Joe Morgan was such an extraordinary baseball player at his peak that he won National League Most Valuable Player awards in 1975 and ’76 and still managed to be underrated, ranking as the third-billed star behind Pete Rose and Johnny Bench on Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” back-to-back champions.
Morgan, who died last Sunday at 77, compiled huge numbers in a highly efficient way. In ’76, he hit 27 homers, drove in 111 runs, and scored 113, stole 60 bases in 69 tries, had an absurd 114/41 BB/K ratio, and posted a .320/.444/.576 slash line … and he produced more walks, steals, and a higher batting average and OPS in ’75.
Looking back, he was the ideal ballplayer through both aesthetic and sabermetric prisms.
Which is why it was so frustrating that he stubbornly refused, especially during his long and accomplished broadcasting career, to accept modern statistical metrics that confirmed and amplified his greatness. It begat an annoying irony:
Sabermetics loved Joe Morgan. He couldn’t have loathed them more.
Morgan spent more than 25 years in the broadcast booth after his playing career, most notably alongside Jon Miller on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” from its inception in 1990 through 2010.
Morgan had such a knack for reading the game and recognizing what was going to happen (similar to Jerry Remy on Red Sox broadcasts) that it was a surprise he never became a manager.
Miller, in remembering his friend and longtime broadcast partner to MLB Network’s Chris Russo this past week, revealed that the Dodgers once reached out to him about becoming their manager when they thought Tommy Lasorda might leave for the Yankees.
“Joe was never locked in to proper baseball strategy, or ‘Here’s what the numbers say,' because he always had that feel for the moment,” said Miller.
That feel for the game, in cohesion with an indefatigable work ethic and immense talent packed into a 5-foot-7-inch frame, served him so well that he ended up with a plaque in Cooperstown and a case as the best second baseman of all time.
But as a broadcaster, especially in the early part of the century after Michael Lewis’s book “Moneyball” had a seismic effect on how players were analyzed, Morgan’s obstinacy and practical pride in being a sabermetric Luddite did not serve him well.
His old-school back-in-my-day approach — he rarely went more than a few innings without mentioning the ’75 Reds — collided with the new-school data-oriented way of thinking, just as the latter approach was reaching the mainstream.
Morgan’s disdain for sabermetrics was evident on ESPN’s prime-time broadcast every Sunday night. He also didn’t back down from it during his frequent Q&As on ESPN.com, where he once said that A’s general manager Billy Beane never should have written “Moneyball.” (He didn’t.) And all of this coincided with the heyday of sports blogs, including perhaps the most popular one of all: FireJoeMorgan.com.
The blog, which was later revealed to be the brainchild of creative television writers behind shows like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation,” and “The Good Place,” took aim at Morgan and assorted other sportswriters and broadcasters for their tired tropes and analytic-averse approach to baseball.
The blog was clever, hilarious, insightful, and necessary. It shut down in November 2008 and is still missed to this day. Co-founder Mike Schur, a Red Sox fan, did lament the title of the blog this past week during a guest spot on the ESPN Daily podcast.
“We always regretted that we named the site ‘Fire Joe Morgan’ because we didn’t want the guy to be fired, really,” said Schur. “It was a crass, sort of early Internet version of making noise and banging on a pot and calling attention to yourself.”
Schur said on the podcast that he wished Morgan had recognized that the new statistical ways of analyzing and understanding baseball led to an even greater appreciation of what he had accomplished.
“Not only did he do everything right,” said Schur, “but he specifically did the things right that the modern analytic movement had shown to be the most valuable possible things you can do. He was just an incredible player in exactly the ways that the Moneyball era was beginning to point out, how undervalued guys like him actually were.”
There were other reasons Morgan was frustrating in his later years as a broadcaster. He was unaware of details that would have been revealed with just a little bit of research. In 2005, Red Sox manager Terry Francona became visibly annoyed with him when, during an in-game interview, Morgan asked why Doug Mirabelli rather than Jason Varitek was catching Tim Wakefield. Mirabelli had been established as the knuckleballer’s catcher.
The same season, he was bewildered that the Red Sox had sent Jay Payton to the A’s.
“He’s been very productive here in Oakland, Jon,” said Morgan. “I really don’t understand why the Red Sox would trade a player who’s so productive.”
Payton had been upset with his role and became insubordinate with the Red Sox, lashing out at Francona when asked to enter a game in Texas, and forced the trade.
Sometimes Morgan was good for a non sequitur and a chuckle. Once during a Red Sox Sunday night appearance in that ’05 season, he told Miller, “I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, Jon. Unless there’s a lot of proof.”
Morgan was a wonderful ballplayer, and advances in statistical analysis only raised greater awareness of that. He was a successful broadcaster, too, winning a pair of Sports Emmy awards. But he would have been a better one if he’d been willing to open up his great baseball mind just a little more.