NORTH PORT, Fla. — Even as a veteran pitcher with more than two decades in baseball, Braves pitcher Charlie Morton still ruminates about most of his starts – good or bad. After his outings, Morton will drive home and fall asleep an hour or so after he’s back at his house.
And then he’ll wake up at 3 a.m.
“And I’ll think about it,” Morton told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And I’ll just think about it. It’ll just loop in my mind for two, three hours, until I decide I’m gonna get out of bed and start my day.
“But I don’t feel like I have to justify my existence, to the degree that I used to. I used to feel kind of like my performance on the field dictated how I felt about myself just on a day-to-day basis.”
But, Morton adds, fans probably want this. They want to know athletes care intensely and deeply. And those athletes want that out of themselves.
So in reality, how could anyone ever relax about their performance?
“I think you want that deep yearning and desire to be great at your craft. It’s torturous, though, because it’s a constant burden that you carry with you almost all the time,” Morton said. “I think the organizations that you play for, they want you to feel that way, they want you to have that at the core of your being.
“I think fans want you to feel and care about the game and your performance like that, right? I think people want to see that because they want to know that who they’re watching is different than someone that doesn’t really care, that thinks that the game is just an arbitrary thing, and you’re just going out there and you’re throwing a ball around.
“What would the point of going to a game be if you were watching casual people playing sports? You don’t want that. You want somebody that’s getting eaten alive at times by what they’re doing.”
The 39-year-old Morton, who is entering his 21st full season in professional baseball, still acknowledges these feelings. He experiences them, but they do not define him. Morton’s love for his craft has motivated him and pushed him to improve. It also has come with a cost.
Those thoughts and feelings can be good.
They also can be bad.
“No one’s calibrated correctly, like optimally, to deal with life,” Morton said. “That’s why we have highs and lows. That’s how we’re wired. But I think I’ve always dealt with that. I think I’ve always dealt with that back and forth, the angels and the demons. I think it’s always been there, just like anybody else.”
‘Charlie first, baseball later’
Nathan Hooton met Morton when the two were freshmen at Joel Barlow High School in Redding, Connecticut. They had a math class together, and Hooton remembers Morton introducing himself and asking Hooton if he would be playing any sports.
Hooton told Morton he would be going out for freshman baseball, then asked Morton what he would play.
“Yeah, I’m gonna do some baseball, too,” Morton said.
“Totally humble,” Hooton, one of Morton’s best friends, says now. “I had no idea who he was or that he was going to be the starting pitcher for our varsity team. He was always just Charlie first, baseball later.”
Before the Braves drafted Morton out of high school in the third round in 2002, before he went through his struggles in pro ball, before he overcame them, before he won a World Series, Morton grew up as an anxious kid who lacked confidence.
He just wasn’t aware of it.
“When I was a young kid, when I was younger, I was definitely more mentally free,” Morton said. “You don’t understand what you are in the world. You’re hyper-focused on what you like to do. You’re not really worried about what people think about you, you’re not really worried about what you’re doing and the ramifications of what you’re doing, like your performance.”
This changes, Morton said, when one looks around and realizes how society operates. He realized that people perceive other people a certain way. When he noticed this, he became aware of his behaviors and actions. He began paying attention to how good he was at something, whether school or baseball. (“I was a bad student in high school,” Morton said. “It’s one of the biggest regrets that I have in life, is I didn’t apply myself in high school.”)
“People talk about the jocks in high school, the cool kids in high school, and you even see (other perceptions of people) in high school, or maybe even before,” Morton said. “I was always very aware of that. Part of me wanted to be good at baseball just because I love the game, but also starting to be more aware of the implications of what it was to be an athlete as a young man growing up in this country.
“But that’s when I started to notice. How do I look? How am I behaving? What do people think of me? And I think that awareness amplified the way I felt about myself and how I was questioning myself all the time.”
Working through doubt and fear
Rob Lucci, another of Morton’s friends from high school, still remembers traveling to Florida with some friends in the summer of 2002, when Morton had started pitching in rookie ball.
The best way to describe it is this: He wasn’t watching Charlie Morton, the high school pitcher who once struck out 16 batters over five innings (only possible because of a dropped third strike in which a runner reached first base). This Charlie Morton, the one in pro ball, looked mortal.
“These guys are just teeing off on balls,” Lucci recalled.
Morton is a two-time All-Star with two World Series rings. He has pitched three times in a Game 7 – and has won all three. By any standard, he has had a wildly successful career.
But at one point, he felt lost.
