Skip to main content
Original Issue

Well Armed With a will of iron inherited from his dad, Cardinals ace Matt Morris has come all the way back from major elbow surgery. Now life seems like a day at the beach

Righthander Matt Morris won 22 games for the St. Louis Cardinals
last season and finished third in the voting for the National
League Cy Young Award. Self-confidence-wise for Morris as a
pitcher, this is fantastic, especially because he needs work in
other areas.

Like music. For the last few years Morris occasionally has
brought along a guitar when the Cards go on the road. He has
never taken a lesson. "It's fun," says Morris, a die-hard Phish
fan, "but I sorta suck."

And comedy. Since childhood Morris has been telling jokes. Here's
a mainstay:

What did the snail say when it slid down the turtle's back?


And boating. Last February, Morris, who spends his off-seasons in
Jupiter, Fla., purchased a 16-foot catamaran, his first vessel of
any kind. He phoned his girlfriend, Heather Reader, in Chicago
and told her he was about to attempt a test sail. "It's sorta
choppy," he said, "but I'm going for it!" The maiden voyage went
smoothly. Reader, an experienced sailor, arrived a few days later
for a visit, during which she agreed to let Morris show off his
skippering skills. She would live to regret it.

"Matt almost killed me," says Reader. "It was windy, and a wave
broke over us."

The two fell into the Atlantic. After reboarding, Morris tried
sailing toward Reader, who was bobbing nearby. "First the boat
smacked into me," she says. "Then he keeps sailing by, because he
can't stop the boat. I thought, I'm about to drown." Reader
survived to tell the story and, this winter, to share a
two-bedroom off-season home with Morris in Jupiter. Begrudgingly,
she concedes that Morris has learned to handle the boat. "Matt's
a little insane," she says, "but if he thinks he can do
something, he has to do it."

The same intrepid attitude that nearly led to Reader's
decapitation has worked wonders on the mound for the 27-year-old
Morris. Two years after missing the 1999 season because of Tommy
John surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right elbow, the
6'5", 210-pound Morris emerged as one of baseball's best
pitchers. Last season he went 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA, established
himself as the St. Louis ace and earned a new three-year, $27
million contract beginning in 2002. Against the Arizona
Diamondbacks in a National League Division Series, which the
eventual World Series champions won in five games, Morris was
brilliant in two matchups against dominant righthander Curt
Schilling. In Game 1 Morris allowed one run over seven innings in
a 1-0 Cardinals loss. Then, in an epic and deciding Game 5,
Morris again surrendered a single run before departing after the
eighth with the game tied. The next inning St. Louis lost 2-1.

"We can't sulk, because we all gave 100 percent and we lost to
the champions," says Morris. "But we expected to win that
series--and the World Series. It makes me hungrier for next
season. Much hungrier."

This winter Morris has been taking things easy. The weather has
precluded sailing, so he and Reader play tennis. He jogs and
lifts weights but does so with the casual confidence of a budding
star staying in shape for next season. It's a long way from the
horrors of two years ago, when Matt Morris was sad, helpless and
facing a baseball career in doubt.

Although medical advances have turned torn ligaments from career
terminators to serious yet beatable setbacks, Morris's
metamorphosis from hurting pitcher to ace is still phenomenal. On
April 13, 1999, five days after James Andrews performed Tommy
John surgery on Chicago Cubs righthander Kerry Wood, Frank Jobe
operated on Morris's arm. Both pitchers had been first-round
picks in the June 1995 draft. Both possessed 95-mph fastballs.
Both were coming off promising '98 seasons. (Morris was 7-5 with
a 2.53 ERA; Wood was 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA.) Both returned to the
mound in the spring of 2000 with snakelike scars on their elbows.

However, while Wood was thrust back into the Cubs' rotation
immediately and has since spent 57 days on the disabled list with
myriad injuries (last year he was 12-6 with a 3.36 ERA in 28
starts, but he missed six turns), the Cardinals resisted the
temptation to hurry Morris along and gradually reintroduced him
to the pressure and strain of pitching in the majors. In 2000 he
made 31 appearances--all in relief (3-3, 3.57 ERA, four saves).
There were several times when St. Louis needed an emergency
starter, and there were several times Morris was considered. "But
we felt it wasn't in anyone's best interest," says pitching coach
Dave Duncan. "Matt was still testing himself. He needed to answer
the question, Am I O.K.? He didn't need the additional test of
having to worry about starting."

