Kendrys Morales will wait no longer
The Angels' Cuban import is back from injury and ready to hammer away
The injury wouldn't have happened in the old days.
In the old days, back when the term was merely "game-winning" rather than "walk-off," the reaction would have been jubilant but understated. Baseball teams play 162 games a season, and as more than one manager has instructed, your emotions can't get too high or too low. As dramatic as the Angels' victory was that day, it wasn't the World Series. It was a May victory over the Mariners, for crying out loud, with more than 100 games left in the season.
But this is a new era, and every victory requires a celebration. At bare minimum, the players must greet each other on the field with handshakes, fist-bumps, high-fives and slaps on the back. And for a walk-off grand slam? Well, that calls for Gatorade buckets, cream pies, fireworks and everything short of kissing a nurse in Times Square.
So as Kendrys Morales virtually sailed around the bases after his grand slam in the bottom of the ninth on May 29, 2010, his Angels teammates eagerly gathered at home plate for the party. Pitcher Ervin Santana still remembers how big and bright Morales' smile looked as they waited to greet him to celebrate perhaps the greatest moment of his career. Morales skipped into the narrow gap the Angels left open to the plate and hopped high up to land an exclamation mark as if he were Fred Flintstone jumping into his car after a hard day at the Slate rock and gravel pit. When Morales leaped, his joyous teammates bounced up with him.
And then he came down. And so did everything else.
"It was like the whole thing collapsed," Seattle's Chone Figgins recalls seeing from the infield. "I always stay on the field until the guy touches home plate. When he jumped up, it was like everyone jumped up at the same time, and then the whole thing just collapsed."
Morales had landed awkwardly on his left ankle and then crumpled to the ground. At first the Angels thought Morales was joking. "C'mon, let's go!" manager Mike Scioscia said. "Get up, get up!" With tears welling in his eyes, Morales replied, "I can't. I can't!"
That's when the Angels knew he wasn't joking. That's when they knew this was serious. "He had tears in his eyes," outfielder Torii Hunter says. "For a grown man to have tears in his eyes, you know something is wrong."
But even as Morales was carted off the field with an ankle damaged so badly that pitcher Jered Weaver says "it was flopping around," no one knew the injury was so serious that it would take two surgeries and 22 months -- almost two years! -- before the player could bat in a major league game again or that his first-base position would be taken by the signing of the biggest free agent in team history, Albert Pujols.
They didn't realize that the best moment of Morales' career was also the worst.
"Everything changed," Santana says, snapping his fingers, "like that."
Morales' return from the broken ankle was difficult, but he has had to be patient before. He's been through much in his life.
Morales was born in Cuba and was one of the country's best players when still just a teenager, hitting home runs at the plate and occasionally striking out batters on the mound. He was the first teenager to make the national team in the previous 20 years. But as ESPN Deportes' Enrique Rojas reported, in 2003 the Cubans dropped him from the team under suspicion of contacting an agent. Morales told Rojas the suspicions were unfounded, but it didn't matter. He never played for the Cuban team again.
Denied the chance of playing for Cuba, Morales spent the next year or so attempting to escape the island. Unfortunately, his first attempt failed. So did his second. And his third. And his fourth. And many others. Rojas reported that Morales attempted 12 escapes -- he was jailed at least once -- before he was ultimately successful at age 20 in 2004 when his raft washed ashore the United States.
As is now the custom for Cuban emigres, Morales applied for residency in the Dominican Republic, which allowed him to become a free agent and sign with the Angels for $4.5 million.
By 2006, Morales was in the major leagues. And by 2009, he was one of the Angels' best hitters, batting .306 with 34 home runs and 108 RBIs as the team won its fifth AL West division title in six years. The 2010 season started just as promisingly, with Morales hitting 11 home runs with 39 RBIs (tops on the team) through late May. With Vladimir Guerrero gone, he now was the Angels' best hitter.
And then came the injury.
Morales says he knew as soon as he landed on the ankle, "It was bad because of the pain." It was very bad. The bone was broken and dislocated, and six screws and a pin had to be inserted to fuse the bones together. He says doctors told him the injury would take time to heal, but after the first surgery that June, he was hopeful he would return relatively soon, perhaps by the time the Angels once again reached the playoffs.
