Wilmington Evening Journal - October 10, 1980

Joe Morgan:  Who says you can’t go home again?


By Ray Finocchiaro, Staff Writer


HOUSTON – They said he was washed up. A two-time MVP who'd lost his legs, power and drive. The Cincinnati Reds, in effect, told him to get lost and so he wound up where he started out.


Joe Morgan came back to Houston, perhaps I shell of an MVP, maybe just an older version of the kid who'd left years ago, before the Astros were respectable.


"The Astros lost the days I was here," Morgan recalled during a lull in the National League playoffs with the Phillies that resume here this afternoon in the Astrodome, "put it felt good coming back here, a chance to repay the only team that was interested in me when I started out. When they traded me, I said that someday I'd like to come back and win a championship for them. You can look it up."


That's a job for librarians and doubting Thomases who aren't swept up in the Joe Morgan mystique, a blend of smooth talk and slick performance that made believers of many early doubters of the 5-foot-7 sparkplug.


The thing is, Joe Morgan may just do it. He just might coax and cajole the untested Astros into the World Series. There's plenty of spark left in the 37-year-old, gimpy-kneed second baseman who helped the Astros to a 7-4, extra-inning victory over the Phillies in Game No. 2 of the playoffs at Veterans Stadium Wednesday night.


"Having Joe, just his presence, is intrumental for us," said right fielder Terry Puhl, another key performer with three hits and two RBI Wednesday. "It was that way all through September and it is now. Joe has so much experience, so much coolness under pressure."


Morgan, who sat out the playoff opener with strained knee ligaments, had an injection in his knee and put himself back in the lineup… where he intends to stay till the series – or Series – is over.


"The doctor said I had to rest it," Morgan said. "With the day off (yesterday), It should be 95 percent for Friday."


It is a different Astro team with Morgan in the lineup. He reached base four times Wednesday, even doubling off the previously unhittable Tug McGraw and scoring an important run, the first Tug allowed in over a month. Joe doesn't reach all the balls he goes for now, but he survives in the field. The bottom line is that the Astros won the game and salvaged a split in the Phillies' backyard.


Morgan got to Houston as a free agent when the West Coast teams he preferred either wanted no part of the aging veteran or else couldn't find a place to play him. But with Houston, Morgan's the team leader, the guy the Astro players look to when their backs scrape the wall.


"Joe lends us a lot of confidence with his experience and settling attitude," said Vera Ruhle, who's scheduled to pitch tomorrow afternoon's game. "Even when he's not playing, he lends a lot of leadership. He's invaluable to us because we didn't have that.


"We didn't respond to it early in the season but since the team meeting he called in San Diego (in August), we have responded. I know I go to him when I'm going through something I haven't been through but he has. And I don't think I've ever heard him say anything wrong. Everything he says is right on key. He's been a big catalyst for us."


Morgan says the team meeting was something the Astros needed.


"I told them you have to be willing to pay the price, to sacrifice a little of yourself," Morgan said. "You had to think about what was best for the team, not just yourself. I included myself in that. I told them I knew I was lousy. But I got a very satisfying feeling when that meeting was over. We went out there and won 10 in a row."


It started a late-season rally that resulted, despite a nail-biting weekend in Los Angeles, in the Western Division title, Houston's first in its 19-year history.


"The last month or so of the season, Joe took over," said third baseman Enos Cabell, one of Morgan's closest – of many – friends on the team. "Base hits to win games, homers that wort games. He just changed our whole offense around. And he's someone to lean on, a guy who's been in the playoffs and World Series before."


Morgan uses that knowledge to inspire the youngsters he sees in the locker room around him, the youngsters whose eyes train on him when the walls start closing in. But Morgan says these playoffs don't really compare with those dominated by the Big Red Machine.


"The Reds were a different kind of team," Morgan shrugs. "Houston's a battling-type team that seems to play better in pressure situations. Whenever we were in a situation where we had to win this season, we did. Pressure won't bother this team. This is one of the most under-rated teams in baseball."


Once started, Joe Morgan is hard to turn off. And the faucet spilled more praise for the Astros, a team many of the experts said didn't belong on the same field with the Phillies.


"I'm really proud of this team," Joe said with a smile. "It showed its character in LA and it did in Philadelphia, too. When I joined the team in April, I didn't know if they had the experience and knowledge to win. But as the season went on, I watched them grow in character and knowledge of the game. I mean playing together and doing what it takes to win as a group, rather than as individuals."


And a lot of that goes back to Joe Morgan's team meeting in August.


"It's very rewarding for me," Morgan said. "My experience has helped them because I've been there before and I've assured them they're good enough to go all the way."


A big step will be taken today, by either the Phillies or Astros. The Phils have been snake-bitten in past playoffs and the Astros... well, the worst they've suffered is eyestrain from sitting too close to their TV sets in past seasons.


Today's winner will take a giant step toward that elusive World Series, with just one more victory needed. Whoever wins, a guy who once proudly wore a Cincinnati uniform should play a pivotal role.


The Astros have Morgan and the Phillies have 39-year-old Pete Rose. Morgan and Rose were a team to themselves in Cincinnati. Now they are leaders, Morgan by oratory and Rose by example, on two teams trying to win the National League pennant. Their teams are tied 1-1.


Today's winner will be one game away from the World Series.


"You know what Joe Morgan means to us?" asked Dave Bergman, whose two-run triple off Kevin Saucier iced Wednesday's victory. "He takes all the pressure and puts it on his shoulders. He can handle the pressure better than the rest of us."


Nobody's ever confused the 5-7 Joe Morgan with Atlas before, but if the weight of the NL playoffs is resting heavily on his shoulders, he isn't showing it. Bad knees and all.