Cardinals HOF candidate Morris reflects

Now five years retired, former 20-game winner fondly remembers time in St. Louis

Cardinals HOF candidate Morris reflects

Matt Morris lives in Big Sky, Mont., a small city in southwestern Montana which is more than 700 miles from the nearest Major League Baseball city.

The former Cardinals right-hander is quietly removed from the game, spending retirement with his wife and five young children.

"And it's almost by choice," Morris said. "I love the game, I love the Cardinals, I love the fans, but it's also a great memory for me. Sometimes it's easier to be away from it."

As a candidate for the new Cardinals Hall of Fame, Morris could be in line for a return to the spotlight, and a trip back to the city where his Major League career began. Morris, now 39, is one of eight modern St. Louis legends who have an opportunity to be among the first enshrined in the new Cardinals Hall of Fame gallery located in the soon-to-be-opened Ballpark Village.

From now until April 22, fans can vote at Cardinals.com/HOF for up to two of the eight candidates -- Morris, Keith Hernandez, Jim Edmonds, Bob Forsch, Willie McGee, Mark McGwire, Ted Simmons and Joe Torre.

The top two vote-getters will be enshrined during an Aug. 16 ceremony at Ballpark Village, joining the 22 Cards who received automatic induction because they are either already in the National Baseball Hall of Fame or have had their number retired by the organization.

Morris -- the 12th overall pick by the Cardinals in the 1995 First-Year Player Draft -- played nine seasons in St. Louis, beginning his big league career in 1997 with a strong rookie year. Thrust into a starting role due to injuries in St. Louis' rotation, he won 12 games, posting a 3.19 ERA in 33 starts his debut season. Morris tied for second in the National League Rookie of the Year Award voting behind Scott Rolen.

"Once I had the chance, there was no looking back," Morris said. "I think at that time in my career, I didn't know that much. I wasn't full of all these results and history with batters, so I went into it kind of naive.

"I just kind of went out and attacked everybody and didn't think about who I was facing, even though I watched those guys on TV growing up. Whether it was Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn or some of those guys, I just had a desire to get them out; beat them in the one-on-one battle."

Tommy John surgery caused Morris to miss the entire 1999 season, and relegated him to a relief role in 2000. But in 2001, a healthy Morris had his best big league season, going 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA and a career-best 185 strikeouts en route to the first of two All-Star appearances.

"[1999] was the first time in my life I hadn't played baseball, and I realized how important it used to be, and it kind of makes me a whole person," Morris said. "Having [Tommy John surgery] behind me and being physically better, I just went out there with a new desire."

Though Morris never replicated his 2001 season, he battled through injuries to post solid numbers for the remainder of a successful Cards tenure. In 2005, he signed with the San Francisco Giants as a free agent, ending his time in St. Louis with a 101-62 record, a 3.61 ERA and 986 strikeouts through 1,377 1/3 innings (206 starts, 31 relief appearances).

"[2001] was a special year. My teammates bailed me out when I needed them; they were there for me, and that always makes for a good season," Morris said. "That year, everything kind of came together. The years after that, not that I didn't try, I obviously wanted to win 20 [games] every year, but it's just something that's hardly done."

While in St. Louis, Morris' Cardinals teams reached the postseason five times, advancing to the World Series in 2005, and as far as the NL Championship Series three other years.

"I think Walt Jocketty, with obviously Dave Duncan and Tony La Russa, did a great job of getting the right guys around," Morris said. "Not only did we compete and play well, but we stuck up for each other and we wanted everybody to do well. I think that was important. We didn't always have the best players, but we had some of the best teams."

Although Morris -- now more than five years into retirement -- has shifted his focus from baseball to fatherhood, the St. Louis fans are never far from his mind.

"It's one of those things that you really don't know what you have until you're gone," Morris said. "Signing with San Francisco and then getting traded to Pittsburgh were all great experiences, but it was really nothing like being in the Cardinal family and the respect and the knowledge of the fans.

"They understood the game, they appreciate hard work, and I tried to deliver that. And it starts to snowball; the longer you're there, the closer you feel to the fans. They were fantastic, without a doubt."

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.