Actually, the tougher test had come during the previous season,
when Morris spent day after day in baseball hell, rehabbing his
arm. There was the pain of weight training and long tossing, of
long stretches of loneliness--sitting in his St. Louis apartment,
his future in doubt, while the Cardinals were on a 13-day road
trip. "The whole year I was a different person," says Morris. "I
was real quiet and reserved because I wasn't doing my thing. I've
always been taught you gain respect on the field. I didn't feel I
deserved any."

Morris, though, put some of that downtime to good use by taking a
postgraduate course: Call it Baseball 301--How to Be an Ace.
Whenever a Mike Hampton or Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux came to
St. Louis, Morris would study that pitcher's demeanor and
command. "I remember seeing Kevin Brown pitch against us, and his
attitude and aggressiveness screamed, I'm coming at you!" says
Morris. "It was a prime example of how presence can dominate. He
psyched us out."

Morris also absorbed a lot of technical know-how. In 1997 and
'98, his first two seasons in the majors, Morris relied heavily
on his fastball. "If he faced a team that could handle power,"
says Duncan, "Matt was in trouble." No more. Nowadays Morris
offers an assortment of fastballs and curves plus an improving
changeup. "He's come back from Tommy John as a more dominant
pitcher," says Atlanta Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield. "He's
throwing even harder than he used to. It makes you shake your
head in amazement."

"What Matt Morris has done is a beautiful thing for all of us who
have had Tommy John," says Texas Rangers reliever Rudy Seanez,
whose right arm was operated on in June 2000 and who pitched last
season for the San Diego Padres and the Braves. "It'll be an
example of what a big heart can accomplish."

Matt, the youngest of George and Diane Morris's remarkably
athletic three children, grew up in Middletown, N.Y., a
blue-collar town 60 miles northwest of New York City. Stacey, 33,
was the NCAA Division I softball leader in slugging percentage as
a senior catcher at Wagner College in 1991. Sherry, 32, was
Wagner's ace righthander. Both girls attended the Staten Island,
N.Y., college on basketball scholarships. Stacey is assistant
athletic director and women's softball coach at SUNY Orange.
Sherry is the assistant golf pro at Colovista Country Club in
Bastrop, Texas.

Life in the Morris home was one competition after another. If
George and Matt weren't playing Stacey and Sherry in driveway
basketball, then it was Matt versus Stacey in Ping-Pong. Or
tennis. Or racquetball. Or soccer. Elbows were thrown. Tears were
shed. The three siblings still debate who's the best all-around
athlete among them. Matt and Sherry vary their choices. Stacey
votes for herself.

Matt was a good-field, good-hit Little League shortstop with no
major league aspirations. Then, in the summer after his junior
year at Valley Central High in Montgomery, N.Y., a village near
Middletown to which the Morrises moved when Matt was 13, wedding
bells changed everything. Matt was trying out for an infield spot
on the Hudson Valley baseball entry in the Empire State Games,
New York's annual Olympics-style festival, when he had to leave
early to attend a wedding. Matt was worried that he hadn't had
enough time to impress the coaches. "My dad says, 'Why don't you
jump on the mound real quick before we leave and pitch a
little,'" says Matt, who had thrown all of six innings at Valley
Central that season. "So I did." His fastball crackled. He made
the team.

At Valley Central the next spring, coach Gary Vyskocil turned his
standout shortstop into one of the nation's best high school
pitchers. "Even then Matt had the perfect mental makeup to be a
major league pitcher," says Vyskocil. "He was a tough,
competitive kid." The Milwaukee Brewers selected Morris in the
25th round of the 1992 draft, but he deemed Milwaukee's bonus
offer too low, and he was intent on getting his education. He
spent three seasons at Seton Hall, where as a junior he was named
first-team All-America.

