When Michael Morse was last in the Mariners’ clubhouse at the Peoria Sports Complex, he was still in the “be seen, not heard” portion of his career.
He had undeniable tools, and the sort of long, sleek physique that appeals to scouts. But Morse was still feeling his way around and wondering if, or when, his opportunity would come.
“When I was here last time, I’m over at my locker twiddling my fingers, hoping I don’t get called in the office,” he said with a laugh Wednesday morning.
What a contrast four years later. Morse returns as an established major-leaguer, with a new moniker (he’s Michael, not Mike), at least 30 more pounds of bulk, and the relaxed, self-assured bearing of someone who knows he belongs.
Players gravitate now to Morse, who is both seen and heard. On Wednesday, as he did a live interview with MLB Network from the stadium press box, the entire team gathered around the clubhouse television to listen. They roared with laughter as Morse lifted up his leg to display a tattoo honoring his Jamaican roots.
But it’s not Morse’s presence in the clubhouse that most appeals to the Mariners, though that’s a nice bonus. They hope — they need — for Morse to give their lineup some heft, some gravitas, that has been sorely missing in recent years.
It’s not a task he can accomplish alone, of course, but he embraces the part he can play in giving the Mariners some swagger. Even in batting practice, he admits he’s trying to muscle up, leading to the tape-measure shots like the one he hit into the parking lot the other day.
“Your heart’s beating fast. They brought you in because they expected you to hit homers, you’d better launch some stuff in BP,” he said, adding, “I wasn’t trying to hit the ball the other way.”
Two years ago, Morse hit .303 with 31 home runs for the Nationals, far outstripping the journeyman for whom he was traded by the Mariners, Ryan Langerhans. He got a feel for how much his presence was coveted by the Nationals last year when he began the season on the disabled list with a right lateral strain.
After missing two months, he began his minor-league rehabilitation. Just a handful of games into it, Washington GM Mike Rizzo called to tell Morse they needed him in the bigs.
“I had no spring training, nothing,” Morse said. “I’m like, I’m not ready. He said, ‘No, no, just your presence in the lineup is going to help.’ I didn’t really understand that, because I’m striking out, grounding out. It’s not me. I’m still trying to find myself. But just me being in the lineup, they had to pitch a little differently. I really noticed that last year.”
And, he admitted, it was something that made him proud.
“I kind of thought, ‘Wow,’ and patted myself on the shoulder for what I’ve done. After a couple of games, I got my rhythm back.”
Morse says he’s happy to spread the gospel of the Mariners, a team he views much like his former club, the Nationals, a few years ago. They went from also-rans to division champion, although that rise was fueled by fortuitously earning the top draft pick the years that Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were available.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed about this team in the last two days is the amount of young pitching,” Morse said. “They throw hard. They’re good. I know a couple of bad years, you get high picks, whatever it may be. But there’s some talent here that’s ready to be unleashed. I hope I can be a part of it for years to come, to watch this.”
Morse — who is slated to be a free agent after the season — stood in against Taijuan Walker on Tuesday and marveled at the electric stuff.
“Yeah, man, I wasn’t ready for that at all. Especially when they told me he was like 19 (actually 20). This guy is throwing easy 94, 95, whatever it may be. Man. I got a little angry in the box: ‘Come on, Mike, bear down. Show this kid who’s boss.’ Stuff like that just gets you excited for the organization.”
And puts thoughts in Morse’s head about a rise in Seattle that emulates what he experienced in Washington.
“In DC, we had guys like Jordan Zimmerman, Strasburg, Ross Detwiler. These guys were in the minor leagues, Triple A — September call-up type of guys. They were ready to get unleashed. I feel like that’s here. These guys are getting to that point; they might not know, but I’ve seen it. I’ve been part of an organization it’s happened to. It makes me excited, because I know what’s to come. I can’t wait to see it happen. Again.”
Michael Morse is a Mariner — again — and this time bigger and badder than before. Just what this team was looking for.