For a night, Joe rekindles '70s magic

Sunday, June 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joe Morgan walks onto the field to a standing ovation.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |

Immortality comes in one size with the Cincinnati Reds. Their retired jerseys are all jumbo, nine feet long from collar to shirttail, larger than life like the ballplayers who wore them.

The scale of the shirts was unusually symbolic Saturday night, for the smallest component of the Big Red Machine was finally recognized for the giant he was. Joe Morgan's No. 8 was added to the left-field wall at Cinergy Field, and forever removed from circulation.

The honor was long overdue for Cincinnati's greatest second baseman, and yet, happily, not too late. Morgan's children were old enough to understand and his parents were still young enough to participate. Whatever was missing was not worth mourning.

"When Nellie Fox went in the Hall of Fame, I told his wife, "It should have been done a lot sooner,' " Morgan said. "She said, "Joe don't worry about it. Let's just enjoy the moment.' "

A man can't always expect to choreograph his cheers. Sometimes, his most memorable moments are muted. When Joe Morgan was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1990, the outdoor ceremonies in Cooperstown were rained out on consecutive days and finally moved into a small auditorium. The effect was to reduce raucous adulation to polite applause.

Driving in from the airport Friday, Morgan wondered if his next big day in baseball might also be dampened. But the clouds restrained themselves Saturday evening, and enough spectators arrived early that the condemned ballpark sounded a little like it did during the 1970s.

Emotional moments

Morgan has often said that this ceremony should have coincided with his enshrinement in Cooperstown, but he could not complain that it was inadequate. For a few emotional moments, he couldn't speak at all.

Asked during a pre-game press conference about the left-field wall's most glaring omission -- jersey No. 14 -- Morgan had to pull out a handkerchief to discuss Pete Rose. He would become choked up again as he spoke to the crowd, thousands of whom had not been born when Morgan was the best player in baseball.

"I didn't know what to expect," Morgan said later. "But the Cincinnati fans have always made me feel that my number was retired."

It would have been better if Rose had been around, or if Sparky Anderson had not been away attending a wedding. Even before Rose's banishment, the Reds have been hard-pressed to reassemble all the parts of the Big Red Machine on the same night on the same field they made famous.

But that's quibbling. What matters most is that these players receive their rightful place, their just due and an encore worthy of their efforts.

To that end, some of Morgan's most stirring tributes have been spontaneous. A few years ago, Morgan came through town to provide expert analysis for an ESPN broadcast, and found himself the subject of an unsolicited standing ovation.

Grace and goosebumps

Saturday, he was almost overcome by a surprise poetry reading by his twin daughters, and curiously unprepared for the feelings that came over him when the symbolic jersey was ultimately unveiled. It was hung beside Frank Robinson's No. 20, to be flanked next month by Ted Kluszewski's No. 18. (Big Klu would surely forgive the poetic license required to assign him the same size shirt as Little Joe. Klu's, presumably, will bear no sleeves.)

But the night's best moment was entirely unscripted. Reserve catcher Brook Fordyce typically handles the ceremonial first pitches, but as he made his way to the plate for Morgan's, another catcher commandeered his mitt. Morgan's toss was high, but Johnny Bench was able to grab it.

It was one of those great, goosebump moments, made all the more memorable by the passage of time. Joe Morgan's night was long overdue, but well worth the wait.

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