2-for-5? That's slump for Morris

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A little-known secret of the American League is that the pitchers are required to throw underhand. This is because the ball is so big that only Godzilla could grip it. Fastballs can not exceed the local speed limits in the land of the designated hitter, and first base is fixed at 50 feet from home plate.

This is how things must look to Hal Morris right now -- like baseball, only easier. The Reds' departed first baseman has resurfaced with the Kansas City Royals, and he couldn't be much hotter if he came to bat with a blowtorch.

Prince Hal was hitting .437 before Tuesday night's game with the Seattle Mariners, and this is because he has been in a brief slump. Last Saturday, he was at .462, with at least two hits in eight straight games.

He leads both leagues in hitting and could take an 0-for-30 streak and still be safely perched above .300. He has made a first impression in Kansas City that resonates like James Earl Jones singing in the shower.

"I can't really explain it," Morris said Tuesday by telephone from Seattle. "I haven't hit many balls in the air at all, mainly line drives and pretty hard ground balls. It's one of those times when you find a lot of holes."

Hal Morris is too cautious to get caught up in a hitting streak, and too seasoned to think he can sustain it indefinitely. He is riding a wave, ever mindful that he might be thrown into the surf at any moment. He will enjoy it while it lasts.

Eventually, the pitchers will find a flaw or his line drives will start finding leather. Eventually, the law of batting averages brings even the best hitters back to reality. Hal Morris is an accomplished hitter, but he is rarely confused for Ted Williams.

Yet neither should anyone be startled by his fast start. American League umpires generally observe a stingier strike zone than their National League counterparts, which means hitters are more often ahead in the count and less often called out on pitches off the plate.

'A daily adjustment'

A smart hitter learns to exploit his advantages, and Hal Morris is Phi Beta Kappa with a bat in his hands. Moreover, shoulder surgery has restored some of the bat speed he had lost. The opportunity to play more games on grass may also have added life to his legs.

"It's something I never really considered when I was in Cincinnati, but (artificial turf) definitely takes its toll," he said. "When you play on grass, your lower back and your hamstrings aren't as locked up after you get done playing a game. When we play a three-game series on turf, you really feel the difference."

Morris had 18 hits in 32 at-bats in his first homestand in Kansas City, and started the Royals' subsequent road trip with seven hits in his first 10 trips in Oakland. His 12-game hitting streak ended Monday, largely because he entered the game only after Randy Johnson had left it.

"It's definitely still a daily adjustment," Morris said. "Last night, I faced a couple of guys I'd never seen before, so you're apt to take a few more pitches. It's kind of like a feeling-out period." On a more perfect planet, Morris would not be starting over at age 33. He would have remained with the Reds until he was ready to retire, or at least until some young first baseman proved himself an improvement.

But modern baseball economics have all but eliminated the graceful exit. Player salaries determine what makes sense and what is merely sentiment. The Reds let Morris' option lapse last winter because they could not justify his $3.1 million salary amid massive payroll cuts.

For a rebuilding ballclub, this was, and is, the right decision, even if the stat sheet suggests it was terribly wrong. Morris, for one, knows better than to gloat in April.

"I realize a good week here or there does not make a year," he said. "I know what a grind it is . . . "

Perspective is important when you're hitting .437, but also elusive. Hal Morris goes 2-for-5 these days, and he's in a slump.

SULLIVAN ARCHIVE