The major league scouts weren’t there for Charlie Morton that spring day in 2001 at Brookfield. They were there to watch a young lefty named Tim Rice, who’d go on to pitch at the University of Richmond and in the minors.
“The top half of the first inning, they had the guns on Tim,” Joel Barlow athletic director Mike Santangeli said. “And here comes Charlie for the bottom of the first. You heard Charlie’s fastball. You didn’t see it.”
Two scouts, one from the Pirates, one from the Red Sox, approached after the game and asked to speak to the junior right-hander.
“The next year, everything started to get a little crazy,” said Santangeli, who was Barlow’s varsity assistant coach at the time. “You knew he was getting a lot of attention when there’d be like 30 scouts at all his pitching performances. They were all up the right-field line at Barlow with their radar guns.
“We knew he’d get drafted, but no one gave us a sense of how high. No one told us. We’re thinking like 10th to 12th round.”
No, it wasn’t seventh overall in the first round like Groton’s Matt Harvey or 11th overall like New Britain’s George Springer, but Morton did go in the third round to the Atlanta Braves, the 95th pick in 2002. Plans to go to college, perhaps Miami, ended with a tidy signing bonus.
“We were in a state of shock he went so early,” Santangeli said. “He was in a state of shock. We were ecstatic for him. He was happy, but it wasn’t like he was all pumped up, pumping his fist, running around. Just a big smirk on his face. He felt good about it.
“Obviously, it was recognized around the school, but he didn’t want a lot of attention drawn on himself. He kind of kept it under the radar. Even in high school, he was this really calm kid. Nothing flustered him. It was to the point, ‘Charlie, nothing gets you riled up?’ He was always this steady, easy-going kid. I’m convinced it’s worked in his favor in his life.”
The numbers are dramatic, irresistible. Morton went 46-71 in the first nine years of his career with the Braves, Pirates and Phillies. In the past four years, he has gone 47-18 in the regular season and 7-1 in the playoffs. He has established himself as king of the winner-take-all games.
“I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable,” Morton said on Zoom after he threw 52/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Astros to push the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series. “But after the first couple, when I actually realized that I could do it, it became something that I kind of look forward to a little bit.”
Morton is 4-0 with all the postseason money on the table, allowing one run in 192/3 innings, an electron-microscopic ERA of 0.46. In 2017 with the Astros, he became the only pitcher to win two Games 7s in one postseason, beating the Yankees in the ALCS before pitching the final four innings against the Dodgers in the World Series.
Charlie Morton, who signed a two-year, $15 million-a-year deal with the Rays before the 2019 season, grew up a Yankees fan. Derek Jeter and Roger Clemens were his guys.
“I’m a big Yankees fan, too, and we used to talk about it all the time in high school,” Santangeli said. “Since then, I’ve been like, ‘Why couldn’t you have been like Andy Pettitte and done all this for the Yankees?’”
Chip Morton, a former Penn State basketball player, moved his family from Trumbull to Redding before Charlie entered the ninth grade. Charlie was born in Flemington, New Jersey. A point that still rankles Santangeli.
“It doesn’t help during the broadcast when they always say Charlie’s from New Jersey,” he said. “I can’t tell you how upset I get about that. C’mon guys, he basically spent his entire childhood in Connecticut. Not from New Jersey!”
Morton played youth baseball in Trumbull with Cubs director of pitching Craig Breslow and Jamie D’Antona, who both got to the majors.
“We didn’t know who Charlie was at first,” Santangeli said. “I was only in my second year of teaching, the JV coach at that point. I was introduced to Charlie at pitcher-catcher week.
“All of a sudden we’re like, ‘Oh, my God. This kid has a live arm.’”
No, Morton didn’t pitch Trumbull to the Little League World Series title to become the most famous 13-year-old in state history. And no, Chris Drury never threw a fastball 96 mph like Morton. Still, there is a good comparison to be drawn.
Mature, calm, careful in his words, driven in clutch situations, Drury went on to score 17 NHL playoff game winners, tied for sixth in Stanley Cup history. When the pulse on everyone else raced, the pulse of these two Connecticut athletes dropped.
“I think Charlie has been smart about where he has chosen to pitch,” Santangeli said. “It’s not New York and L.A. I think he likes the calmness of a place like Tampa. He just always has had the ability to not look at any situation any different than any other one. Up by 10 or bases loaded and nobody out, same demeanor always.”
When it rained, Charlie’s parents would have the entire Barlow varsity over to practice in their basement. There was a batting cage. There were two mounds.
“Obviously, they had a very large home,” Santangeli said. “His mom (Jeanne) would make sandwiches for the kids. We’d socialize a little. It was kind of the ultimate experience with the Mortons. They are great people. The greatest part about Charlie is he never thought he was better than anybody. Ultimate teammate.”
His former Astros teammate Lance McCullers, whom Morton beat in Game 7, was saying the same thing about Morton last week. His Rays teammate Kevin Kiermaier said he didn’t think it’s possible for anyone to dislike Morton.
“He’s not a guy who looks for attention,” Santangeli said. “He does his job and he’s doing it at such a high level now that he’s a top-five pitcher in major league baseball.”
Although right-shoulder inflammation curtailed Morton to nine starts in the COVID-shortened season, he finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2019 and he’s returned to that elite status in the postseason.
There were hip surgeries in 2011 and 2014. There was Tommy John surgery in 2012. There was a severe hamstring injury in 2016. More than the injuries, there were two major pitching transformations. This guy has reinvented himself more times than Cher.
With the Pirates, Morton duplicated Roy Halladay’s delivery. He went to 60 percent sinkerballs. His became known as “Ground Chuck.” When he got to Houston, healthy, he underwent more work. He brought his fastball velocity up 4, 5 mph, an anomaly at his age. And now this year he is using all four pitches to throw an ungodly amount of first-pitch strikes.
“I remember he came to visit two, three years after graduation, he’s bringing us boxes of hand warmers and foot warmers,” Santangeli said. “I asked him, ‘How’s it going, Charlie?’ He’s like, ‘Coach, I hit my spots when I throw my bullpens, but when I get out in the game’ … That’s the way he was in high school, a little erratic. He had trouble harnessing everything he had.
“The Braves broke down his mechanics and rebuilt them and he shot up to the majors. I remember the conversation because he sounded kind of desperate, because he knew he had the ability.”
He did. And now there are kids who walk around Barlow’s halls with Charlie Morton jerseys. Folks around Redding and Easton and the staff at Barlow like to brag about him. He was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 2015.
“He couldn’t make the ceremony; he was in the wedding party of one of his teammates,” Santangeli said. “He always says he’ll come back for the kids when he retires. I’m waiting for that day.”
A reason Morton signed with the Rays is because his home is in nearby Bradenton. The Rays hold an option year on Morton and if they want him, he said he will return. If not, he will sit with his family for a decision on his future. He’ll be 37 in November and it’s incredible that a power pitcher became this terrific at such a late pitching age.
“Here’s a guy smart enough to re-invent himself multiple times to be successful,” Santangeli said. “That’s him. That’s what people have to understand about Charlie. He never believed that he was this unbelievable athlete or person. He is as even-keeled and coachable as you are ever going to find.
“All this couldn’t have happened to a better person. Period. End of story.”
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