Charlie Morton wanted to stay with the Rays.
But when they declined his $15 million option for 2021, he signed with the Braves, one of the few teams he also considered a fit. That turned out well, as Morton on Tuesday will start Game 1 of the World Series in Houston.
If some things had worked out differently and others the same Morton instead could have been pitching the opener at Tropicana Field, as the Rays would have had homefield advantage over the Braves.
Instead, he will be the most visible of a dozen-plus Tampa Bay links to the Series, a list of former Rays players and staffers, and a couple of local products, that will represent the Braves and Astros.
For Morton, who relished pitching for the Rays while living with his wife and four kids year-round in their Bradenton-area home, the move to the Braves — with whom he started his big-league career in 2008 — was initially challenging.
After spending seven seasons with the Pirates, Morton, who turns 38 in November, has been on the move, traded to the Phillies for the 2016 season, then signing with the Astros for 2017-18, with the Rays for 2019-20, then with the Braves for the same $15 million the Rays passed on.
He grew to enjoy being with the Braves (going 14-6, 3.34) so much that in September he agreed to stick around, signing a 2022 contract for $20 million, with a $20 million option for 2023.
“I’ve made a concerted effort to try to connect with people as deeply as possible when I got to spring training and onward, but it’s hard to do that and learn how to do that, like, every other year, which is what I’ve been doing since 2016,” Morton said during the National League Championship Series. “But I’ve found myself rooting for a lot of guys on this team very naturally and easily, because I know that they’re good dudes.
“I think at the core of success, as a team, guys just have to care about each other, and I think this group does. I think this group cares a lot about each other. And I know just watching …how the guys have really embodied that — excited for each other, encouraging each other, screaming at each other in a positive way, and just genuinely happy for teammates, to see teammates succeed.”
As with the Rays, Morton said his drive for pitching in the postseason — which he is doing for the fifth straight year and sixth overall (plus being on two Pirates teams that lost in the wild-card game) — is doing his part to help the team. And he does it very well, going 7-4, 3.45 in 15 playoff starts.
“The most special moments that I’ve had in my career I would say … those are the underlying similarities, just, like, man, ‘I did it,’” Morton said. “I didn’t let the guys down, the team down. I didn’t let the organization down. The fans. That’s just obviously on the field. But that’s what I’ll remember is probably that feeling of just kind of just some relief that I was able to do it.”
Here are some of the others with Tampa Bay ties involved in the World Series:
Catcher Travis d’Arnaud (with Rays 2019): Like Morton, signed with Braves after not re-signing with Rays and re-upped, getting a second two-year, $16 million deal, plus a 2024 option. Hit .220 with seven homers and 26 RBIs this season, limited to 60 games due to injury.
Pitcher Drew Smyly (with Rays 2014-16): Continuing comeback after 2017-18 injuries following trade to Mariners, went 11-4, 4.48 this season. Spent 2019 with Rangers and Phillies, 2020 with Giants.
Outfielder Guillermo Heredia (with Rays 2019): As with Rays and others, provides depth and energy off the bench (and waves a mean plastic sword in celebrations).
Pitcher Jesse Chavez (with Rays 2009 offseason): Acquired from Pirates for infielder Akinori Iwamura, then traded to Braves a month later for closer Rafael Soriano, who had a majors-leading 45-save, All-Star season in 2010.
Others: Catcher Stephen Vogt played for Rays in 2012, outrighted off Braves active roster Oct. 8 after playing in 26 games; batting practice pitcher Tomas Perez played for Rays in 2006, shares team record with a five-hit game; catching coach Sal Fasano played for Rays’ Triple-A Durham team in 2002; massage therapist Nate Leet with Rays 2004-17.
Reliever Ryne Stanek (with Rays 2017-19): Struggled following July 2019 trade to Marlins (in Nick Anderson deal) but was a workhorse late-inning reliever after signing this year with Houston, going 3-5, 3.42 in 72 games.
Pitcher Jake Odorizzi (with Rays 2013-17): Had inconsistent season (6-7, 4.21) after signing three-year, $20.25 million deal with Astros in March but may play key role in Series due to injuries.
Outfielder Kyle Tucker (Plant High, Class of 2015): Lefty swinger, 24, emerged as major part of Houston lineup, hitting .294 with 30 homers, 92 RBIs, .917 OPS during the season and .275-4-15-.935 in 10 postseason games.
Starter Lance McCullers Jr. (Jesuit High, Class of 2012): Ace of Astros staff (13-5, 3.16) has been sidelined since division series due to forearm injury.
Others: General manager James Click spent 15 years with Rays, starting in 2005 as an intern before leaving in January 2020 as vice president of baseball operations; TV analyst Geoff Blum is a former Rays infielder, and play-by-play man Todd Kalas is a former longtime member of Rays broadcast crew.
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