ST. PETERSBURG — As when spinning devilish pitches toward the plate, Charlie Morton is again working the edges.
The veteran starter has emerged as the leading voice in convincing his Rays mates that their individual actions and decisions in adhering to COVID-19 precautions will significantly impact not only the team’s chances for success but — more importantly — the health and safety of each other and their families.
And he has done so in his own way, sharing information and data he spends hours researching and accumulating, then hitting that spot where he gets them to listen and buy in without sounding too authoritative or restrictive.
“I think we’re going to have discussions,” Morton said after Friday’s opening workout at the Trop. “It’s not up to me to tell somebody what they can and can’t do. I think you can make suggestions, and we can talk about this, and we can have respectful conversations about it.”
Morton, 36, makes no pretense of knowing what is best for anyone, much less everyone, acknowledging the unknown is what’s most troubling.
But the right-hander has become something of an expert in sorting through the glut of confusing and conflicting information available publicly and privately through Major League Baseball to delineate what the true experts are saying.
While teammates might thumb through Instagram photos, Morton scrolls the Internet daily — as well as Twitter, though, being Charlie, he doesn’t have his own account — looking for the latest coronavirus information. He’s specifically focused on transmission, via air droplets and surface touches.
He swaps sources with pitching coach Kyle Snyder, who also is deep into the subject. Morton talks and texts with players and staff from other teams.
“There’s a lot of people, epidemiologists, virologists, you name it, you can go on there and see what they’re thinking,” he said. “A lot of the problem — you watch the news, everybody has an angle. If you can get information from a physician or a specialist in this field, I feel that’s the best way to do it.”
Sharing that information also takes a special touch, and the monthslong shutdown and physical distancing limiting team meetings and shifting primary team communication to group texts and Zoom video conferencing has made Morton more comfortable in doing so.
He can pitch in front of 50,000 people and get the last out of the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship at Dodger Stadium, but standing up to talk in front of a team is a “very difficult setting” for him.
“In my career, I’ve tried to have guys’ best interests, looking out for my teammates,” he said. “But it’s been difficult for me to voice those concerns to people.”
His teammates appreciate it now, maybe more than ever.
“He brings a lot of knowledge and is very well educated,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “He is just trying to tell people we have to educate ourselves. … It’s hard to cipher through what is accurate and inaccurate, and that we don’t do ourselves justice if we don’t educate ourselves and hold ourselves accountable.”
Said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, “He just gets it. A leader in so many ways. He has a way of sending a message in a unique way, I guess you could say. But I promise you that people listen when he talks. He has that ability and has obviously earned the respect he has over his great career.”
Morton’s reputation in the game has evolved as he has grown from fringe player to All-Star and team leader. So has his perspective, as he is now a married father of four kids, all under 8.
Family is the utmost priority — one of the major reasons he signed with the Rays last season was to be able to live at home in Bradenton — and certainly at the forefront now, as his health concerns are more for his loved ones than himself.
As much care as he and his wife, Cindy, have taken at home, their situation is complicated since Morton made the decision — and one that was not all that hard — to go back to work. He’ll get $5,555,555 of his original $15 million salary and have to decide afterward whether to return for 2021, as the Rays hold a $15 million option if he’s healthy.
“My intention was to play if we had the opportunity,” he said. “It’s my job. I feel like I have a responsibility to the organization. I feel like I have a responsibility to try. If you look at the data on this we do have, we have access to, I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea of doing this for my family, my teammates, or people affiliated with the Rays or people in baseball in general.
“It’s hard to come out and say, ‘Yeah, I’m really comfortable with this.’ But I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know how long we’re supposed to sit in our homes and wait to make a decision on our careers. If there’s a bunch of people that are sacrificing their time and effort and their safety to make this possible, I feel like I should try.”
So far, Morton has felt good about it, noting the precautionary work done by the Rays’ staff at the Trop. But he’s well aware the situation will change as the team gets to the season and heads out on the road, increasing everyone’s exposure. Even if an individual is asymptomatic, he or she “could be carrying around a pathogen that could kill someone you care about.”
As the season goes on, players will face different decisions in maintaining the vigilance to police their teammates and themselves. Morton admitted he might have a decision of his own, as his mother and sister live in New Jersey, and he would normally see them on a trip to the Northeast.
“There’s so many variables,” Morton said. “When you’re sitting home looking at the protocols, a lot if it just seems like overkill. Until you get to the field and you realize you don’t know what everybody has been doing, and even they don’t know what they’ve been doing.
“And I don’t mean that like they’ve been walking around in a haze. There’s no exact way to know what degree you’ve been exposed to this. If you go to Publix to get some milk and eggs, who knows what happens? I don’t know.”
But what he does know, and what he learns, he will continue to share.