Losing a hero is hard

A piece of my childhood was called home Sunday. Man, what I’d give to see Joe Morgan’s left elbow twitch in the batter’s box just one more time.

Before I settled in as a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, and actually understood the game of baseball, the Cincinnati Reds were who I was introduced to in the early 1970s. My annual Topps baseball card collection was sorted by number, except for the Big Red Machine. Those guys had their own special place. Just as Morgan did, in many baseball fans hearts.

He joins a long list of baseball players who left us in 2020 for the big sandlot in the sky. Morgan is one of 125 Major League names that have died in 2020, per baseball-reference.com. And not to take away from the 119 former players and/or managers who helped shape the sport, but six of those 125 were Hall of Famers.

Along with the Hall of Fame second baseman, we’ve lost Lou Brock, Whitey Ford, Bob Gibson, Al Kaline and Tom Seaver this year.

For me, Morgan hit home.

My mother worked at the original MGM Grand before the third-deadliest hotel fire in modern U.S. history on Nov. 21, 1980, when then-casino manager Morrie Jaeger was dialed in with celebrities, movie stars and professional athletes from his time working at gambling joints in Newport, Kentucky. The proximity to neighboring states introduced him to the likes of Morgan and Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, among so many others.

Jaeger followed in the footsteps of other casino bosses who invited big leaguers to old-school Vegas.

Las Vegas Club legend Mel Exber often invited different eras of Dodgers to his downtown joint, where they would clumsily perform silly acts on stage in the 1950s and ‘60s. Can you imagine seeing base-thief Maury Wills singing and playing the banjo in Las Vegas? I’m told he was actually pretty good.

Joe DiMaggio was a regular at the Riviera in the ‘70s, even when then-MLB commissioner Bowie Kuhn felt casinos were no place for baseball players. Kuhn once banned baseball greats Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle from the sport as long as they were associated with casinos.

Morgan and Bench weren’t bothered. They loved Las Vegas and weren’t shy about it.

They were the first autographed photos I ever received from sports personalities, both of which I still have.

I met Bench and took a picture with him, the one he autographed. I never met Morgan, but still have a signed picture of him, with that big, bright smile while holding a baseball he wrote MVP on, along with his best wishes.

I never stopped admiring Morgan, despite the Reds-Dodgers rivalry, and enjoyed listening to him call games. He started his broadcasting career in 1985 for the Cincinnati Reds, and later that year, on what was a much more celebrated Sept. 11 than we think of now, Morgan called former teammate Pete Rose’s record-breaking 4,192nd career hit.

He was hired by ESPN in 1986 to call Monday, then Sunday Night Baseball, becoming the first Black baseball game analyst in primetime on national television. Morgan was the network’s lead Major League Baseball analyst for 20 years and went on to win two Sports Emmy Awards.

A whole lot of greatness joined 124 others in Hardball Heaven and brought some old-school Vegas tales with him, elbow twitch and all.

Wednesday

Dodgers vs. Braves: I don’t know what took place Tuesday after Clayton Kershaw was scratched, because we went to press prior to the start of Game 2. But I do know the Dodgers’ bats need to come to life more than ever. This becomes a must-win against Kyle Wright, who has never faced the Dodgers. This will be tough assignment. DODGERS

Rays vs. Astros: I’m rolling with the arm of Tyler Glasnow, who has pitched superb for the Rays. Pending what took place Tuesday, he could be pitching for a clinching spot in the World Series. Either way, I like his chances considering the right-hander has 20 strikeouts over 13 1/3 innings, and the Rays have won each of his last 11 starts. RAYS

Thursday

Dodgers vs. Braves: The pitching rotation for Game 4 is up in the air with Kershaw now sidelined. But I’m betting Los Angeles will build its momentum as it did in the divisional round against the Padres, finding its groove offensively. DODGERS

Last week: 2-1

Season: 18-13