“My hopes, my dreams, my aspirations, and my personality, frankly – just basically me – it was, like, missing because I wasn’t getting the results, and I was also dealing with this idea that who I was wasn’t good enough, as a person,” Morton said. “The way I thought, what I thought about myself, the way I processed information, it just wasn’t good enough, and I needed to change that. And it’s like, how do you change your personality?”
When he was a young player, people always told Morton: You need to be more confident. You need to get angry. You need to be more aggressive.
“And I guess looking back on that, it’s interesting because it’s basically people telling you that who you are, isn’t good enough,” Morton said. “But knowing what I know now, there’s so many different personalities, there’s so many different mentalities that people have, that are successful. There are common traits that people have. There’s a work ethic, there’s commitment, there’s dedication, there’s drive. But the personalities in success are very different.”
For Morton, everything changed when he began tasting on-field success. Of course he wasn’t inherently confident before this – in Morton’s eyes, why would someone feel confident about something unless it’s justified? To him, that would be irrational, and he doesn’t consider himself to be an irrational person. When Morton discovered what worked for him physically, the confidence followed.
Morton knew he could listen to violent music, but that’s not him. He knew he could think thoughts that might make him upset or angry, but that’s not him. He couldn’t manufacture emotions. He had to be himself – even if that came with anxiety and doubt.
“The ways that I’ve coped with it over the years have varied, but honestly, I think I was afforded so many opportunities and chances to kind of work through it to where I learned what worked for me, which was just facing it. It was just going out there – with the doubt, with the fear – and trying to let that part of me deep down, that visceral part of me, come out in performance,” Morton said. “And that certainly, I think, allows your mind and your brain to rewire to where you’re getting as close to an optimal level as possible.”
For years, as the anxiety and doubts ate him up at times, Morton searched.
“I think I was looking for peace – being at peace with what I had done and who I was in the game,” he said.
His discovery came in 2017 with Houston, when he did what he never thought possible: Not only did he earn the opportunity to pitch in postseason games, but he excelled. In the biggest moments, with all eyes on him, he shined.
Morton pitched in five games – four of them starts – during that postseason. In one Game 7, he tossed five shutout innings to send the Yankees home. In another, he tossed four innings of one-run baseball against the Dodgers as the Astros won the World Series.
Morton had experienced moments of success before this.
In 2011, he changed his delivery at the beginning of the season. He dropped his arm slot and began throwing like Roy Halladay, which made him the best he’d been to that point. “That’s it right there,” Morton thought at the time. “That’s the proof that I was looking for.”
In 2016, Morton, a ground-ball pitcher to that point, struck out 19 hitters over four starts with the Phillies. “Holy cow, I can actually strike guys out,” he thought to himself. He saw a glimpse of it.
But this ascension reached its peak in 2017, when he went to Houston, and the Astros wanted him to throw his nastiest stuff all the time. They wanted him to induce swings and misses. They didn’t want the ball in play because a ball in play means anything can happen.
And how do you get batters to swing and miss? “Well, you blow guys’ doors off at the top, and you throw the nastiest breaking ball that you can,” Morton said. So he did that. The road led to the 2017 postseason, when Morton starred during a defining stretch of his career. And then he was an All-Star for consecutive seasons after that.
To Morton, the brain is always calculating everything as one prepares for big moments, like a postseason start. Where am I? Where’s my mind? Where’s my heart? Am I ready? Suddenly, Morton gained more evidence for something: The best way to conquer fears is by facing them.
“And I think if you do that enough, you can’t help but build up a tolerance for it – for the adrenaline, for the doubt, for the fear,” he said. “And just getting used to the feeling of a playoff game, the feeling of knowing that people that aren’t even there (are watching), that millions of people are watching.
“There’s tons of pressure. Your peers are watching, your family, your friends, you name it. And if you do it enough, you start to build up kind of like a callous for it. And I think that’s how I did it because I was afforded enough opportunities to do it. Whereas a lot of guys, they don’t get those chances. A lot of people don’t get those chances in their jobs or their careers. They get in their own way, and the moment’s gone.”
‘Hey pal, it’s gonna be OK’
Braves pitcher Michael Soroka has seen the lowest of lows. He tore his Achilles tendon once, then did it again a year later. The injuries certainly put his career in jeopardy. He’s still trying to make it back.
Among the many people there for Soroka during a difficult time: Morton, the veteran pitcher who has seen it all, the one whose calming presence and gentle personality benefits his teammates.
“I remember Charlie being the No. 1 guy to come to me, and the way he is – and I know he doesn’t show it in the media too often – but come to me and kind of say, ‘Hey, pal, it’s gonna be OK,’” Soroka recalled. “That means a lot (from) somebody that has been through their struggles. I didn’t really realize how many he had because they weren’t really in the spotlight.”
