HOUSTON — The last time Charlie Morton was at Minute Maid Park for a game he was in tears.
His Astros were eliminated by the Red Sox in the fifth game of last year’s AL Championship Series, and the end of their dreams of a second straight World Series championship was tough to take.
“I don’t know how many dry eyes there were in that clubhouse, but not many,” Morton said last week. “It was kind of goodbye for a lot of guys. It was kind of a reminder how close you can get and just come up short. And, really, I think it was a reflection of who those guys are and what they mean to each other.”
Morton certainly meant a lot, as we’ve heard.
But he said his goodbye a couple months later when he took a better offer to sign with the Rays, which makes it all the more interesting as he returns for the first time Tuesday night, and in an aces-high matchup against former mate Justin Verlander.
“It’ll be fun,” Morton said.
The two seasons in Houston detailed only a segment of Morton’s now 12-year career, but included his defining moments:
Winning the 2017 pennant-clinching game at home over the Yankees to send the Astros to the Series, then getting the final 12 outs in Game 7 at Dodger Stadium to secure their first championship.
His reputation there still precedes him.
“It’s hard to describe the emotions of Charlie coming back to Minute Maid,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Sunday. “His place in Astros history is entrenched. He is beloved by everyone who crossed paths with him. It is impossible to not have a better day once you see him. He’s genuine. He’s consistent. He’s thoughtful and sneaky funny. And from the baseball side, he is nasty on the mound.
“It will be hard to face him, but it is impossible not to cherish Charlie Morton.”
Morton had much to cherish during his two seasons there, pitching better than he ever had (29-10, 3.36 vs, 46-71, 4.55 before) and winning more.
Plus, he became kind of a big deal, well-liked by teammates and a huge favorite of the fans.
“That was a really special time in my career,” he said.
The connection started early in 2017, as the Astros got to know him.
“On a team full of some big names and likable players, Charlie Morton quickly became a favorite,” said Julia Morales, the in-game Astros reporter for AT&T SportsNet Southwest. “Fans were drawn to his interviews and the stories we as broadcasters would tell, and you could really see how much his teammates liked him by the way they spoke about him.”
So when Morton did what he did in the 2017 postseason, with Houston-area fans dealing with the impact of Hurricane Harvey latching on emotionally to the Astros, his stature grew exponentially.
Morton saw the first sign the night of the pennant clincher when he got back to the house on Vanderbilt Street in the friendly West U area where he, wife Cindy and their growing brood of kids had been living, enjoying the park, community pool and neighbors, all while not being bothered much.
“We’d been celebrating in the clubhouse, it was late, and we come back and there’s balloons on the front porch, and someone had rolled one of the big oak trees in front of the house,” he said.
“You win that game and we’re going to the World Series, and you could tell people were really proud and excited.”
And when they returned from winning the Series championship, the porch presentation got better.
“There’s champagne bottles, balloons, all this stuff,” he said.
The adulation continued the next day during the championship parade through downtown Houston — “It was nuts. It was absurd,” Morton said — and has kept going.
The Mortons would go into a restaurant, and someone would offer to pick up their check. His No. 50 jersey “was everywhere following the World Series season,” Morales said. So, too, those CFM T-shirts (just keep thinking of the middle word as freakin’).
Even now, though Morton has moved on to the Rays, he still feels the love. During the recent road trip to Seattle, a fan approached and asked him to sign a Houston jersey.
“There was a very real sense of community for how short of a time we were there,” Morton said. “And I got that sense from Houston in general, talking to people around the city — proud Houstonians, proud Texans.”
When the Astros opened this season at the Trop, with Morton pitching and winning Game 2, Morales asked Morton if there was anything he’d like to say to the Houston-area fans. She posted his response on social media, and got hundreds of replies, many crying emojis.
“He’s missed by the entire city,” she said. “I look forward to seeing the welcome back Astros fans give him.”
That Morton is pitching the opening game of the series will change the dynamic some, making it more of all business atmosphere.
At 35, he’s beyond letting his emotions get to him about such things, saying the tough part is, as he did earlier this season, throwing the ball to hitters that he is friends with, such as George Springer.
Morton, who planned to spend Mondays’s off-day catching up with some former teammates and Houston-area friends (he stays in touch even with their former letter carrier), said the sentimentality in the return won’t come from walking back into the stadium, which as he says, will be there a while, but who he sees inside.
“The people,” he said, “that’s what makes it special.”
He should know.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.