high and away, but in the zone. Pendleton swings and fouls it into the seats on the third base side. Morris watches it go, then twitches his moustache, runs his right hand fast through his hair and wipes it on his cap, and walks to the front of the mound to get a new ball from Denkinger.

The fourth pitch of the at-bat is the split-fingered fastball low and almost in the dirt of the left-hand batter’s box—the pitch and location that Morris has been tormenting the Braves' right-handed hitters with all night. But whereas the pitch is low and away to them, to Pendleton it's low and in. Like them, he goes after it, and at first Twins fans think Morris has recorded his seventh punchout of the night, but Denkinger brushes his hands together into the air—a foul tip. The catcher Harper appeals to third and Denkinger allows it, but third base umpire Terry Tata confirms the call and Terry Pendleton remains alive with a ball and two strikes.

Morris shakes his head, grumbles something towards home, then takes a walk around the mound. He's a very demonstrative, emotional pitcher, at least in this game—always shouting something, swearing, fist-pumping, jumping up and down. The actual act of pitching is the least interesting thing he does, because it's the same every time; once the ball is in play, though, the big man coils up as the play unfolds and then bounces around the infield grass once it resolves, cursing or celebrating as the situation demands, never letting it get in the way of being where he needs to be defensively. If there's any game where this is an understandable approach, it's Game 7 of the World Series.

We don't get to see him after the next pitch, though, because Pendleton takes a fastball on the outside half of the plate the other way into the gap out to left center. It hits the pale, washed-out artificial turf and bounces high off the plexiglass that lines the top of the Metrodome's outfield wall, almost like the boards of a hockey rink. The ball caroms back to the field, Twins left fielder Dan Gladden grabs it on the way down and spins to the infield—

—Where a mortified Lonnie Smith, wide-eyed and helmetless, is just now arriving at third base at a dead run, Pendleton pulling into second in the background behind him. Jack Buck has barely finished calling the play before he tells us what he, McCarver, Smith and everyone in the stadium already know: "—it's off the wall, Lonnie Smith is held up at third and he didn't do very good baserunning. That was terrible by Lonnie."

"He didn't pick the ball up," McCarver says. "He stopped when he reached second base!"

What happens is this:

Lonnie Smith breaks for second on contact; as soon as the ball leaves Pendleton's bat into left, Smith is running full-speed towards second. Halfway there, just as he shifts from his secondary lead and puts on the jets, he loses his batting helmet. As he loses his batting helmet, he loses sight of the baseball.

Smith, helmet gone, disoriented, with no idea where the baseball is, slows slightly as he approaches second base, trying to pick up the play. Instead he picks up Chuck Knoblauch, the Minnesota second baseman, flipping the ball to shortstop Greg Gagne, who is charging towards the second base bag to force Smith out. Smith speeds up, but Gagne beats him to the bag—just as the ball lands in left center. The Braves' leadoff man rounds second, looking out into left now to gauge whether he should try for third. He's lost some time, but he's more than fast enough to make it home from second on a gapper.

But now Smith makes his second mistake: he forgets about the glass atop the outfield wall. He's not the only one. As the ball slams into the turf and shoots up towards the left field seats, Buck's call is that "the ball is down and that's a bad...oh, it's off the wall!" Buck might as well have been calling Smith's internal monologue, because just as he realizes that he's been badly fooled by Knoblauch and Gagne, he sees the ball shoot up above the dark teal outfield wall. In any other stadium in the majors, that's a ground rule double, meaning the ball is dead and Smith will advance to third base but no further. Imagine his surprise, then, when it hits the plexiglass wall and bounces back into play, completely live. Smith spends a full five seconds hopping back and forth off of second base, indecisive about whether or not to advance, before breaking for third. He reaches safely as Dan Gladden returns the ball to the infield.

Gant grounds out weakly to first. The Twins intentionally walk Justice to load the bases. Sid Bream grounds into a double play. Inning over.

Five seconds. The fastest man on the Atlanta Braves stands off of second base staring into the outfield for five seconds on a hit and run, and Jack Morris keeps his shutout.

***

Immediately following Article Five of the BBWAA's Election Rules is Article Six, as one might expect, and it reads in full:

6. Automatic Elections: No automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted.

Lonnie Smith's terrible mistake in the top of the eighth inning is precisely why this rule exists. Obviously, no one is talking about automatically inducting Jack Morris into the Hall because of a 10-inning shutout, but the spirit of the Article's prohibition applies. It underscores that residency in Cooperstown is meant to immortalize complete players, not the brightest-burning moments in their lives. In the absence of any other compelling reason, a Hall of Fame bust should not be awarded because Lonnie Smith lost his helmet.

Because if he keeps the helmet and scores from first, and Kelly doesn't pull Morris for either Bedrosian or Guthrie, the Twins lose. The way Morris pitched after the Pendleton double represented the best possible outcome for Minnesota; Morris would not allow another baserunner following the intentional walk to Justice, and there is no particularly compelling reason to assume that Morris leaving the game would have led the Twins hitters to do anything against the Braves in the seventh, eighth, or ninth. If Smith scores and everything else remains the same—with Pendleton on second and first base open, the Twins still would have pitched to Gant, then walked Justice to get to Bream with the double play in order regardless of whether or not there was a man on third—Jack Morris, at best, takes a hard-luck complete game shutout loss in Game 7 of the World Series. Think about how that would change the narrative.

That is essentially where Morris stands going into next year's voting. Unless one votes purely based on pitcher wins (and some do), he has no real statistical case, and his narrative case hinges on an overemphasis of an impressive pitching performance in the most important game of his career, two decades of good character and locker room leadership, and a bunch of Opening Day starts.

In the end, whether or not Jack Morris is elected into the Hall of Fame is in many ways less important than why Jack Morris is or is not elected to the Hall of Fame. There are plenty of players less accomplished than he is in the Hall, though the majority of them were added by the Veterans Committee and not the writers. No, the debate over Morris stopped being about the pitcher himself some time ago; some point to Bert Blyleven's induction as the turning point, and it's fair to say that his eventual success might have led to some backlash. Whatever the reason, Morris is now a test case to see if a candidate with a strong enough narrative, no matter how groundless, imaginary, or overblown it might be, can make the Hall simply because his supporters repeated it so often and so loudly that one morning the world woke up and found it was true.

None of this is to say Morris wasn't a very good pitcher. It's not at all easy to be one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball for any length of time, let alone for a decade and change, but Jack Morris was. Perhaps the saddest thing about the madness surrounding his candidacy is that there's an entire generation of new fans and writers coming to the conversation who never got to see Morris pitch, who look at that 3.90 ERA and then over at his Hall of Fame vote totals, who read some of the overexcited praise of Wins and True Aceiness and other things they've learned are never to be taken seriously and start to look at Jack Morris as a punchline instead of an extremely accomplished pitcher.

There's no shame in "only" being one of the top two or three hundred human beings to throw a baseball in the history of the sport. But by design, the Hall of Fame is an even more exclusive honor than that.

But Jack Morris shouldn't worry. He'll make the Hall yet. He is, after all, a winner.

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