Campaign trail may lead 'Mayor' Morris to Milwaukee
Demanding season in hometown at Double-A prepares beloved prospect for bigs
PHOENIX -- The mayor of Huntsville, Ala., is the honorable Tommy Battle, elected in 2008 and re-elected last August with 81 percent of the vote. Battle must have been surprised last spring when he visited the local baseball team and was approached by shortstop-turned-outfielder Josh Prince, who shook the mayor's hand and asked a strange question.
"Would you like to meet the Mayor?"
Battle was game.
So he walked over and shook Hunter Morris' hand.
"Hunter was such a goodwill ambassador for our area," Battle said. "I was happy to share the name with him."
The Double-A Huntsville Stars had barely chalked the foul lines at old Joe Davis Stadium when Morris was nicknamed "The Mayor." It was a nod to his local roots, his campaign-ready smile and his politician's knack for working the autograph line.
Morris was Huntsville born and bred, a five-year varsity letterwinner at Grissom High who played college ball 200 miles down the road at Auburn. The Brewers made Morris a fourth-round Draft pick in 2010 and he rose fast, making it to Huntsville for four games at the end of 2011 and a season-opening assignment for 2012.
For Morris, it meant literally going home. He lived with his wife and 2-year-old son in the same house to which his own parents had brought baby Hunter home from the hospital. Six months later, the Morrises moved into a new home across the street.
So Morris was the Stars' most popular player before hitting the first of his 28 home runs, before he batted .303, drove in 113 runs and became the team's first league MVP since Corey Hart in 2003. Manager Darnell Coles could see what was coming -- Morris was about to be the face of a team that needed all the free advertising it could get, and there would be interview requests, school and hospital visits, baseball clinics and hundreds and hundreds of autographs.
Coles called Morris into the manager's office early in the year to make sure he was ready.
"He's an exceptional young man," Coles said. "He knew there was pressure playing at home."
Based on conversations with Morris, Coles and the Stars' former media relations director, Jill Cacic, here is a not-so-unusual day:
• Rise between 7 and 9:30 a.m., depending on how late Tripp Morris was willing to let Dad sleep. Breakfast, followed by a drive with Tripp to daycare.
• A midday visit to a school to read to kids; or a hospital, where Morris would listen to stories from patients whose cousin had a son who played Little League ball with Morris, and, man, could Morris hit. Or a radio interview -- he did a lot of those -- drumming up interest in the team.
• At the ballpark by 1 p.m. to start prepping for the game. Brewers infield coordinator Bob Miscik had conceived a plan before the season to improve Morris' defense, so Morris was worked daily by Coles, a 14-year Major Leaguer who played all over the diamond. For the first week, Coles said he would go to Morris and say, "Let's go." After that, it was Morris knocking on the manager's door.
• Batting practice, followed by some face time. Alex Cohen, the team's radio voice, said a mixture of family, friends and fans would line up next to the dugout every day for a hello, a photo or an autograph. Then Cacic would lead Morris out to a private party area, where the Stars hosted birthday parties that came with a visit from a player. Morris was always the No. 1 pick.
• Finally, game time. This was often the best part of Morris' day. He was an easy pick for Brewers Minor League Player of the Year.
• Postgame. Before he showered and tied up the day's loose ends, Morris would bid Tripp and wife Macie goodnight -- if Tripp wasn't busy with something else. He became an unofficial team mascot, so popular the Stars featured him on a bobblehead doll with Dad.
Sleep, and repeat.
Another day in the life of The Mayor. The "real" Mayor took note.
"He was much more involved than we've seen in the past from other players," Battle said. "Maybe it was because he knew the people, because he was from here. But you knew he was going to be a leader. Those kinds of actions make your community proud."
Did Morris ever get tired of it?
"There were days when it was pressing," Morris said. "But going forward in my career, now I've learned how to balance all of the things in my life, from my wife and my son to my friends and everything else, and still be successful on the baseball field. The next couple of steps, I'll be away from some of that a little bit and the focus can be even more on baseball."
Cohen, the radio man, noticed something along the way. Amid all of the distractions, Morris was actually better -- much better -- at home, even though the Stars play in a spacious park. He batted .327 and slugged .626 at Joe Davis Stadium, vs. .280 and .504 on the road.
"I found that to be pretty phenomenal," Cohen said. "I'm sure there were times he was happy to get out on the road for a while to sort of get away from it all. But if that was the case, he didn't show it. His play didn't suffer. His attitude didn't suffer."
Scooter Gennett, who played next to Morris at second base, knows the challenge of playing in front of friends and family.
Gennett's family moved to Sarasota, Fla., when he was 10 years old and he visited neighboring Bradenton in 2011 while playing for the Brewers' Florida State League affiliate. Gennett had three singles in 17 at-bats during a four-game series -- and finished the year with a .300 average.
"It was my first time playing in front of everyone at the same time," Gennett said. "I don't think I put together any good at-bats. I was trying to do too much. I had to learn from it. What Hunter did over a full season was pretty incredible."
Morris passed his 2012 test with flying colors. Now, he is trying to get going at the plate in his first big league camp, either headed for a calmer season at Triple-A Nashville or maybe a trip to Milwaukee. The Brewers have uncertainty at first base while Hart recovers from knee surgery, and Morris -- ranked No. 5 among the team's top prospects.-- is one option.
Morris was 0-for-13 to start the spring but had three hits in his next eight at-bats entering Monday's game against the Dodgers, albeit in diminished playing time.
"Once he got that first hit, he relaxed and his at-bats are definitely better," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said. "He does see the ball well, even before he got hits I could see why he has been successful in the Minor Leagues. He is not up there free-swinging. There are some things, mechanically, that I know [hitting coach] Johnny Narron is trying to address, not necessarily to perform in the Minor Leagues well, but we're thinking when he gets to the big leagues, some things that would help him be more consistent. … Defensively, he needs to work and he needs to continue to get better. If he continues to do those things, we'll see what ends up happening."
Brewers officials have surely asked Coles' opinion: Is Morris ready to make the jump?
"That question is hard to answer," Coles said. "At some point in time, he's ready. Every situation presents challenges, and this is a challenging one for him. He just needs to keep working to be in a position to get that opportunity."
Some of the details of the Morris story seem too good to be true. Like the one time all year the scoreboard crew in Huntsville played the Auburn fight song as Morris stepped to the plate.
Naturally, he hit a home run.
"He's The Mayor," Coles said with a shrug.
Battle will need new co-mayor this season, because Morris is surely moving on. On a few occasions last season, when Battle visited Joe Davis Stadium to throw a ceremonial first pitch, Morris served as the catcher.
Mayor to Mayor.
"We're hoping to see him in the big leagues some day," Battle said. "This is the type of problem we love to have -- enjoying a player like this and then letting him go."