“The offseason is a tricky time,” Morton said. “It’s like you get home and you get into that lull. Now you’re a full-time dad and husband. You need that time to unplug so you’re not the ballplayer anymore at all. You’re just dad and husband.”
The Braves did, in fact, exercise their $20 million option on Morton. This winter’s free-agent market proved the Braves’ calculations, from back in November, to be correct: They figured that Morton, at that price, would not be an overpay once they saw how the market paid free-agent starting pitchers.
Morton is back.
“I never doubted he was back,” starting pitcher Spencer Strider said. “The guy’s gonna play until – as long as he’s breathing, he’s gonna keep playing, whether he tells you different or not. He’s really the glue in the clubhouse, to me, especially amongst the pitching staff. Any time there’s a dull moment, we kind of just look up to Charlie and say, ‘Hey, what do we do?’ He’s the best.”
A few months ago, Morton turned 40 years old. This might be his final season. Then again, to know Morton is to know this: He has contemplated retirement off and on for years.
Years ago, Morton felt like the game would tell him when he needed to stop pitching. But it has not. So in the past few seasons, the teams – most recently the Braves – effectively have made the decision for the right-hander, who is a two-time All-Star with two World Series rings.
“I think going into last year, I was viewing last year certainly as a possible last season,” Morton said. “I’m like looking around like, ‘Man, I better try to take this all in.’ I don’t think I need to be present with that mentality anymore. I think I’ve been so fortunate to be able to go to so many places so many times, experience so many things on and off the field with so many different people, different organizations, players, coaches – you name it – the fans, people that work at the stadiums. I was kind of gifted that.”
Now it is about simply enjoying the ride, regardless of when it might end.
The difficult part: Cindy and four children are at home still. This is a balancing act – the same that any working parent might handle. But Charlie Morton is not any parent. He is on the road much more than the average person. He works nights and weekends.
Time spent on baseball is time away from his family.
“I definitely think, though, and I’ve gotten to experience this: You almost become kind of numb to it, and I think that’s what is a little bit dangerous about devoting yourself so much to any profession and spending so much time in any profession,” Morton said. “It becomes kind of just a behavioral thing. You’re kind of on cruise control, autopilot. And while that’s happening, time is ticking away – the most valuable time you have, especially with your children, because at a certain age, you’re not gonna come home and hang out with dad on weekends. You’re going to go out and hang out with your friends. I’m in a privileged position where I don’t have to play. I think that’s where the moral and ethical side of me wrestles with the ballplayer side, the guy that loves baseball and has been doing it for a long time.”
The funny paradox with Morton: As he has aged – in baseball years – he has improved. His career is approaching its end, but his best work has come in the past five to six years. His stuff has been incredible. His arm seems fresh.
And so dad is playing (at least) one more year.
“They’ve been a baseball family for a long time so they get it. They support me,” Morton said. “I’ll try to make the most of it and not embarrass them as best as I can.”
The reaction to Morton returning? “Ecstatic,” Braves ace Max Fried said at Braves Fest. Morton is a mentor to Fried and others. A sounding board. A calming presence.
You could list a ton of benefits of having Morton around before you mention the 3.64 ERA he posted last regular season. But there is that, too. Morton – again, he is 40 – is part of the top four in the Braves’ rotation.
“He’s been here for a couple years now, and he’s one of the most genuine people that you could ever meet,” Fried said. “He works hard, he’s obviously an amazing person – you can go to him in any situation. But to see him still be as determined and dedicated and talented as he is, at 40 now, he’s only getting better, and he had an unbelievable season last year. I know he kind of ended not the way he wanted, but you can tell that there’s a determination on being able to kind of right that.”
Is this season the end?
Right now, that question is irrelevant.
Morton will cherish what has happened – the people, the moments, the experiences – and what’s left of his impressive and inspiring career.
“Looking back, I’m like, ‘Man, I was so lucky,’” Morton said. “So I think, at this stage, I really do need to try to just enjoy it. But also make it about winning and make it about the ultimate goal as a team, and just being a good teammate and trying to help the team win.”