Kendrys Morales didn’t suffer the most gruesome injury ever seen on a sports telecast. That distinction still belongs to Joe Theismann, 27 years after the quarterback’s right leg was fractured in two places during a Monday Night Football game.
But Morales’ severely broken ankle, sustained in a May 29, 2010, game against the Seattle Mariners, has to rank among the most horrific of athletic accidents. He got hurt at the pinnacle of his young career, while celebrating an achievement — a game-winning grand slam — no ballplayer can expect to duplicate.
Morales dropped his bat at home plate and, 15 seconds later, flipped off his batting helmet in anticipation of pouncing both feet on home plate. Except the pounce became a skid, and the best moment of Morales’ baseball life turned out to be a moment that always will haunt him.
The suddenness of the mood swing was what made the injury so unforgettable. I remember grumbling something about Mariners’ reliever Brandon League, who threw the 10th-inning pitch that enabled Morales to clear the bases, but when I noticed the surrealistic scene of the Angels’ welcoming party — teammates who’d been jumping up and down in childlike jubilation now were standing still, helpless — I stopped grumbling.
Morales was on a tear that spring, following up on his breakout season of 2009, when he finished fifth in the American League MVP voting. He was 26, a Cuban emigrant excelling at the game he loved in the promised land.
But the damage to his ankle was profound. Morales would be forced to sit out the rest of the 2010 season and all of 2011, and though he returned to contribute a solid if not spectacular season for the Angels in 2012 — 22 home runs, 73 RBI, a .273/.320/.467 slash line — this wasn’t the same guy who two years before had hit 10 homers, with 33 RBI, in a single month.
Can he ever be that guy again? It’s possible, but the odds are long. Still, the Mariners will be happy if they get, say, 80 percent of the offensive potential Morales showed before he slipped on home plate.
The Wednesday deal with the Angels that shipped Morales to Seattle in exchange for starting pitcher Jason Vargas found many fans of the Mariners asking: Vargas for whom? Public evaluation of a trade is based on a “what-has-he-done-lately?” mentality. In Vargas’ case, he did a lot.
He won 14 games last season, or one more than perennial Cy Young Award candidate Felix Hernandez. Vargas made 22 starts in which he gave up no more than three earned runs over six innings (defined as a quality start), and though he lacked the stuff to overpower hitters, his craft and guile were reminiscent of Mariners’ fan favorite Jamie Moyer.
Morales, on the other hand, was off the radar screen for a year and a half. He returned as a standard-issue batter in an Angels lineup that boasted Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Torii Hunter.
No, Morales isn’t a big name. (Though it’s bigger than it used to be: The first name is Kendrys, not “Kendry.”) But he’ll occupy a cleanup spot on a team that didn’t have one, and as a switch-hitting first baseman and designated hitter, he’ll afford Mariners manager Eric Wedge some options.
Wedge’s options figure to be endless, because there’s a glut of first basemen-DH types on the roster: Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, recently acquired free agent Jason Bay. If consensus is finally reached on the defensive deficiencies of catcher Jesus Montero, he’ll join that group, too.
But that can be sorted out in spring training. Until then, the Morales-for-Vargas trade is looking as sensible for the Mariners as it is for the Angels. Both players are eligible to free agency after the 2013 season, so both are on a one-year audition.
Vargas, a former Long Beach State star, returns to his Southern California roots. Morales, whose middle-of-the-lineup presence figured to be diminished after the Angels’ acquisition of Josh Hamilton, gets a new start in reconfigured Safeco Field, which hasn’t been as daunting for him (35 hits in 34 games) as it has been for his new teammates.
That the Mariners were the opponents during the best and worst moment of Morales’ career doesn’t seem to faze him. If transcripts are accurate from a Wednesday conference call with reporters, he’s eager to change uniforms.
It was while wearing his old uniform that Morales hit the ninth “walk-off” grand slam in the Angels’ 51-year history.
Walk off? If only. Kendrys Morales was taken off the field on a cart, his career derailed by the cruel and arbitrary whims of email@example.com