For Rays’ Charlie Morton, opening-day start is an honor, a shame and more

For the first time in his 13-year major-league career, the right-hander gets the nod. The coronavirus pandemic makes things a lot different.
Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays takes part in a voluntary workout at Tropicana Field on June 5, 2020.
Charlie Morton of the Tampa Bay Rays takes part in a voluntary workout at Tropicana Field on June 5, 2020. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published July 19, 2020|Updated July 19, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Though Rays manager Kevin Cash was sharing exciting news, that Charlie Morton was going to be an opening-day starter for the first time in his 13-year career, he pretty much knew how it was going to go.

“His reaction was what you would have expected,” Cash said. “Just shrugged his shoulders, (like) ‘okay.‘”

Though when Morton was asked Sunday about the significance of pitching Friday against the Blue Jays at Tropicana Field, he said it was a big deal, especially where he was in the game, and at age 36.

“It took a long time to have the opportunity to do it,” Morton said. “It does mean a lot. It’s one of those things where you’d like to experience it at least one time. Kind of like being an All-Star, you kind of want to experience it one time. … It’s an honor do it.”

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Though being an opening-day starter in 2020, pitching July 24 rather than the originally scheduled March 26 and amid a plethora of coronavirus pandemic restrictions — most notably having no fans in the stadiums — takes a little away.

“It’s a shame because nobody’s going to be allowed to watch it. I’m sure that would have been pretty sweet,” Morton said. “Honestly, it would have been nice to have my parents and my sister and obviously my wife and kids just to see it because it is a big deal. It’s been a long time in the game. … In some ways it’s a little bittersweet.”

Though any disappointment has to be viewed in context, given the massive impact of the coronavirus throughout the world.

“I wouldn’t say it diminishes it,” Morton said. “Everybody, for the most part, has had to make a sacrifice. And there’s a lot of people who have gone through a lot more than having to pitch in front of a fanless crowd for a baseball game. You could do a lot worse, right?”

Though some of the pomp will be missing, the circumstance, of getting a major-league season started amid the pandemic, will still be meaningful.

“I’m actually looking forward to it,” Morton said. “I think people are looking forward to watching the game, and I’m glad we can go out and do that. What everybody has gone through for us just to get to this point and it’s looking like we’re going to get off the ground at least.

“So I think it’s a testament to the dedication of our coaches, all the staff here, everybody that works in the stadium making sure we’re safe and healthy, and Major League Baseball and the Players Association and the players just getting together and getting this off the ground, I think it’s a big deal. And it’s an honor to be part of that on Day 1.”

Though he hasn’t had the privilege and honor of an opening-day assignment before, he has pitched in an All-Star Game, in playoff elimination games, in a World Series clincher. And once in a slightly similar circumstance, when his Astros team returned home in 2017 after the devastation of Hurricane Harvey.

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“I pitched the first game back in Houston,” Morton said. “It’s not the same, but there are some parallels to games like that, where you’re doing your job as a pro athlete, but it’s also allowing people to maybe get their minds off some of the bad things that are going on in the world. And that part is special.”

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Though ticking off the names of elite opening-day pitchers he has admired, Morton, somewhat typically, doesn’t feel he belongs with the likes of Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Roy Halladay and John Smoltz, among others.

“There’s something about the opening-day starter that is that ace,” he said. “It’s just very fitting for those people. When you watch them out on the mound, just the way they carry themselves, who they are in the game, what they’ve done ... they embody that, I don’t know, that ace persona. I don’t really look at myself that way. I’m just trying to get outs.”

Though the bigger-picture issues are topical, there is also the matter of being ready to start a season, where every one of the 60 games is essential after an abbreviated spring training followed by an unprecedented three-month pause. That makes it hard to gauge Morton’s readiness compared to a normal season. (He had his final tuneup Sunday, throwing 51 pitches over 2 2/3 innings of a modified intrasquad game, having thrown five in his previous outing.)

“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” Morton said. “I feel like I’m still building up. … I don’t know, it’s weird. I know I have it in me to do what’s going to be asked of me (Friday), but at the same time I feel weird because I don’t feel I’m ready to throw seven innings. I just don’t feel like I have the endurance right now to go out there and throw 100 pitches or seven innings. And that’s just a weird feeling to know that we’re going into opening day, and I’ve been healthy, nothing has prevented me from doing that, except for the fact that my catch partner (during the shutdown) was a net (in his Bradenton backyard). So it’s weird.

“But, really, I feel like my stuff is good. I feel like command-wise I’m in a decent spot. I’m looking forward to getting out there, getting the ball and getting this going.”

Though knowing the game won’t be the family-and-friends celebration he imagined if he someday got the chance on opening day, Morton hasn’t lost his sense of humor about it.

“I’m assuming they’re just going to watch it on TV,” he said. “It’d be sweet if I could do like a FaceTime deal with me out on the mound.”

Though then we might all see him smile about where he was.