By Bob Nightengale |
It was the brawl that ended one career, a violent collision that prevented injury to one of the game’s biggest stars, sparing another a colossal suspension, and leaving one filled with remorse.
It was one year ago on Tuesday that San Francisco Giants closer Hunter Strickland threw a 98-mph fastball into Washington Nationals All-Star right fielder Bryce Harper’s right hip.
It ignited a Memorial Day brawl that left Giants outfielder Michael Morse with a concussion that ended not only his season, but his career; a punch that Giants starter Jeff Samardzija got so close to throwing at Harper’s face, but never got off; and a perplexing scene in which Giants All-Star catcher Buster Posey knew what was coming, and simply watched.
“It’s a shame my last game had to be so ironic,’’ Morse, 36, told USA TODAY Sports, “but it’s not something I sit around and dwell on. It happened; what are you going to do?’’
Morse, who was planning to retire after the 2016 season until talking to GM Bobby Evans at Giants outfielder Hunter Pence’s wedding, wasn’t sure how long he was going to be able to stick around, anyways. He was hitting just .194 with one homer and three RBI in 24 games, and the Giants were on their way to a 67-95 season.
“The way I figure it, I was playing with house money,’’ Morse says. “I wasn’t really planning on playing last year. So, it was my last hurrah.
“Maybe the concussion thing was God’s way of saying, ‘It’s time to take it to the house, man. You have no business being here.’’’
Morse, recently hired to be a part-time analyst on the Nationals’ pre-game and postgame telecasts, no longer seeks treatment for his post-concussion symptoms. Yet, when he gets a headache now, they are much more severe than at any time before the concussion.
Samardzija, who was on his way to inflict punishment on Harper before Morse got in his way, never went on the DL. Still, he felt the remnants of the collision, involving two 6-foot-5 men weighing a combined 470 pounds, as recently as this spring.
“Morse was a mess after that, it’s a shame that how it ended for him,’’ Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “Samardzija felt it, too. This spring, he had some neck things going on after that happened. Two big men colliding like that, and they were running pretty good.’’
Strickland, who was seeking revenge from the 2014 National League Division Series in which Harper hit two homers off him, staring at Strickland after the last one, wasn’t injured either, but was suspended six games by Major League Baseball compared to Harper’s four-game suspension.
The only real injury was the blow to his reputation, leaving him with lingering regret.
“You hear things like I ended his career,’’ Strickland said, “so sure, obviously, I feel bad for Mike. You never know how things would have played out, but that was the end of his career.
“That was a mistake I made personally, and a decision I made, but you’ve just got to move forward and forget about it. You deal with the consequences.’’
The premeditated decision to hit Harper even threatened to divide the Giants’ clubhouse. Strickland told his teammates that if he ever got a chance to face Harper again, he would deliberately hit him. And if Harper charged the mound, Strickland pleaded with Posey and others not to stop him. He wanted a piece of Harper himself.
Still, it looked awkward and Posey felt uncomfortable standing there and watching Harper charge the mound. Posey stood off to the side, provoking debate throughout baseball whether he still should have tried to stop Harper.
Now, one year later, if Strickland had to do it all over again, he says he wouldn’t retaliate.
“When I saw Strickland, that’s the first thing he said to me,’’ said Giants special adviser Dusty Baker, who was managing the Nationals at the time. “He told me he was sorry it happened. I said, ‘You do what you want to do, but you have to suffer the consequences.’
“When you start a brawl like that, you don’t come out to dance. You come out to fight. And that’s what happened. It’s just a shame (Morse) got hurt, never getting over that concussion.’’
Harper, a five-time All-Star and 2015 MVP winner who leads the National League with 15 homers, vividly remembers the day a year later. He remembers charging toward Strickland, firing his helmet toward him, and the punches that were thrown.
But most of all, the look in Samardzija’s eyes as he raced towards him, only for Morse to step in front of him, acting as peacemaker.
“I texted Mikey Mo afterwards and said, ‘Thank you for getting in front of me,’’ Harper said. “I don’t know what would have happened, but just the way Samardzija came out there, he saw blood for sure.
“I really haven’t kept in contact with him much after that, but I’ll always remember what he did for me.’’
Morse may have saved Samardzija, too. One Giants coach is convinced that if Morse hadn’t rushed in to protect Harper, his former Nationals teammate in 2012, “he would have broken his jaw. There’s no question in my mind.’’
If Harper, one of the game’s greatest stars, was sidelined with a major injury caused by a brawl, guess who might have received the mother of all suspensions?
“It might have been the best thing that happened to me,’’ Samardzija says. “I might have been suspended for years if I hurt that kid, the prodigal son.’’
Would he have hurt him?
“Maybe in a parallel universe, we would know what happened there,’’ Samardzija says, “but the one we currently live in, it didn’t happen. So we will never know.
“It was a crazy time. It wasn’t that I was mad. My buddy was just in a fight. To me, it’s as simple as that. If guys are going out there and pushing and shoving, you can kind of play patron. But when punches are thrown, it’s no longer in a baseball setting anymore. It’s time to go out there and protect your guys.
“I don’t think I was going to hit him. I was just going to kind of football-plow him in a way. I think. I guess we’ll never really know.’’
Samardzija still keeps in regular contact with Morse, a 13-year veteran . They share stories about their young kids. Morse, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and owns a boat, regales Samardzija with his latest fishing ventures off the Florida coast and the Bahamas.
And, yes, they talk about tMay 29, 2017, the last day Morse would wear a baseball uniform.
“We talk about it a lot, me and him,’’ Samardzija says. “You don’t want to see anybody get hurt, especially to your own guy. I hated that it happened because he’s a guy that’s so great to be around.
“But that’s the crazy thing about sports, right? You can’t control everything. It happens, man. At least we can joke about it now.
“It’ll probably be funnier down the road.’’
Morse, who won a World Series title in San Francisco, and will forever be remembered for his game-tying, pinch-hit homer in Game 5 of the 2014 NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, insists there are no hard feelings. Baseball treated him too well – he grossed about $35 million in salary and won a World Series ring – to be angry at anyone.
“Really, I’m fine with everything,’’ Morse says, “and physically I’m good. I’m more sensitive to a couple of things since the concussion, like when I get a headache, I really get a headache. But besides that, I’m fine.
“I’ve got no regrets, man. None. Come on, how could I?’’