As Matt Morris takes the mound for the Cardinals on this first game of
the concluding home stand of the 2005 regular season (Has it really gone this
quickly?), Cardinal Nation may be seeing the end of a remarkable era. This may be Matthew Christian Morris'
last regular season pitching appearance in
In his ninth consecutive year as a Cardinal, the 31-year old Morris has the greatest longevity on the team. Taken in the 1995 draft out of Seton Hall University, Morris was the Cards number one draft pick that year and it didn't take him long to rise through the ranks. In just two years, he first took the mound for the Cardinals in 1997 and has worn the birds-on-bat ever since. If anyone on this team does, Morris symbolizes the highs and lows of recent years and has become a fan favorite.
Morris – he of boyish good looks and dugout fun – has known stunning success and abject tragedy. He was there for the amazing home run chase ultimately won by Mark McGwire over Sammy Sosa in 1998. In 1999, shoulder problems and eventual surgery sidelined him for the season. He pitched most of the 2000 season out of the bullpen, pitching effectively and easing back into condition. In 2001, Morris enjoyed his banner season with a nifty 22-8 record and a 3.16 ERA.
Then 2002 came crashing in on him. With Darryl Kile's death, Morris lost a close friend, mentor, and confidante. Shaken by the tragedy, it seemed that Morris never really regained that 2001 form that made him the toast of the game. He won eleven and lost eight games in 2003. In 2004, despite a deceiving 15-10 record, he was clearly lacking location. With a bad habit of leaving his pitches up in the strike zone, many of the Morris's games resembled batting practice as the home run hitters teed off. He tied for second with the Cubs' Greg Maddux in the dubious category of National League home runs allowed with 35.
Off-season examination and surgery revealed additional damage to his shoulder. Coming in to spring training this year, there was question as to whether he would be able to pitch before June. With characteristic grit and determination, Matt took the ball in late April and didn't look back. He reeled off a 10-2 record up to the All-Star Break with a 3.10 ERA. The "old" Matt was back.
The second half hasn't quite been as good to Morris as the first. He has struggled since then, winning only four and losing seven games. His ERA now stands at 3.97. Despite some gutsy performances and low run production, Matt's second half has been everything the first half wasn't, including more of a tendency to get the ball up in the strike zone again.
The problem is that during the off-season Morris was signed to a one-year contract. After this season he is a free agent. With the combination of Matt's age and health, the probability of a larger contract than the Cardinals will be willing to swallow, and younger pitchers like Anthony Reyes waiting in the wings, Matt's run in red may be coming to an end. Tony La Russa's admiration and affection for Morris are well known, and he may yet lobby to keep Matt, but the business of the game conspires against Morris' return.
Morris has been a rock-solid member of the Cardinal family for the past nine years. It would be tough to recognize a Redbird squad that didn't have his name on the roster. Should he not be clad in red in 2006, he will definitely be missed and wished well by those who have long admired his talent, pluck, and determination. I sincerely hope that all of the Cardinal faithful will give him a standing ovation each time he takes the mound now and through the play-offs. He richly deserves it as one who regardless of what team he might be on will always be seen by us as wearing the hallowed birds-on-bat.