Michael Morse returned Saturday to Seattle, the city that star outfielders Josh Hamilton and Justin Upton spurned for warmer climes with more accomplished baseball franchises.
Morse enjoyed the 31/2 seasons he spent with the Washington Nationals, but on Jan. 13, when Nats general manager Mike Rizzo called to inform Morse he’d been traded to the Mariners, the guy with the perpetual smile had reason to smile some more.
Hamilton decided the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim were a better fit for his prodigious power, and Upton deigned Atlanta worthy of his considerable talent. It’s impossible to imagine either as happy as Morse was during the FanFest event at Safeco Field on Saturday.
Almost four years after the Mariners traded him for journeyman outfielder Ryan Langerhans, Morse spent much of the afternoon hugging old friends. Morse being Morse, there were enough old friends to fill a convention hall.
“This is where I pretty much started out,” Morse said as he glanced around Safeco Field from the first base dugout. “There’s ties here. I love this city. The fans are amazing. In cities like this, you want to have a good team.”
While his ability to see sunshine on a cloudy day hasn’t changed, the Michael Morse beginning his second tour with the Mariners hardly resembles Mike Morse,
the kid whose first tour was undermined by tough luck. For one, he’s now Michael, as in the biblical figure who rowed the boat ashore.
For two, the 6-foot-5 Morse looks more like a pro-football tight end than the big-league position player struggling to find a position he could play every day.
“Before I was 215 pounds,” Morse said. “Now I’m about 245. Two different guys.”
The physical transformation has been augmented by an annual winter exercise regimen in Florida arranged by his once and future Mariners teammate Raul Ibañez. The gym sessions, similar to the workouts prospective NFL players participate in before the pre-draft combine, include everything from weightlifting to hot yoga.
Morse “fell in love” with winter training after the 2005 season, and hasn’t wavered in his commitment.
“He’s huge,” outfielder Michael Saunders, who has known Morse since their minor-league days in Tacoma, noted Saturday. “But you know what? He was sort of the same size when he left. He’s just filled out a little bit. He’s on record as saying he left here as a boy and has come back as a man.
“The guy is an animal. He’s known as ‘Beast Mode’ for a reason, right?”
Morse acquired the nickname in Washington, where the opportunity to play regularly led to a 2011 breakout season – he hit .303, with 31 homers and 95 RBI – and his status as a cult favorite among Nationals fans. They put the “Beast Mode” tag on him, and Morse took it from there. He wore a “Beast Mode” T-shirt, not realizing he’d wind up in a major sports market where “Beast Mode” is a synonym for Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch.
“I got a chance to play every day in D.C.,” Morse said, “and turned into ‘The Beast.’”
Morse might have claimed the title of Seattle’s original “Beast Mode,” but his path from the Rainiers to the Mariners was never smooth.
Take Morse’s first at-bat in the bigs. On May 31, 2005, in the seventh inning of what was looking like a lopsided defeat to the Blue Jays at Safeco Field, manager Mike Hargrove called on Morse to pinch-hit for second baseman Bret Boone.
“I saw four or five pitches,” Morse recalled. “The last one was a slider, down and away, for a strikeout. I got back in the dugout and heard ‘Boonie’ tell me, ‘I coulda done that.’”
In the spring of 2008, fresh off his winter workouts, Morse tore up the Cactus League, hitting .492. Spring training stats are dubious – hitters are facing lots of pitchers targeted for Double-A – but, still, .492 is .492.
A few days into the regular season, Morse, playing right field, tore his labrum diving for a ball. His year was done after five games, and so, it seemed, was his career with the Mariners.
They sent him to Tacoma after he survived the final spring-training cut in 2009, then sent him to the Nationals for Langerhans.
Listed as a shortstop when he got to the Mariners in the 2004 trade package from the White Sox for pitcher Freddy Garcia, Morse wasn’t a shortstop. A third baseman? Maybe, sort of, except the Mariners had an exceptional third baseman in Adrian Beltre. A first baseman? Perhaps, but so was Richie Sexson.
Without a position, Morse languished in baseball’s version of purgatory – the I-5 shuttle between Safeco Field and Cheney Stadium – until the Nationals called.
And yet Morse recalls those days fondly. Despite the awkward baptism against Blue Jays reliever Scott Downs, Morse hit .300 during his four-season, 107-game career in Seattle.
Now he’s home. Well, not exactly – home for Morse is in south Florida – but back in a place where he perhaps belonged all along.
Why such affection for a city he’s experienced only in increments?
“The restaurants,” Morse said. “The restaurants are the best, hands down. Really, it’s a little bit of everything. This is a beautiful city, man. This is the Emerald City.”
Home of the Beasts.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com