Tens of millions of people have closed Game Seven of the World Series. Including Charlie Morton.
Everyone who closed Game Seven did so in a backyard, a sandlot or some other fantasy setting. Except for Charlie Morton.
Morton pitched the final four innings of Game Seven of the 2017 World Series. He was masterful, allowing just three hits and one run to a potent Los Angeles Dodgers offense as his Houston Astros claimed their first world championship.
“That was probably the first time I was given the ball in a really crucial situation,” said Morton, who has started his entire big league career. “For me personally, it was a challenge because I hadn’t really been put in those situations – at least not consistently – and my presence in the clubhouse hadn’t been that fully developed.”
If teammate George Springer didn’t have a historic World Series at the plate, Morton probably would have won the Fall Classic’s MVP. Yet the standout confessed to being “at times pessimistic” and needed to prove to himself what many already knew: he could be a shutdown playoff pitcher.
“I think that during that playoff, every time I pitched, there was always a doubt in the back of my mind, like, eventually I’m going to let my team down or something bad is going to happen,” Morton admitted. “But they kept giving me the ball and (manager) A.J. (Hinch) let me stay in the game.
“At the time, you are trying to take it all in, but there isn’t a lot of room for that. I was more focused on just making pitches against a really good team. It took a while to sink in that I had actually done a pretty good job during that postseason,” Morton concluded.
Although Morton was two weeks shy of his 34th birthday the night of that dramatic clincher, he has aged more gracefully than a fine wine. He posted then career highs in wins and strikeouts in 2017. Morton fired five shutout innings in a Game 7 American League Championship Series start against the New York Yankees and held the Dodgers to only one run and three hits in 6.1 innings in Game Four of the World Series.
“Once you get to the field, they are going to give you the ball. You’re just faced with that reality and you have to let go of everything else,” Morton said. Playoff pitching “benefited me because it made me face a lot of my fears, especially the first time I pitched in the postseason. You start to realize that you can do that job and help your team in that position. It’s kind of a visceral experience. It’s been an honor and I’ve been pretty fortunate to experience those moments.”
Morton finished third in the 2018 American League Cy Young voting, after going 15-3 with 201 strikeouts. He was arguably better in his 2019 season with the Tampa Bay Rays, going 16-6, striking out 240 and repeating as an American League All-Star.
Morton helped the Rays clinch the American League pennant in 2020 and earned another World Series ring with the 2021 Atlanta Braves.
All three pennant winners came from different circumstances, yet “some of the underlying qualities about the clubhouses have been very similar,” Morton compared. “The majority of the guys are really good dudes who really care about each other a lot. You try and pick each other up and have each other’s backs.”
Last season, Morton’s 33 starts led the National League while his 14 wins and 216 Ks both ranked in the N.L.’s top six. Morton’s staying power – he is in his 15th big league season – “wasn’t just as simple as I did something with my delivery or mentally or with my repertoire. I think that there were certain things early on, with the way I was pitching, my style and my delivery that didn’t suit me that well,” Morton observed. “You don’t realize that at the time. And then you eventually, through a lot of luck, evolution and support from family, you arrive at a better spot.”
In early September, Morton is scheduled to make his 318th career start, which would rank third all-time among Garden State natives. Although he spent all of his school age years in Fairfield County, Conn., Morton was born in Hunterdon Medical Center, where his Neshaminy graduate mother worked as a physician. His aunt, uncle and late grandparents all lived in the Newtown and Langhorne area. The Mortons lived in Flemington, N.J., until Charlie was 3.
The Braves selected Morton out of high school in the third round of the 2002 draft. He made his big league debut six years later. In June 2009, Atlanta traded Morton to the Pittsburgh Pirates. The 6-foot-5 righty experienced highs and lows in seven Pirate seasons. He seldom experienced great health.
Morton saw his 2015 offseason trade to the Phillies as a turning point. “My last start as a Pirate, I got booed off the mound. As a pro ballplayer, you have a pretty envious position,” Morton shared, “getting to go to neat places and play a great game. I was so focused on my performances and living and dying with every pitch that I felt I was letting people down. I flat out wasn’t enjoying myself because it felt like a vicious cycle of failure. In reality, it probably wasn’t that bad.”
The new Phillie had a sharp Spring Training physically and mentally. And Morton’s second and third starts for Philadelphia were exquisite: one earned run and 13 strikeouts in two wins. But in his fourth start at Milwaukee, he tore his hamstring while running to first. Morton required season-ending surgery.
Baseball-wise, 2016 was a bitter disappointment. But it enabled Morton to rehab at home during his wife Cindy’s pregnancy. Their third of four children was born that December.
Family is a big deal to Morton. The grandson of a veteran, Morton has hosted military families, performed PSAs and provided money for troops overseas … all without publicity.
“‘He had no ego. Magnanimous is a good word. He’s an unbelievable dude,’” said former teammate Tyler Glasnow in a February 2019 Tampa Bay Times feature. “‘Everyone was friends with Charlie. He was always available.’
“That scene would be repeated countless times,” continued author Marc Topkin, “with Morton providing counseling, preaching accountability, propping up confidence.”
Thoughtful and even self-deprecating in an interview, Morton shared how Double-A pitching coach Derek Botelho started to instruct him on how to be a “pro’s pro … From then on, I’m not going to say everything was smooth sailing, but I tried to be more cognizant of what it was I was trying to do with my life from a professional standpoint,” Morton shared.
“I’ve definitely paid attention to how people conduct themselves on and off the field. I’ve been fortunate enough to be around pretty good people,” Morton smiled. “I’m trying.”
This feature is dedicated to Don Leypoldt Sr., who passed away during its writing. I am richly blessed to have inherited my love of baseball from my Dad.