“Joe Wants to See You”Posted: April 29, 2010
Ensberg! You’re Up!
Those were the words of Mike Gillespie, my coach at USC. It was our first game in 1996 and I was a sophomore. We were playing the University of Nevada Reno and I was on the bench, but I was about to get my first at bat of the season.
My heart jumped out of my shirt, but I took a deep breath and started trying to relax.
Calm down. You have been hitting extra batting practice in the cage after every single practice for a year. You have taken extra ground balls every single day.
You have never had it easy. You are the guy who finds a way to win. You’re a grinder! This is when it counts! You can do this. It’s time. This is your shot Morgan.
Lord, I need you now. Thank you for this opportunity. You continue to bless me when I don’t deserve it! Please help me calm down and allow me to use the ability that you have given me. Amen.
I have prepared. I am ready.
As I stepped into the box I couldn’t feel my body. But as the pitcher started his motion to the plate, everything went silent. There is the ball!
As I finish my swing I look up towards right center field. The center and right fielder are moving towards the fence. Go ball! Go!
HOMERUN!!!! I DID IT! I HIT A HOMERUN!!!!!!! THANK YOU GOD FOR HELPING ME PREPARE!
“Morgan. Joe Wants to See You.”
Those were the last four words I ever wanted to hear when I played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the spring of 2009. No player ever wants to hear that phrase uttered in the clubhouse. If you are going into the manager’s office, especially during Spring Training, then something is wrong.
As I walked into the visiting office, I saw the manager of the Rays, Joe Maddon. Two other coaches came into view as I entered the room. Sitting on the left side of the small room were Tom Foley (3rd base coach) and Dave Martinez (Bench Coach). Joe was sitting behind a desk that faced the door and he looked at me, a bit downcast, as he told me to take a seat. I sat down. Joe had his hands in his sweatshirt pocket and he was half leaning back in his chair. He was not his usual upbeat self. He looked more like a doctor who has the terrible responsibility of telling someone that their loved one has just passed.
“Morgan, we are releasing you.”
My heart just dropped. Then it started pumping really fast and I started to sweat the way I do when I’m nervous.
“I don’t think this is the end of your playing days, we just don’t have a spot for you.”
I started to nod my head, stalling for the time I needed to put this all together. I was trying to think, but all I could do was try my hardest to pull my heart out of my throat. Think Morgan! I couldn’t. Emotions had taken over and then, suddenly– clarity.
The first word out of my mouth was a solemn, “Wow.” Then there was more up and down head nodding. I lost my clarity. I felt suddenly that everyone could see that I was trying to hold it together.
I could feel pride moving in and that, for me, was bad. If there is something that you need to know about me, it’s that I don’t like pride. I believe pride is selfish. I believe that pride blocks you from seeing the truth. Some people think that pride is a virtue. It is glorified in this country. It is a buzzword used in TV commercials and patriotic speeches. But pride isn’t good. Those people who use the word often, confuse pride with honor. Honor is good. Honor inspires respect. Honor is humbling. Honor shows that you hold yourself to a higher standard while also respecting authority. My goal is always honor.
As I sat there looking up at Joe I hit him straight,
“Well, I want to thank you for this opportunity. I really had a lot of fun getting to know your guys. You are very good with these kids you have here. You have some of the best talent I have ever seen and you are going to do great. Thank you so much for helping me with my hands. (Just 4 days earlier Joe suggested that I move my hands to a different spot and I suddenly had 6 hits in my last 15 at bats.) It was great meeting you guys.”
With that I stood up and smiled as I held back tears and I shook Joe’s hand. Then I shook Dave’s hand and finally Tom’s hand saying thank you to each man.
I walked through the locker room past the other players and took off my shirt. The guys asked me what I was doing and I said, “I just got released.” There were immediate “NO!”’s and “Are you kidding me?”’s. That made me feel good. But I was done.
