Sunday, July 27, 2014

Morgan and Maddux share deep Las Vegas baseball roots

Mike Morgan knew him when he was just a fan in the stands. Morgan was the star pitcher at Las Vegas’ Valley High School in 1978, striking out 111 batters in 72 innings, while positing a miniscule 0.68 ERA. This magical performance led to the Oakland Athletics drafting Morgan fourth overall in that summer’s draft. Watching him from the crowd when he was building his legend was Greg Maddux.

“I knew him at 11 years old when he watched me pitch when he was in grade school,” Morgan said in an interview on Friday.


It is now Morgan’s turn to watch when Maddux gets inducted into Cooperstown this Sunday.

“I wish I could be out there in Cooperstown … in the audience with Dave and Linda, his mom and dad, his sister Terri, Mike [his brother], and all of the Vegas folks because I am proud of him.”


Only a few years after Morgan’s phenomenal season at Valley, Maddux followed in his footsteps to become a second round selection of the Chicago Cubs in the 1984 draft. Both owe a great deal of credit to not only their high school coach Rodger Fairless, but also Ralph Meder, an area scout who organized Sunday workouts for all of the local players.

“Ralph Meder, I am sure he will bring him up,” Morgan said. “[He was] our mentor. A Cincinnati Reds man, he passed away of a heart attack going to a Valley baseball game 31 years ago (1983).”

Meder taught Maddux to value how his pitches moved more than how fast they traveled, an element of his pitching style that became the trademark of his career.

“He told me that movement was more important than velocity,” Maddux said to the Associated Press in 2001. “He was the first one to teach me that. When you’re 14 or 15 years old, all you want to do is throw hard.”

Both pitchers were the beneficiaries of Meder’s tutelage, amassing almost a combined 500 career major league victories in careers that spanned over 20 years a piece in the major leagues. In 1992, they were finally able to connect their lineage when Morgan was signed as a free agent by the Cubs. They formed a fearsome 1-2 punch, piling up 36 victories for Chicago that year, en route to Maddux’s first Cy Young award. Spending a season playing with Maddux allowed Morgan a full perspective of his abilities.

“To be on the bench with him, to play with him, to stand up there and hit off of him, realizing that when the ball leaves his hand, he made the ball look like a ball, but when it got to the plate, it was a strike,” Morgan said.

“He did that incredibly, [getting] guys swinging at his change-up bouncing on the plate. He made them look like balls when they left his hand, but when they got to the plate, they were strikes. That’s hard to do. It was a gift, but he worked at it.” 

When Maddux signed with the Atlanta Braves the following season, the two friends matched up for a memorable Opening Day game in Wrigley Field.

“A year later in 1993, when he left to go to Atlanta, opening day in Wrigley Field, [it was] Greg Maddux against Mo-Man, Mike Morgan,” he said. “I gave up a run in the first, a ground ball to short with one out from Ronnie Gant. 1-0. (Ed. Note – Gant scored on a single from Dave Justice.) I cruised through [seven] and I lost. He beat me 1-0.”

What incensed Morgan more that day than the 1-0 loss, was Maddux’s seventh inning single, his first and only hit off of Morgan his entire career (1-14 lifetime). It was something that Morgan (0-14 lifetime) unfortunately couldn’t match.

“I can tell you what, I went 0-fer in my career off of him,” Morgan said. “He got a base hit off of me and it was the only thing that pisses me off, that he got one off of me and I didn’t get one off of him!”

The two pitches squared off in another classic in 1995, in what Greg Maddux called the best game of his career. They met in St. Louis on August 20, 1995, taking only one hour and 50 minutes to finish a 1-0 game. 

“[We threw] ten pitches an inning,” Morgan said. “We would get strike three on an 0-2 or a 1-2 pitch. We didn’t go from 0-2 to 3-2 at all that night.”

Yet after the cleats were brushed off and the gloves were packed away, the two rivals on the field were close friends away from it.

“We would come up and hit off of each other and then after the game we’d go to dinner and do our thing,” Morgan said. “I lived out in the same country club as he did in Vegas, and in the winter we’d play golf. We were both competitive. We respected each other.”

After his 25 years in the game, Morgan is able to look back at his own lengthy career and further respect the achievements of Maddux.

“To be on that side and to realize how hard it was to do what he did … 355 wins in 20 something years, 15-plus wins a year for 20 years, it’s mind boggling to see that he’s going to be out there in the Hall of Fame in this Sunday.”

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