When Charlie Morton was growing up in New Jersey and Connecticut, his family loved baseball and the Yankees so much that they showed up to watch spring training once in the rain. He recalls seeing one dedicated soul out there, running.
The Mortons stopped the player as he tried to get back into what was then called Legends Field in Tampa and found him to be obliging when they asked him for an autograph. “It was Joe Girardi,” Morton said at Yankee Stadium on Sunday afternoon, a day before what he acknowledged will be the biggest game of his career for the Astros against Girardi’s Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series.
Morton has had a somewhat anonymous career in the Braves, Pirates and Phillies organizations, in part because he has had Tommy John surgery and various other medical issues. But analytics experts have appreciated the 6-5 righthander, especially in recent seasons, when he has put up good numbers against lefthanded batters. (The son of an accountant, Morton always has been a numbers aficionado.) He has increased his velocity and rewarded the Astros with his best season — 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA — and earned his club’s trust to make the start of his life.
It means the world to him to pitch at Yankee Stadium, next door to the old ballpark he used to visit. He spoke Sunday about listening to WFAN, watching Roger Clemens throw a bullpen session, rooting for Andy Pettitte and David Cone, having Derek Jeter pose with his sister at a Bahama Breeze restaurant, “just being a good dude.”
“I remember when I was little, really wanting a Don Mattingly rookie card,” the 33-year-old said. “And I never got it.”
He realizes what Game 3 means to his family. “I can’t speak for them exactly, but I know the Yankees were the team that we followed,’’ he said. “My dad grew up in Syosset, Long Island, and we grew up in Trumbull and Redding, Connecticut. This was our team.”
Now the Astros are his team, one that he says “I’m humbled to be a part of.” He has a chance to give Houston a 3-0 series lead and to finally make a name for himself.
And do not believe what is said about him on a popular website, that he is a scion of the Morton’s Steakhouse family. “There’s a former Pirate who loved to get on Wikipedia — a former righthanded relief pitcher who threw a lot of sinkers,” he said, in a description that kind of fits former teammate Jason Grilli.
Morton and his current teammates know what they are up against Monday: The Astros needed gems by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander to squeak out a pair of 2-1 wins at home. The Yankees figure to be even better in the Bronx.
But maybe the former Yankees fan can surprise them. Said Keuchel: “When he comes out throwing 96, 97 with sink and a devastating curveball and people are freaking out because he’s so nasty . . . I’ve seen that all year. I’ll take him against anybody.”