In any lineup of athletic-looking men, Joe Morgan would not get a second glance. Some Miss Americas are taller; many high-school second basemen dwarf him. But Morgan bats leadoff on any roster of what sport calls winners; he's exactly the sort of player each of the four teams left in the baseball playoffs should covet at this moment.
If, at 39, Morgan is about ready to drift into another baseball life, what a wonderful way to leave the one he so distinguished: cap held aloft in the manner of one who appreciates a hero's welcome but who has experienced that before; face both little-boy happy and grizzled-veteran proud.
That was the picture that graced most newspapers Monday morning, Morgan basking in the glory of another performance lots of people paid dearly to anticipate thought impossible from him.
With bat and glove, and whatever else leaders have that can be sensed but not seen, Morgan came close to yet another National League championship series, with the Giants. And on the last day of the season, with a home run from a body more suited for singles, he made sure the Dodgers also failed to get there, to defend their World Series title.
He'd have done the same to anyone.
As we start looking ahead to a new baseball champion, we also recall some former ones: Morgan, who may not retire; Willie Stargell, who will; Earl Weaver, for whom retirement may end in the top of the third. We wonder not so much about what made them so unusual, for that is impossible to fully evaluate, but who might be as good someday.
Needing one run on the last at bat of a game that meant everything, you'd want Morgan or Stargell at the plate. Memories of both, on and off the field, will be forever fresh. Morgan lingers a bit longer in the mind, because he looks so unheroic.
At 5-7, he stands as tall as anyone in baseball.
Simply put, Cincinnati wasn't wildly sensational until he arrived in 1972; Houston didn't make the playoffs until he returned, as a free agent, in '80. He was an MVP; he still may be an MVPP.
The tiniest cog in the Big Red Machine, Morgan was most valuable player in the NL in the back-to-back Cincinnati World Series successes, '75 and '76. The homer that sealed Dodger doom certified his status as most valuable pressure player.
That is more perception than fact, which only heightens his appeal for fans and tightens the strategic pressure for opponents.
Truth be known, Morgan's postseason record is almost appalling: .148 in 81 at-bats in six NL playoffs, including two for 20 in '73, zero for seven in '76 and zero for 11 in '79. In three World Series, his average is .227. Going into his final, seventh-game swing of the '75 classic against the Red Sox, he had been nine for 50 for his Series life.
The "World Series Record Book" puts what followed as well as anyone: "The last run of the game and the Series and the one that won it all came in the Reds' ninth. Griffey walked, was sacrificed to second and advanced to third on an infield out. Rose was intentionally passed and that left it up to Morgan. He responded with a single to center, scoring Griffey . . .
"All observers agreed that the 1975 World Series . . . was the best product that baseball had sold for many years. . . "
Anyone with half a mind, and Red Sox fans assure us Darrell Johnson barely met that standard, would walk Rose to get to Morgan under those conditions. So in the most searing moment of the most thrilling Series in memory Morgan mocks his past with a courageous, if somewhat inelegant, single.
Stargell was the first player to force the class out of Orioles fans in defeat, with the homer that brought the Pirates back from 1-3 gloom to Series champs in '79. As happened last week after similar heartbreak, the fans demanded a curtain call, to tell Weaver and the team that they might have lost but most certainly were not losers.
When Edward Bennett Williams and General Manager Hank Peters reflect on how the Orioles lost, their attitude on how to improve the team might change. They lost, primarily, to the one baseball creature they so despise, a Hessian.
Justifiably, the Orioles take great pride winning grandly with their own, in their ability to whip the free-agent spenders with a miser's purse. Sometimes a classy, store-bought jewel is just what's needed to make everyone notice that homemade outfit.
If that ornament is Don Sutton. Or Pete Rose. Or Reggie Jackson. Or Willie Stargell. Or Joe Morgan. Someone with style; someone selfish; someone with a dash of mean; someone who has survived enough pressure to now thrive in it. Someone who doesn't mind an umpire checking for scuffed baseballs, or that Orioles might even put dents in a few.
In his valedictory, Weaver touched on pressure. Any talented team maturing is bound to have fun, he said. That was his tribute to the Brewers. He said the Orioles were coming, if not quite there, hinted that such as Eddie Murray had experienced enough failure under extreme tension to perhaps relax and blossom some future October.
Then Weaver talked about "somebody with an I-don't-give-a-damn attitude comin' in here and winning 108 or 109 games." Sounds to me like an endorsement of Frank Robinson.