By IAN WILSON
It was a season fit for a king – it was so good that Greg Morrison took not one crown, but three from it.
During 69 games with the 1997 Medicine Hat Blue Jays, Morrison hit .448, swatted 23 home runs and drove in 88 runs on his way to the Pioneer League’s triple crown. The home run record still stands.
“It was a magical year,” Morrison told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“It’s a mindset you always strive to be in. That zone. I just felt I was there and I held it the whole year. I just wished it was 150 games.”
Twenty years ago this week, the season had wrapped up, but the accolades continued to roll in for the first baseman and outfielder.
The Unity, Saskatchewan-born product had been named the Toronto Blue Jays’ minor league player of the month for both July and August, he won player of the year for the Hat Jays and he took home Pioneer League MVP honours. Meanwhile, both Baseball America and Sports Illustrated found Morrison’s story newsworthy and did articles on him.
Adding to his record-breaking success that year was the fact that Morrison was raised in Medicine Hat, and local fans were dreaming of an end scenario where one of their own would graduate from the Baby Jays to the Toronto Blue Jays. The 1,632nd overall selection in the 1994 draft had the same dream.
“I had aspirations of being the guy from Medicine Hat playing in Toronto. That would’ve been pretty cool,” said Morrison.
Everything was looking up for the left-handed power hitter, who was preparing for instructional camp in Dunedin, Florida in mid-September of 1997. Morrison told the Medicine Hat News that he planned to hit the gym and work on his diet in advance of his date with Toronto’s baseball brass.
It was all quite the turnaround for Morrison, who had been drafted by the L.A. Dodgers but was released after just two seasons.
During his first stint in the Pioneer League with the Great Falls Dodgers, the 19-year-old hit .323 with 30 RBI in 55 games, but he only registered two home runs. In 1996, Morrison reported to the Savannah Sand Gnats of the South Atlantic League (SAL), where his batting average dropped to .254 and his power numbers stalled. He hit just four home runs and drove in 39 runners in 94 games.
“I just wasn’t showing the power,” admitted Morrison, whose hindsight spotted another problem with his time in the Dodgers system.
“I was always so appreciative of where I was at, seeing Mike Piazza and Vin Scully in Dodgertown eating breakfast, and I’m like a fan. I shouldn’t be a fan. I should be trying to get there. I didn’t really figure out that confidence part of the game until I was 28 years old in indy ball. That was the problem for me.”
Sand Gnat teammate – and future Hall of Famer – Adrian Beltre also made an impression on Morrison during his time in the minors.
“Beltre was our third basemen in the (South Atlantic) League and he was unbelievable,” recalled the kinesiologist, who now owns Morrison Sport Therapy in Medicine Hat.
“He had 16 home runs at the half and they moved him up. He was like 17 years old and I was 20. He was that big and strong back then. He had massive arms, even then.”
And while Beltre was moving up, Morrison was headed in the other direction. After being released by the Dodgers, he traded his baseball bat for a sledgehammer.
“Baseball was pretty much out of my life,” said the McCoy High School grad. “I was a demolition man that winter, swinging a sledgehammer.”
But his father Ross, who had a storied baseball career of his own and is a member of the Saskatchewan Baseball Hall of Fame, called up Medicine Hat Blue Jays GM Chris McKenna and asked him to consider adding Greg to the roster. McKenna did and the result was an historic season for Morrison.
“Sure as heck, I had a great year,” Morrison told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I got this opportunity and it just completely changed me. I tell guys, I learned more the year I got released from the Dodgers, hitting .250, than I did hitting .448 with the Jays because it’s the failing that teaches you.”
Wayne Schlosser, one of Morrison’s coaches in The Gas City, called his former pupil “legit as a hitter” and said he really took off in 1997.
“I think he was a ‘token’ local Canadian-boy signing but he showed he could play and hit,” said Schlosser.
“He was probably in the wrong organization with the Jays as a first base prospect.”
Morrison’s dream of suiting up for the Toronto Blue Jays would never become a reality. Following his triple crown coming out party, Morrison had a decent year of Single-A ball in Hagerstown, Maryland, clobbering 15 home runs and 72 RBI in 123 games. But Carlos Delgado was entrenched at first base in Toronto and prospect Jay Gibbons – who won his own triple crown for the Medicine Hat Blue Jays just one season after Morrison accomplished the feat – ended up passing him on the Jays’ depth chart.
After that, Morrison achieved international success, winning bronze with the Canadian National Team at the 1999 Pan-Am Games and being named to the all-world team at the 2000 World Cup qualifying tournament in Panama.
A career in independent league baseball would follow and prove fruitful for seven seasons. Morrison suited up for the Winnipeg Goldeyes, Calgary Vipers and Edmonton Cracker-Cats between 2003 and 2006.
Even after his playing days ended, baseball remained.
In 2008, Morrison bought the Medicine Hat Mavericks of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL).
“I’ve been very lucky, very blessed to be around baseball here,” said Morrison.
You could say royally blessed.