Sunday, December 7, 1997
Midnight tolls for Morris, Reds

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hal Morris is finished here. The Cincinnati Reds did not exercise his option, and they will not offer him arbitration. There is nothing to do but move on.

Eduardo Perez is the Reds' first baseman now, and he will not be easily budged because he is still easily budgeted. Perez has a lot more power than Morris, and not nearly so much leverage. Case closed.

Hal Morris has owned one of baseball's more elegant swings since he first set foot in Cincinnati in 1990, but he has recently priced himself out of this market. He made $3.1 million last season, and the Reds cannot offer him salary arbitration for anything less than $2,480,000.

This is a lot to pay for a first baseman who hit one home run last season. It is considerably more than the Reds can justify amid their newfound austerity.

''I think Hal Morris can still hit,'' General Manager Jim Bowden said. ''I think he had a bad shoulder all year and didn't let us know. But I think he'll hit .300 next year. I think he's a veteran-type guy who could put up some numbers.''

Let's hope so. For eight seasons, Hal Morris has been a distinguished performer and a consistently fine fellow for the home team. He has hit .307 during that span, and three times was the regular first baseman for first-place ballclubs. If money were no object, he'd be a handy guy to have around.

But after years of splurging on major-league payroll, Marge Schott's proxies are determined to make her books balance. Managing Executive John Allen has imposed payroll limits that Bowden can no longer finesse, and a once-bloated player budget is rapidly approaching the subsistence levels of Montreal and Pittsburgh. The Reds have until midnight tonight to offer salary arbitration to Morris, catcher Joe Oliver and pitchers Kent Mercker and Mike Morgan. Those players the Reds do not tender automatically become free agents, and can not be re-signed until May 1.

Bowden can ill-afford to have any of these players accept arbitration, and could only offer it on the grounds that it be rejected. That maneuver would cost the Reds exclusive bargaining rights with a particular player, but it would spare them the danger of allowing a third party to determine a player's worth.

This ploy might enable the Reds to stay in the hunt for Mercker and Morgan. Morris, however, is already resigned to relocating.

''I haven't even thought about (the Reds),'' he said. ''I have assumed that they've decided that they're going in a different direction. I've assumed they'd like to play younger players.

''I'd just like to go somewhere where there's a chance to play. I'd be willing to play a lot less if I have the chance to play for a contending team. Coming off the year that I had last year, I'm not in a position to be too demanding.''

Morris hit .276 for the Reds last season, but drove in only 33 runs in 96 games. His shoulder problems - which led to arthroscopic surgery in August - caused him to miss the last two months of the season.

If Eric Davis was made of egg shells, Morris has been pie crust. At the age of 32, he has already been on the disabled list six times for assorted ailments. A professional ballplayer since 1986, Morris has managed to play in at least 140 games only once.

''My Achilles' heel has been my health,'' he said. ''I know when I'm healthy, I can play.'' How widely that opinion is shared should become clear this week. Once tonight's midnight deadline passes, Morris moves into the open market and interested parties are no longer bound to provide the Reds with compensation.

Morris had considered a move to Japan, but now says he would prefer to sign with a club that holds spring training in Florida. (He lives in Orlando.) This change reflects his concern for the health of his daughter, Grace, born prematurely last week. Still, Morris is mainly just looking for a job.

''You get to this point,'' he said, ''and you're happy to be playing anywhere. As you get deeper into your career and you recognize that you're not going to play a whole lot longer, you savor the opportunity to get out there for a few more years.''

Agent Adam Katz declined to discuss the specific interest of individual teams, but the probable suspects for Morris' services would include Detroit, Kansas City and Minnesota. His situation should start to crystalize once David Segui and Paul Sorrento - more coveted free-agent first baseman - sign with new clubs.

''There are a few clubs out there who have shown interest,'' Morris said. ''I've actually talked to some teams about playing left field. I played right field for two years with the Yankees when (Don) Mattingly was in front of me. If someone wants me to play the outfield, I'll get to work on it right away.''

He is worth a shot. Sadly, he's worth more than the Reds can pay.