During his lengthy career, Morton has had two hip surgeries. He once tore his hamstring off the bone. He fractured his fibula in the 2021 World Series. He has doubted himself and others have doubted him. He failed in the minors and battled to gain his footing in the majors.
And he’s conquered all of it.
Now he’s an example for others.
“As a friend and teammate, you couldn’t be more proud because everyone goes through their own battles with anxiety and self-doubt in this game, and to have someone that is living proof that you can come off the other side of it completely just better off and have a career resurrection, it gives you some hope,” teammate Max Fried said. “There’s a level of respect that comes with that because people know what you’ve been through and what you’ve done, and how much you’ve overcome.
“So to be able to have someone at our disposal, in our clubhouse at all times to be able to go to when anything comes up, and know that you have a person that’s been through enough and has experienced some things, and you can really kind of pick their brain, and they’re going to give you an honest opinion, it’s invaluable.”
To teammate Kyle Wright, one lesson from Morton is that it’s OK to not be OK. Sometimes, Wright said, faking it until you make it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Morton’s openness about how he’s felt and is feeling is an example for everyone.
“I think that helps all guys, and I think it probably has allowed him to be successful for us for so long because he knows that it’s not always going to be easy, and not every time you’re going to have the most confidence in the world,” Wright said. “It’s a hard game, you play a lot of good teams. I think that’s something I learned a lot from, and I think it’s really also helped me kind of evaluate myself and understand how to move on and learn and continue to get better.”
‘He was always very humble’
Lucci, one of Morton’s best friends, told a story about a time when some boys, including Morton, went to Morton’s house for paintball in the backyard. Morton’s dad owned a nice tractor, and the boys decided to take it out to the woods to make it part of a paintball course.
One issue: The tractor got stuck in 2 feet of mud. It took the boys around seven hours to dig it out.
“We were just terrified – terrified we were gonna get in trouble with his father,” Lucci recalled.
Hooton, another of Morton’s best friends, brought up a time when Morton visited him, and they went to dinner with Hooton’s friends. One person asked Morton what he did for a living.
“I’m kind of in between things,” said Morton, who was in the minors at the time.
Yes, he said this – instead of, you know, leading with how he played professional baseball.
“He was always very humble,” Hooton said.
Morton is an interesting person. He’s a husband, a father of four kids, a friend and mentor to many, and more. Nowadays, he spends most of his time away from baseball with his family. But over his career, he has dabbled in woodworking, golf, video games, guitar, songwriting and more. He loves fishing.
And everyone loves Morton.
Fried: “I don’t think you can really put words to what his presence (means). Every time you’re around Charlie, you immediately have the biggest smile on your face, and you just feel very comfortable because he’s someone that really accepts each individual for who they are and allows them to be themselves and encourages it. I think knowing that he’s probably one of the nicest human beings that I’ve also come across – you can feel his genuine nature, like he really wants the best for you. And when you can feel that off of someone, you can really kind of let your guard down and be more vulnerable and have a different kind of relationship with that kind of person.”
Wright: “He’s about as easygoing as it gets. He’s a weird guy, but he’s awesome. He’s one of my favorite people I’ve ever gotten to play with. He’s just so genuine. He truly wants everyone to do well. If there were a lot more Charlie Mortons in the world, we’d live in a great place. He’s just an awesome guy.”
Hooton: “It’s fun to pick his brain, and he’ll come right back at you and pick your brain. You can ask him something very simple, and it turns into a whole conversation, way away from where you originally started the conversation. He’s very deep with thought, and he really wants to get to know what the story is and more than just a yes or no answer, more than just an easy answer.”
Lucci: “He’s a very real person. He has never, that I’ve seen, let any of his success get in the way of his beliefs or his values.”
Braves manager Brian Snitker: “He’s right there for guys. He’s not gonna push himself on anybody, but what a wealth of knowledge, and those players are remiss if they don’t use somebody like that because he’s very open to anything they would have, and he’s experienced probably pretty much everything that you can.”
In a way, Morton is playing with house money. He never expected to pitch past his contract with Houston, which ended after the 2018 season.
“I was like, ‘This is probably it,’” Morton said. “Because the chance of me pitching well enough and being healthy enough, one or the other or both, were not great.”
He shares this story on a spring day in 2023, more than six years after the Astros signed him. Eventually, Morton goes back into the clubhouse, then heads back out to sign autographs for fans looking down from the overhang behind center field.
Morton still is in baseball, and he no longer has questions about himself.
He has answered them all.
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