Guys came over and shook my hand and asked for my phone number. They were really good kids and they all wished me good luck. Usually I tell people that I don’t believe in luck outside of the lottery. I believe in hard work. But I understood their messages. I smiled and told each guy that I will be there if they need anything.
I Better Get My Fielding Glove
The only thing that mattered to me was that I had my “gamer.” That is the glove that we only use in the game. Most guys have a different glove they use in batting practice and their “gamer.” Having your “gamer” isn’t one of those famed “baseball superstitions.” Of course just like luck, superstition doesn’t exist in my mind. But feeling comfortable does. My “gamer” is comfortable. I know every inch of that glove. My batting practice glove eventually becomes my “gamer” the following year, but the “gamer” is ready now. I love that glove. I thought, as long as I have my game glove you can take the rest. Of course the clubhouse manager packs up your stuff and gives everything to you but I will carry my “gamer” with me.
I Can’t Feel My Legs
As I left the clubhouse I walked past about 10 members of the Japanese media. They covered second baseman, Akinora Iwamura. They were just milling around. I didn’t really mean anything to them because, frankly I’m not Japanese. I continued to walk, with the surreal feeling of knowing that this was the last time I would exit the field as a player. Then, just as I was about to make it to the Parking Lot Gate, I heard, “Morgan!”
I don’t dodge media. I don’t pretend that I don’t hear them because it is not pretending at all. It’s a lie. I know that this reporter is just trying to do his job and flagging down players for questions as the players enter the parking lot is a part of it. How can I try to be about honor when I am pretending not to hear?
I turned around and smiled. He had his recorder out and wanted to ask me some questions. I answered them optimistically.
“Yeah it was a surprise, but there is still time.” I said it in the most upbeat way that I could. It was like trying to put on a happy face after your dog has been run over. His questions continued for a few minutes and finally it was done.
As usual, I was asked a bunch of questions that could easily be misinterpreted by fans reading his article. It would all depend on how the writer would interpret my answers. And how he would write those answers for the fans to interpret themselves. But really, I shouldn’t even say that he asked me questions because they were just statements that he gave me. Then he waited for me to react.
“So this is a surprise.” He said.
I wanted to say,
“Yeah, ya’ think? Seven minutes ago I was released. Maybe I’m still a little raw from the sting of that. It totally sucks that you want to ask me questions (that aren’t really questions) all on the off-chance that you could, possibly, get this amazing scoop about how that Ensberg dude seemed like such an even keel guy, but when things go wrong he really loses his mind!”
But somehow, I kept my cool. I recognized that the honorable action would be to answer the questions and to let go of my pride. I could hear the Angel (make that Astro) on my shoulder, Jeff Bagwell, in my ear gently saying:
“Did you think about this reporter who, right or wrong, is just trying to be great at what he does?”
I can respect that. If he is simply doing his best to be good at his job, then I am willing to push my emotions aside to try and give him the most honest quotes that I can.
“Well there is still time! It isn’t over yet!”
But of course, that only opened up the floodgates. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the rest of the reporters running out of the clubhouse. They were literally racing for a quote. Let’s be honest, this is because the newspaper industry is so whacked that they pressure their reporters not to focus on the objective story that they are assigned to cover, but instead, to feed the emotionally charged subjective side of sports because fans want controversy. In my experience, if one reporter gets something controversial, the writer becomes a hero for the day. And especially if that reporter’s cross-town rival isn’t there to report on the controversy, then his bosses start tearing his head off for being beat to a story that has nothing to do with the actual game that is played on the field. You should see the pressure these reporters deal with. I am convinced that newspapers are pressuring reporters so that they write things that are controversial. There is zero doubt in my mind. But, back to the questions… I mean statements.
“Would it be ok if you just got the recording off of this recorder?” I asked.
“Sure Morgan. Good luck,” the others said.
The Japanese Media
The Japanese are fanatic about their stars. When I played for the Yankees, Hideki Matsui had his own press conference almost every single day in another room or on another part of the field. I loved Hideki. He was my locker mate, meaning my locker was next to his. The members of the media that hovered around us were always smiling and each time they came around, I tried to learn a little bit of the language. I learned “Ohiyo Gozaymas” which means “Good Morning” to someone you really respect. I also learned a word that has no translation in English. It is “Otskaresama!” The best I can say is that it means:
“Great job today and we are going to get them tomorrow!”
