SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Michael Morse and retirement were getting along just fine. At home last summer in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he fulfilled a lifelong dream of buying a boat, refurbishing it himself and taking his wife and daughter on short family getaways to the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. He kept himself in something resembling playing shape – just in case – but at age 34, and having been out of the game since April, he figured he was done being a baseball player.
And then, at the November wedding of his former San Francisco Giants teammate Hunter Pence, Morse found himself sitting next to Bobby Evans, the Giants’ general manager, and after some small talk, Morse told Evans about a nagging thought he just couldn’t shake:
“Bobby,” Morse said, “I know I can still play this game.”
By the time the cake was cut and the dance floor was filling with bodies, Morse and Evans had a handshake deal: The Giants would sign Morse to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training, and give him a long look as a right-handed power bat off the bench. Michael Morse was unretired.
“I told him, ‘I don’t care about the money,’ ” Morse recalled. “’You can write a contract for a pack of baseball cards. It’s not about the money. If you want me to help your team, I know I can help. And I’ll be there.’ ”
Evans negotiated a formal contract with Morse’s agent within about a week of that conversation, and in mid-February, Morse said goodbye to his family and his boat and headed west.
“We know he’s battled some injuries,” Evans said of Morse. “But when we looked at the needs of our club, with his power potential, we recognize that’s not a strength for us. If we can get that power off the bench, it could be a big boost for us.”
At his locker at the Giants’ spring training headquarters in the early days of camp, Morse rifled through his belongings, displaying one of the hazards of retiring too soon: your equipment deals run out and are not renewed.
“Look,” he said, pointing at a pair of sad-looking cleats. “These are softball cleats. I borrowed some batting gloves from Hunter. This T-shirt is from 2014. Everything I have is from my garage.”
From his career-defining 2011 season with the Washington Nationals, when he hit 31 home runs and finished fourth in the National League in slugging percentage, Morse’s career has been a winding path. The Nationals traded him in January 2013 to the Seattle Mariners, who spun him off to Baltimore seven months later. From 2014 to 2015, he cycled through the Giants, Marlins, Dodgers (for one day) and Pirates organizations, struggling with various injuries along the way. The Pirates released him two weeks into the 2016 season, and no one else picked him up.
“When I got home from playing, I stayed in shape. I was still hitting,” Morse said. “I said, ‘Someone’s got to pick me up. And then it got to be June, and I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ I told my agents I’m not going to Triple-A. That backfired on me. A couple of teams would’ve picked me up, but I was kind of stubborn at the time. But by June, I was saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore. It’s killing me.’ ”
So figuring it was over, he made the mental leap into retirement, his first extended period without baseball since he was a kid, and a part of him came to enjoy the newfound freedom.
“I had a nice year just to relax,” he said. “It was the first time in 17 years I got to wake up out of bed and feel good. I was enjoying it. I was away from the game. My mind was clear. My whole body felt great. I started watching baseball again, with the season going on. But I started getting that itch. I was watching these guys and saying, ‘I could do that.’ Like, ‘This guy ain’t that good.’ ”
Morse started doing some broadcast work for CBS Radio and the MLB Network, but he found it to be a poor substitute for playing the game. “It kept my mind in it,” he said, “but I was ready to play.”
Of all the stops on Morse’s winding journey, he had felt the strongest bond in San Francisco. Not only did he have a resurgent 2014 season there — posting an .811 OPS in 131 games and becoming a postseason hero with a clutch home run in the NL Championship Series clincher and the go-ahead RBI in Game 7 of the World Series – but he also became close with several teammates, including Pence.
“Even though I was only there a year, they treated me right,” Morse said. “It was the only place I wanted to play.
After the handshake deal at Pence’s wedding, Morse still wasn’t sure how real it was. But then other members of the Giants’ front office started coming up to him and saying, “Guess we’ll see you in February.” When he finally got around to congratulating Pence on his marriage, Morse told him his own news.
“I think we just shook on a deal back there,” Morse said.
“I got married and you’re coming back!” Pence said. “Perfect!”
Before stepping into the batting cage to face live pitching for the first time this spring, Morse said he would probably know within a few swings whether or not he still had it. “I’ll flash you a thumbs-up,” he said, “or a thumbs-down.”
Moments later, after a handful of iffy cuts but one towering blast that struck halfway up a light stanchion beyond the left field fence, clanging loudly through an empty stadium, Morse flashed his verdict: his hand extended, palm down, tilting from side to side. The universal symbol for “so-so.”
Morse is treating his spring fling as a San-Francisco-or-bust proposition. He probably wouldn’t accept a job at Class AAA, he said, and isn’t interested in joining another organization. If the Giants don’t want him, he said, he’ll go home, back to his family and his boat, and at least this time he will know it’s truly over.
“I don’t want to play for any other team,” he said. “I want to play for the Giants. I want to make them look good. I want Bobby Evans to look like a genius.”