So, I'm sitting with Jack Morris at Ivy at the Shore in Santa Monica on Wednesday afternoon and he's telling me why he probably should be in the Hall of Fame.
Jack, if you haven't heard, isn't so black anymore.
First off, he's gray, from head to chin to forearms. Second, he smiles some and talks about things like "perspective" and "peace" and a 6-month-old baby boy at home. Third, he's having lunch with a baseball writer.
He's being paid by Ameriquest Mortgage Co. to promote a contest in which a fan and a guest will attend the All-Star game in Detroit, along with the home run derby and the workouts. They'll also get to sit next to a future Hall of Famer. That would be Cal Ripken Jr., who also is part of the campaign and will be Hall eligible in 2007.
As part of the deal, Morris agreed to do some advance work, which meant media stops in Detroit, Dallas, Baltimore, Los Angeles and Minnesota. This is what led to him and me, on Ocean Avenue, sipping iced tea, having ordered the same entree.
Since we had all this in common and were getting all chummy, I volunteered, "Gotta tell you, Jack, I have a vote and I never voted for you."
From behind eyes that had seen 254 wins, nearly 4,000 innings, 175 complete games and the greatest World Series Game 7 I ever saw, Black Jack digested this, a butter knife inches from his right hand.
When he finally grinned, and the waiters had gone back to work, and the other customers had returned to their food, and the ambient music had restarted, Morris said, "I'm actually flattered that you told me."
Flattered, like, in a homicidal way?
"I got 172 votes in the last election," he said. "I figured I must be talking to only the guys who voted for me."
Right. And I'd come clean in a crowded, sun-soaked restaurant. He said he was handling it a lot better than he used to, and a lot better than, say, Bert Blyleven, whom he said was "bitter."
"Yeah," I said, "didn't vote for him either, since we're getting everything off our chests."
Over the years, Blyleven, Morris and Tommy John have bunched together in the balloting. Most recently they ran seven, nine and 10, none being named on half of the ballots; 75% is required for election.
Each won at least 250 games, each won more than half of his decisions, their earned-run averages were under 4.00 and only Morris did not pitch for at least 20 years, and he went 18. Morris could have gone on, amassing wins and innings perhaps, but retired in spring training of 1995, a time of labor uncertainty.
In camp with the Cincinnati Reds, Morris called a friend he trusted and told him what he was thinking.
"There's one thing keeping me from quitting right now," he said. "Do I have enough wins to be in the Hall someday?"
The response: "Jack, if you aren't in now, you're never going to get in."
A decade later, Morris said, "I can tell you right now, I don't regret it a bit. I did for a few years."
I explained my hesitance to Morris. The Hall isn't for very good players, maybe not even for great players. It is for the greatest of the great. Others are in, for sure. But, not by my vote, and in my opinion the Hall's standards are too low.
I would not run down Morris for his career ERA -- 3.90 is very good. The man was durable, competitive, a four-time World Series winner and on the fringe of the Hall. And every winter I grind again through Morris' career, just as I do through Blyleven's, in particular, and John's. It is agonizing. And every winter I arrive at the same conclusion: The line is drawn somewhere, and it is drawn just above his name. Their names.
The last five starters to go to the Hall of Fame -- Nolan Ryan, Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver -- won at least 57 more games than Morris and had ERAs of at least half a run better. And I wouldn't have voted for all of them.
It does not diminish what Morris did. It does not lessen my appreciation for the effort to pitch those innings, to fend off the advent of the closer all by himself, to outlast John Smoltz and the rest of the Atlanta Braves on the night of Oct. 27, 1991. And I do not believe he is being made to pay for his surliness toward writers, an issue that tags along behind him even today.
"I had 10 years in Detroit that were not exactly the most graceful years with the writing press," he said.
"I took too many things personally. I didn't know at the time that if I had a bad game, I wasn't a bad person. I just knew that I was totally right and they were totally wrong. Unfortunately, I built up some walls that are hard to break down."
But, over an hour and a plate of chicken enchiladas, Morris was kind and fairly agreeable, and did not leave the impression that his opinion of writers had warmed just in time to pull another 150 votes. He'd like to be in the Hall of Fame. But he's not going to ruin lunch to get there.