But the Angels did not reach the postseason in 2010. "We won for the next 12 games, but after 12 games I think we realized, 'We don't have Kendrys,'" Hunter says. "When we learned he wasn't coming back, I think it hit everyone." The Angels finished in third place, their first losing season in seven years.
By spring training 2011, Morales still wasn't playing. He took batting practice and took turns running to first base, but something wasn't right. The strength and the mobility of the ankle still hadn't come back. His return was postponed and postponed again. He received two cortisone shots, but neither proved sufficient. One day the ankle would feel good, the next couple it would not. Doctors examined him again and determined that Morales needed a second surgery to clean up the ankle and set it healing properly.
He underwent surgery again in late May, almost a year to the day after the original injury. This second surgery included a bone graft. He missed the rest of the season.
In the meantime, the Angels continued to struggle without Morales' bat. The Angels finished second in 2011, the first time they had finished out of the playoffs in consecutive seasons in 11 years. They scored fewer runs in both seasons than they had in the previous 20 full seasons.
Morales' ankle still wasn't fully in shape by the time spring training started this February. His teammates can't remember ever seeing an injury taking so long to heal.
"I've seen pitchers have Tommy John and maybe take a year or two to get where they need to be, but I've never seen a player out two years," Hunter says. "I'm trying to remember a guy. Most position players, if they break a leg, they come back in 8½ months. I broke my ankle and came back in six months. Bones heal. Most people break bones but when you mess with ligaments and stuff like that it's different. In 19 professional years, he's the first. What does that tell you? It's a serious injury."
Morales finally returned to games in mid-March with at-bats in minor league games. He started his first Cactus League game a week later. In his first 16 at-bats he had 10 hits and two home runs; he finished the Cactus League season with a .435 average. "I'd been sitting at home watching them for a long time, and I couldn't support my teammates," Morales told reporters. "To finally be out there with them and interact with them felt really good."
"He seems happy. He's cracking jokes. I think he's seeing he has a chance of coming back," Hunter says. "Last year he was hurting and quiet. You could see the expression on his face. The disappointment. But this year, he's happy.
"He looks like he never had an injury. We need him in the lineup. He doesn't have to run, he can just jog. If he hit a ground ball, even if he was healthy, he was out anyway. A guy like that, he hits a ground ball, he's out. Hopefully we can get him where he can run without any pain."
Running well, Morales is healthy enough that Scioscia can even joke about the injury, saying that he would try to remember the day it occurred, "but then I would have to go through therapy."
The injury, Morales says, "taught me to be mentally tough. I grew up with the setback, and I know that I have to take everything step by step, as they come."
Step by step. As the past 22 months have shown, when an injury is as serious as this was, progress comes slowly. While he has run the bases and slid and done everything he can on the ankle, for now, the Angels will be satisfied if Morales doesn't need to test the ankle much beyond circling the bases after several dozen long home runs.
Of course, no matter how well Morales comes back, there will be one major difference from before he was hurt. When the Angels open the season Friday against the Royals, Morales will be the designated hitter. This is because being DH will strain the ankle less. More importantly, the Angels have someone else to play first base: the man they signed to a $241 million contract this offseason.
"When they signed Pujols, I knew what class of ballplayer he is," Morales says. "I know he is one of the best players -- if not the best. That he is one of the best hitters, if not the best. I'm mainly a first baseman, but I'm ready to put together a season to help the team. I'm a team player. I will come along and play whenever I have the chance."
So Morales will DH and perhaps give Pujols an occasional breather at first base this season. If Morales stays healthy and returns to form, the weak Angels lineup of the past two years will look very menacing. Especially so if converted third baseman Mark Trumbo can cut down on his strikeouts and continue with his power. With that upgrade in the lineup, plus the addition of C.J. Wilson to the rotation, the Angels might be not only the favorites to win the AL West, they could be the favorites to win the World Series.
And should Morales hit another dramatic walk-off home run, well, it's safe to say there will not be a repeat of the horrible injury two years ago. The Angels now have a rule regarding walk-off celebrations. Players aren't allowed on the dirt until after the winning run scores under penalty of a fine.
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