cocoa, Fla. — Joe Morgan has no regrets about leaving Cincinnati after all those years of glory. On the contrary, he thinks his return to Houston was a master stroke of good timing -- both for him and the Astros. He fully expects to prove that he's not over the hill -- and in the process to help lead his new club to the top.
"I still feel I can play as well as I ever did," said the effervescent little second baseman who was the National League's Most Valuable Player in both 1975 and 1976 while leading the Reds to two straight world championships but has had three disappoiting seasons since then.
"The injuries I've had the last three years have been to the worst places for me -- all in the front of my body," he said at the Astros' training camp here. "A little guy like me has gotta be quick, gotta be able to turn quickly to generate bat speed. Otherwise I'm trying to do it all with my arms, and that makes me just a normal hitter -- not even that, really, because I'm not big and strong.
"Also, maybe I need more time to recover now. Maybe I didn't admit that before and tried to come back too soon."
Whatever the reason, Morgan hasn't been the player lately that he was in the early and mid-1970s. For three straight years he hit in the .290s and displayed an incredible combination of speed and power by averaging better than 20 home runs, 70 RBIs, and 60 stolen bases. And this was just a warmup!
In 1975 little Joe (he's only 5 ft. 7 in. and 160 pounds) really put it all together, batting .327 with 17 homers, 94 RBIs, 67 steals, and playing his usual brilliant defensive game enroute to the MVP award. What could he do for an encore? Well, how about .320, 27 homers, 111 RBIs, 60 steals, and another MVP trophy?
In 1977 he had a fairly good year although his statistics were down a bit, but the last two years were disasters -- batting averages of .236 and .250, slugging totals as low as nine homers and 32 RBIs, and even the stolen bases falling off to 19 and 28.
Few teams showed much interest when he became a free agent last fall, but the Astros eventually decided to take a chance.
The move to Houston completes a full circle for Morgan, a native of Bonham, Texas, who was signed to his first pro contract by the Astros in 1963 and played his first seven big league seasons with them (1965-71) before being traded to Cincinnati.
It was with the Reds, though, that Joe became a big star and played on so many great teams. Didn't he feel a wrench or two leaving Cincinnati after all that?
"It's always difficult to move," he said. "It was difficult when I went from here to there eight years ago."
But isn't this different?
"Why?" he parried.
Well, in 1972 he was leaving what had become a bad situation for him and going to a real top team.
"Maybe now I'm doing the same thing," he said. "Actually, it's easier this time. Back then I was traded. This time it was my own decision to go. I felt it was best for me. And do you think this team can't beat Cincinnati? When you have pitching like ours, you've gotta have a chance. And we have a lot of young players who are going to improve. I think this club will score more runs than it did last year."
But can anything really match the excitement of playing for the Big Red Machine?
"It was a very special team with some very special guys," Morgan agreed. "Theere may never be another team like it. But the team I left wasn't the same anymore. A lot of those guys are gone now. Pete Rose is gone, Tony Perez is gone, Sparky Anderson is gone -- Joe Morgan is gone! Maybe the change is over there, with the Reds -- not with me!
"People keep asking me if i'm mad at the Reds . How can I be mad? If anybody had told me when I was 12 years old that I would have the career I've had -- playing on all those winning teams, two world championships in a row, MVP to straight years, five gold gloves, and all the rest, I'd have kissed him."
No one is more aware than Morgan, though, that the only thing that counts now is how he performs for the Astros. And the first order of business is to to win the second base job from Rafael Landestoy, who hit .305 over the last 68 games in 1979 and was, in the words of Manager Bill Virdon, "our most productive player in the last month."
"That's what I hear." Joe said to me, obviously not pleased with being put in such a position at this stage of his career. "As far as I'm concerned, a 100 percent Joe Morgan has already proved that he's the best second baseman in the National League. If I'm free of injuries, I don't think i have to win a job. But of course that's not my decision."
One obvious solution would be to move one of these two somewhere else where perhaps the competition isn't so strong, but it's equally obvious that Morgan isn't very enthusiastic about the switchee.
"I don't want to discuss any hypothetical questions," he said. "When something happens, that's when I'll make whatever adjustments or decisions I have to make."