Whenever I would walk into the clubhouse and saw a Japanese reporter I would say “Ohiyo gozaymas” and bow my head a little bit. I wanted them to know that I saw them and that I held respect for them. To me, the cruelest thing you can do to a person is ignore him. When you ignore someone, you are denying that person’s existence. I wanted the reporters to know that Americans do care about others and that was my best way to show them in that moment.
I’ll Stay in Shape for a Month
After calling my wife Christina and telling her the news, we decided to fly back home. Getting released three days before Spring Training ends is just about the worst possible time. Organizations are cutting their numbers down and they don’t need to add players, they need to subtract. But hopefully, I thought, some team will call with a job.
My agent, Joe Sambito, emailed all of the teams alerting them that I had been released and that I would like to play even if it was AAA.
Not one, ZERO teams called and wanted me to play even for their AAA team. It was crushing. I wasn’t physically hurt. There had to be at least one team that needed a healthy third baseman. I was 33 years old and a veteran who had never been on a losing team in his life. My career included a college National Championship and 4 minor league Championships. Heck, I was the MVP for the Astros the year we went to the World Series. But, the way I saw the situation clearly wasn’t the way the rest of the league saw things.
After all those winning seasons, I thought if there was one thing that I contributed to each of those teams, it was the role of chemotherapy. Maybe my biggest attribute was stopping players from becoming cancers. I believe that you are a coward if you hope another guy does poorly. If you wish that a guy on your team fails, then you should take a long look in the mirror. Geoff Blum and Mike Lamb, two guys that played my position, are still close friends of mine. I can honestly say that I never once wanted them to do poorly. They had no bearing on the player that I believed I could be. I brought that attitude to every team I played on. And maybe that made a difference.
There was a great movie I saw called Facing the Giants. Kevin Edelbrock was our chaplain for Baseball Chapel with the Astros and he suggested that I watch this movie. Baseball Chapel is basically our church during the baseball season. Our games are at 1 pm on Sundays and we usually get to the park 4 hours early, so we can’t make it to church. Especially when we are on the road. But Baseball Chapel provided us with a local pastor (no matter where we were, home or away) to deliver a 15-minute sermon on Sundays. It is really an amazing operation. You can be of any religion or denomination to go in there.
Back to the Story
In the movie, the lead character, Grant, is going through a terrible string of events. He is a high school football coach and his personal life is bad, his work is bad, and his football team is bad. Basically this guy is at his wit’s end. During one scene, he is walking down a high school hallway when he sees the school Pastor who is touching each locker while saying a prayer for the students. The Pastor looks up and says:
“Coach Taylor! God has a plan for you. Let me tell you a story. There were two farmers who were experiencing a drought. The first farmer didn’t do anything. The second farmer woke up every morning and tended to his fields. When the first farmer saw this, he said to the second:
“We haven’t had rain forever. What are you doing?”
The second farmer said,
“I’m preparing for rain.”
I’ve learned over the course of my baseball career that you have to switch your focus when things aren’t going your way. You can’t control how the other guy who plays your position is doing. But you can “tend to your fields.” You can get in the cage or work on your fitness. You can practice your grips as a pitcher and really work on pitches that can help you succeed. Take extra ground balls or fly balls. Prepare yourself for rain. When you get the call, you will then be ready. And if you aren’t, you will have known that you have done everything you could do to succeed. I learned this form my College ball experience, and it was proven to me over and over again throughout my entire career. This was what I wanted to teach these young players.
Walking Out of the Stadium
As I walked out of the stadium at Fort Myers on that spring day in 2009, I turned around and looked back at the Japanese reporters and I yelled something. This is what I told them:
Like I said, there is no English translation for that. But I think it means “prepare for rain.”