LAKELAND, Fla. — In this spring of holdouts, walkouts and the continuing appearance of collusion by the owners, the Detroit Tigers' Jack Morris has taken on the identity of a union jack, a spokesman for the causes and concerns of the Major League Players Assn.
It is a wearying role that he does not enjoy, but he seems to realize that it comes with the territory he covered last winter when he was a free agent and the New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Minnesota Twins and Angels all rejected his proposals.
Morris was forced to go back to the Tigers and go through salary arbitration. The Tigers, who earlier offered $1.25 million, filed at $1.35 million. Morris, who earned $850,000 en route to a 21-8 record last year, countered at $1.85 million and won.
The award was the highest in arbitration history--for a few days, at least. Then Yankee first baseman Don Mattingly got $1.975 million.
The $1.85 left Morris tied with the Dodgers' Fernando Valenzuela as baseball's highest-salaried starting pitchers.
Valenzuela got there in six full seasons. Morris needed nine, a span in which he has been baseball's winningest pitcher since 1979--not to mention a proven workhorse and competitor.
So, is Morris asked about his 144-94 record? His unmatched string of 15 or more wins and 35 or more starts in each of the last five seasons? His 14-2 record and 2.44 earned-run average in his final 18 starts of last year?
"It isn't exactly a normal spring," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about the game. It's as if the off-season has extended into spring training.
"I should have just written a book and made it easy for myself."
The questions seem to pertain mostly to labor issues, the same questions from a string of visiting reporters. Morris has resigned himself to them, although he would rather discuss something else.
"It doesn't do me any good to talk about (his situation)," he said. "It doesn't resolve anything. It really only gets people angry at me again."
But he does talk about it, saying that when he gets tired of talking about it and hearing about it, when he thinks it is interfering with his concentration and preparation, he will "just turn rude like the media feels I've been at times in the past."
Rude? Tiger Manager Sparky Anderson says that it is simply a matter of Morris' intensity as a competitor, that he has trouble leaving the game on the field.
"He's the kind of guy who sets up a pension for his dad so he can retire early, and buys cars for his sisters and brothers," Anderson said. "But he's so arrogant as a competitor that he never thinks he should lose and never gives the other team credit. I wish every pitcher I had was like that.
"I mean, anyone who asks me if I think Jack will have trouble gearing up for another year with the Tigers, considering he tried to leave, just doesn't know Jack. I'll have no problems with him. He's the best athlete I've ever managed and one of the hardest workers.
"You lose a guy like him and it would be like the Dodgers without Valenzuela. They're in the same category. You can find 10-game winners, but you can't find 20- game winners. We'd have been 10 games down to start with (if Morris had left)."
Morris said that he tried to leave because the Tigers' offer of $1.25 million wasn't commensurate with his credentials or the salary of Valenzuela, whose own credentials aren't comparable.
"It was important to me to be paid properly for the sake of the salary structure," Morris said.
"If I had accepted $1.25 (million), the owners could say (to other pitchers), 'Look what one of the best in the game is making.'
"I wouldn't have satisfied myself or helped anyone else."
But in his barnstorming attempt to sell his services, Morris could not even get a counter offer to his various proposals. The Phillies and Angels, in fact, did not even care to listen.
"They're all singing the same song," Morris said. "Someone must have taught them. It's too coincidental to believe they all woke up at the same time.
"The unfortunate thing is that ownership is making no attempt to improve their clubs. That's not a priority anymore.
"They've all now come up with a philosophy that's dictated by their billfolds. They're staking the future on rookies, but what happens when the rookies get good? They'll have to be paid, too."
When did Morris realize that his only real recourse was to return to the Tigers and go to arbitration?
"When I have a guy with George Steinbrenner's reputation say no to my offer of one year, nonguaranteed, with the salary determined by an arbitrator, then I know there's no sense going on," Morris said.
"The strange thing is that I knew just from talking to him that George wanted me but that this was one time he was taking orders from someone else.
"I mean, at one point I mentioned the fact that Lance Parrish was also available and he lit all up and said, 'Wouldn't it be something if the Yankees opened the season with a battery of Morris and Parrish?' The way he said it, you knew he could really envision it.