MIAMI – Let’s get this out of the way first: Charlie Morton has not committed to pitching next season.
“No, absolutely not,” Morton said.
At this point, Morton finds himself where he has been – to some degree – since the end of the 2015 season, when he first gave serious thought to retiring. In his final start that season, which turned out to be his last outing for Pittsburgh, Morton allowed five runs over two innings. He got booed off the field.
“I just remember thinking, ‘This is the beginning of the end. I’m on the way out,’” Morton recalled.
Morton knew he was guaranteed a contract for that next season, but he felt as if he would enter 2016 fighting to stay in the game. His future was uncertain.
Morton was 32 years old when the Pirates traded him to the Phillies in Dec. 2015.
He is now 39 years old. Going into Sunday’s start in Miami, he had a 3.42 ERA. The Braves have a $20 million option on Morton for 2024. They have five days after the conclusion of the World Series to exercise it.
Morton is once again contemplating his future, just as he has for years. Different factors go into it.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Morton about what he evaluates when deciding whether to play the next season.
He began like this:
“As a kid, you have dreams – you have hopes and dreams and goals, whether they be realistic or not,” he said. “I think I always had a deep love for baseball, and the game and the history of the game, just being around the ballpark. And I think that has stayed the same. I think what has changed that has been the feeling that I wasn’t good enough to help a team. If you don’t feel good about yourself, those ideas, those thoughts, I guess they just seem kind of pointless. It’s like, if you can’t help your team, what’s the point of having those hopes or dreams? That’s been something in my career – that’s been probably the biggest challenge, just believing in myself and having confidence in myself, that I actually could apply any passion I have for the game to producing on the field.
“When I started to become more consistent as a pitcher and I started feeling healthier, and feeling like I wasn’t battling myself or more body, and I could actually go out and do my job and get a better sense of my identity on the field, that’s when I started to feel more comfortable. The retirement stuff is very different from that. I always believed that the game would dictate when I retire. It was either gonna tell me I wasn’t good enough, or I would just blow out.”
Morton was hurt a lot during his physical prime – in his late 20s, early 30s. He had multiple surgeries. He missed a lot of time.
“I just thought, ‘If not now, why would I be healthy and effective in my mid-to-late 30s?” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
This drove Morton. He saw it as a challenge. As his 30s progressed, he continued pursuing greatness. He wanted to reach his potential.
But then there’s family. This is, of course, the most important factor he considers.
“The most valuable commodity is time,” Morton said. “It’s literally priceless. The time I’m spending right now is time that I could be spending with my family. I could be around my wife and my kids. I could be teaching my son how to throw a baseball, or I could be helping with math homework. I could just be an ear, or if someone needs a hug. Or tuck my kids in at night or feed them breakfast in the morning, I could drop them off at school. I could be doing all the things I should be doing.”
Morton feels like he’s done his job as a provider. He’s given his family a good life. His kids will attend good schools. All of that is fine. It isn’t about that anymore.
“At some point, though, if you’re successful enough in the game to get to that point, then it’s not about that anymore,” he said. “It could be about making the most of the opportunity that you have and the dreams that you had when you were a kid.”
There are steps in a career. A player in High A wants to go to Double A. And so on.
“There’s so many things that go into it that when you finally get those opportunities, you have a natural drive to want to make the most of those opportunities,” Morton said. “And I think that’s just inside me. It’s really about the mix of feeling like there’s always a little bit of a dream and drive – because there’s still a part of me that wants my kids to see that. And I’m not saying that they wouldn’t be happy with me home, but I think to some degree, there’s still a drive for me to want to be productive, outside of the house – and for myself.
“If I could still do it, there’s a challenge. It’s not like I’m grandfathered into this. The game doesn’t care. The game will move on tomorrow if I retire today. The game doesn’t care. Yeah, sure, will the guys be like, ‘Oh, he’s a good guy’? I’m sure there’s things you could say about my career – something I accomplished. But at the end of the day, the game doesn’t need me. I’m very aware of that. But I’m also very aware of the fact that my kids do need me. They do. It’s literally a scientific fact.”
Later, Morton said this: “It’s also about feel. If my kids are at home and they’re like, ‘Dad, stop playing,’ it’s really hard.”
After saying all of this, Morton wrapped around to this:
“But those are the thoughts I have going into the offseason, paired with a natural inclination to wanna compete. And to just be a little bit better than I was the year before, and just a little bit better than the day before. I just want to be a little bit better, and I want to feel like I’m making the most of the opportunity that was given to me, a lot of it by luck.”
Got all of that? It’s an example of Morton’s thoughtfulness and reflectiveness.
About his last comment, regarding luck: Morton has done meet-and-greet events or sitdowns on a stage, and parents usually ask him what they need to do for their kid to make it to the big leagues.
“If you have a 10, 12, 13-year-old, your kid is literally in the mix with millions of other people, millions of other young teens,” Morton said about this. “They’re just teenagers. Your kid is a fish in the ocean.”
This is not Morton trying to crush someone’s dreams. He’s simply using this example to lay out the luck he feels he’s experienced in his career. Teams have continued giving him opportunities.
As Morton entered the 2016 season, his stuff was so much better. He also had a new mindset.
He thought like this: “I’m gonna try to enjoy this a little bit. I’m gonna try to enjoy the city, I’m gonna go for walks in the morning, I’m gonna go get some coffee, I’m gonna try to get a feel where I’m at – because I’m winding down.”
He thought it might soon be over.
And then at the end of April, he blew out his hamstring. He missed the rest of the season. The Phillies declined their end of his mutual option.
Then the Astros signed him before the 2017 season. The rest is, as they say, history: He became a different pitcher. He adapted. He evolved.
He pitched for the Astros for two seasons. He won a World Series in 2017. At the end of the 2018 season, he dealt with right shoulder discomfort.
“This might be the end,” he thought.
Then the Rays signed him to a two-year deal. He was an All-Star in 2019, then didn’t pitch well in 2020, though he had a few good postseason starts for a team that went to the World Series.
“Shoot, this might be (the end),” he thought in 2020.
Then the Braves, and others, called after that season.
He has been with Atlanta ever since. Only time will tell if he pitches next season – and if the Braves pick up his option.
“It’s too hard to sum it up and just say, ‘Oh, we’re just taking it day to day,’” Morton said of his future.
There are many factors.