Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Michael Morse's late run to All-Star party
By Jerry Crasnick
WASHINGTON -- Major League Baseball introduced the All-Star Final Vote nine years ago as a fun way to promote fan involvement. Judging from the 122 million votes cast over the past two seasons, the initiative has achieved its designated purpose.
But like so many American commercial endeavors, it’s flirting with its saturation point. There’s so much hype and promotional maneuvering involved now, you wonder when Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Films are going to jump in with a candidate to support.
Two years ago, the Phillies made sandwich signs for Shane Victorino, and the gregarious outfielder followed Mayor Michael Nutter around Philadelphia on a door-to-door quest for votes. Since then we’ve graduated to Twitter campaigns, JibJab videos and dual alliances -- such as the Rays and Diamondbacks, those expansion brethren, teaming up to push Ben Zobrist and Ian Kennedy for the 34th roster spots next week in Phoenix.
Beyond the slogans and nonstop electioneering, nothing beats a good, old-fashioned human interest angle. Now that San Francisco starter Ryan Vogelsong has made the National League squad, Washington first baseman Michael Morse might have the most compelling “long and winding road’’ story to tell.
Of the 10 players on this year’s Final Vote list, Morse is the least likely to be hanging on the results of an Internet ballot in July. Here’s a guy who is 29 years old and has 870 big league at-bats to his credit -- and was traded straight up from Seattle to Washington two years ago for Ryan Langerhans. What’s he doing carrying an offense?
“Do I feel like a late bloomer?’’ Morse said Tuesday before the Nationals’ 3-2 win over the Cubs. “Yeah, because I didn’t get an opportunity when I was younger. But I feel like everything happens for a reason, and what happened made me the person I am today.’’
Morse, a hulking 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, is so unassuming that he habitually changes the subject when Nationals beat writers raise the subject of his gaudy stats (he’s fifth in the NL with a .536 slugging percentage). In May, shortstop Ian Desmond gave him a gray T-shirt with the words “Beast Mode’’ inscribed across the front in large black letters. Morse wears it only on days ending in “y.’’
“He definitely washes it,’’ teammate Jayson Werth said. “Well, he doesn’t wash it. But the clubhouse guy does.’’
That handy things-happen-for-a-reason mantra helps put Morse’s career odyssey into perspective. He was a rangy, 180-pound shortstop when the Chicago White Sox drafted him in the third round in 2000. Morse admittedly took steroids in the minor leagues to recover from a thigh muscle injury, and later apologized and called it an “enormous mistake.’’ The White Sox sent him to Seattle in 2004, and the Mariners traded him to Washington two years ago for Langerhans, a .226 career hitter who’s currently playing for Seattle’s Triple-A club in Tacoma.
After a monster spring training, Morse broke camp as Washington’s regular left fielder in April. But he hit only .211 in the first month and lost the job to Laynce Nix. Morse got a reprieve when first baseman Adam LaRoche went down with a shoulder injury, and this time he didn’t waste it.
Since taking over as Washington’s regular first baseman on May 22, Morse leads the majors with 13 homers and 35 RBIs. He missed two games this week after taking a Chris Resop pitch off the elbow and grounded out in a pinch-hit appearance Tuesday.
His teammates have noticed a quiet, budding confidence in Morse, as if he finally realizes he belongs. That’s true even if talent evaluators and stat-crunchers look at his 62-to-14 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .339 batting average on balls in play and wonder whether he can maintain his recent run of success.
“He’s always been talented,’’ Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s just a matter of him believing it. He got hot for those couple of weeks and realized, ‘Hey, if I can get hot for two weeks, I can get hot for six months.’’’
In recent years, Morse derived inspiration from Werth, another tall, rangy, athletic type who broke through as an All-Star with the Phillies at age 30 two seasons ago. When Werth signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with Washington in December, he kept his No. 28 jersey, and Morse was forced to switch from No. 28 to 38.
At the moment, Werth is hitting .221 and getting booed routinely by the home fans in Washington. But he’s been through enough to provide consistent guidance to Morse in his breakthrough season.
“I’ve been there and driven down a similar road,’’ Werth said. “I think Zim and I are two guys he can talk to about settling into that everyday role and not worrying about all the externals and the what-ifs and all that stuff.’’
Is Morse on the verge of making his first All-Star appearance? Realistically, he’s a major long shot. As of Tuesday, Morse ranked fourth among the NL’s five candidates behind Victorino, Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier and Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.
The Orioles and Nationals have joined forces with the “Beltway Ballot,’’ pushing the dual candidacies of Morse and Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones. But they’re not the only organizational tag team. The Dodgers and White Sox, spring training partners in the Cactus League, have teamed up to send Ethier and Paul Konerko back home to Phoenix for the All-Star Game. And the Tigers and Phillies have the catchiest catch phrase, with their “Victor/Victorino’’ push for Victor Martinez and Victorino.
Morse understands how these things work: When you’re going up against a guy called the "Flyin’ Hawaiian" -- who plays for a team so popular that it’s sold out 169 consecutive games -- your chances of springing an upset aren’t great.
“If you look at his numbers, it’s kind of self-explanatory [why he has such a strong case],’’ Zimmerman said. “But it’s more of a popularity contest. It’s like when they vote for student council president in middle school. It’s not the most qualified person. It’s kind of the coolest person.’’
Morse might not be the coolest player on the Internet these days. But as he creeps up on age 30, it’s gratifying to know that people are taking notice that he’s one of baseball’s hottest hitters. Beast Mode is alive and well in the nation’s capital.
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Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.
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