Whenever the Morrises watch their son pitch for St. Louis on
television, it seems like a too-good-to-be-true fantasy. Diane is
a high school secretary, and George is an iron worker who rises
at 4 a.m. and often returns home after dark. When his son was 12,
George took him on a job in New York City's Battery Park. It was
a bitter winter day. "We were up 25 floors," says George. "First,
Matt didn't like riding the hoist. He wasn't really dressed for
the weather, either. He was miserable. He said, 'Dad, I don't
want to do this the rest of my life.' I was very happy to hear

On Sept. 11 George was working in Manhattan when the terrorist
attacks brought down the World Trade Center. That afternoon he
drove home to Montgomery. The next day George was alerted by his
union that iron workers were needed to help dig through the
rubble. Thirty years earlier he had helped construct those
towers. "Some of the bolts I tightened," he says, "are probably
lying in the street." Without hesitation he drove to Manhattan,
boarded a police bus and, along with 25 coworkers, was
transported to the World Trade Center Plaza. "The first thing I
saw were guys walking toward us with masks on, covered by soot,
looking like they were coming from a war zone. Then I saw the

George, who was a Marine radio technician in Vietnam in 1965 and
'66, says war is hell, and the World Trade Center was worse.
"I've smelled death," he says, "and you can't mistake it. That
was the smell." The day he was there, he worked from 4 p.m. until
5 a.m. His tasks included cutting through steel, bucket patrol
(filling empty ones with rubble, dumping full ones) and carrying
body bags.

Matt was in his room at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee on the
morning of the terrorist attacks, preparing to head to Miller
Park for that evening's game (later postponed) against the
Brewers. George's brother, John, is a Bronx-based New York City
fireman. Matt was worried about them both. "I called on my cell
phone, and my dad was [driving] probably 15 or 20 blocks away
from it all," says Matt. "I heard all the noises in the
background--the screaming and the sirens."

George assured his son that he was O.K. "I'm very proud of my
father," says Matt of George's work at ground zero. "He felt it
was important to be down there and help out. It's the type of man
he is."

Throughout the St. Louis clubhouse Matt is held in high regard as
well. Sure, his guitar is out of tune. O.K., the seven pieces of
hair under his lip hardly pass for a goatee. But he is admired
for his heart and his compassion. In 1997 longtime Seton Hall
coach Mike Sheppard suffered a stroke. "Matty was the first pro
to call me," says the 65-year-old Sheppard, 79 of whose former
players have signed pro contracts, among them five current major
leaguers. In November, Morris returned to the school to speak to
Sheppard's players. "It was fun to yell," Morris says, "instead
of being yelled at."

While the average major leaguer will spend much of a road trip
locked in hotel rooms playing Madden NFL Football, Morris opts to
check out a city's sights. During an August trip to Los Angeles
he and fellow righthander Darryl Kile visited the UCLA campus.
Every time the Cards travel to San Diego, Morris hits the zoo. In
Colorado it's Estes Park. His interest in his surroundings also
led him to meet Reader, who just completed her first season as a
Cubs site reporter for Two years ago Reader was
attending a Cubs-Cards game at Wrigley Field as a fan, and her
seat was next to the visitors' bullpen. She and Morris struck up
a conversation. "I'm there, in overalls and a hat, and he starts
talking to me, asking questions," says Reader. "Mountains or sea?
Cat or dog? It was obvious that he was a different type of guy."

Last off-season, as Morris prepared for his return to the
rotation, Reader gave him a black rope necklace with a pendant
of several small rocks set into the shape of a person. Reader
was told that the pendant, made by an Inuit craftsman, means,
"man of stone who points the way."

After a long road back, it's clear that Morris followed the right
direction. He knows the way.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN VAN HOOK SANDS OF TIME It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Reader and the intrepid Morris.


COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE ACE RELIEVERS The day after the World Trade Center attacks, George (front) and his union brothers headed for ground zero.

"My father felt it was important to be down there," says Morris.
"It's the type of man he is."

"He's throwing even harder than he used to," says Sheffield. "It
makes you shake your head in amazement."