Prep baseball: East's Justin Morris to Catawba

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 15, 2011

By Mike London
GRANITE QUARRY — The Cincinnati Reds were at Spring Training in 1963, and manager Fred Hutchinson was standing behind the batting cage, studying his team’s rookies.
“Who’s your fastest to first base?” a scout asked.
“Rose,” Hutchinson responded. “Pete Rose — 4.3 seconds.”
“Hell, Hutch, 4.3 ain’t fast,” the scout said.
“It is for a walk,” Hutchinson answered.
Rose was not incredibly talented, and New York Yankees pitcher Whitey Ford, an old pro, hung the “Charlie Hustle” tag on the all-out rookie as an insult.
But Rose embraced his new nickname and became the best $7,000 investment the Reds ever made in a high school youngster. He would sprint to first base on each of his 1,566 career walks and would run out an MLB record 4,256 base hits. He crossed the plate 2,165 times.
Rose also made a record 10,328 outs, but he ran with every ounce of energy he possessed on every ball he put in play — even when he was 45 years old.
East Rowan has a senior that brings back memories of the youthful, crewcut Rose.
Shortstop Justin Morris hustles down to first base on walks and doesn’t mind getting his uniform dirty enough to require several extra cups of liquid detergent when the Mustangs do their washing.
“My dad’s baseball advice to me was to run everything out, to always run everything out,” Morris said. ‘I try to do that.”
Morris will play for Catawba next season. Fans will enjoy watching him go. There’s false hustle, and there’s “Charlie Hustle,” and Morris will bring the latter to Newman Park.
He was not heavily recruited. When you’re 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, you’re not likely to be heavily recruited.
Morris, who wants to become a coach, is getting the opportunity to get a college education and play baseball in his home county because of academic scholarships.
“I got a bunch of those,” he said. “Getting a West Scholarship (a hefty grant for students who plan to teach), really helped out. Coach (Jim) Gantt said I’ve got a spot on the team, and I’m excited about that. He’s a great coach. I learned a lot from him last summer.”
Don’t be shocked if Morris ends up getting playing time for the perennially strong Indians in the infield and the outfield. Like Rose, who made the National League all-star team at five different positions, the still-improving Morris has experience at a lot of different places.
As a junior, Morris did an efficient job that almost went unnoticed on a 31-2 juggernaut that rolled to the 3A state championship and a No. 21 national ranking. He was the No. 7 hitter in the lineup and played second base. He batted .319 and scored 30 runs.
One of Morris’ best games was a 3-for-4 effort with three runs scored when the Mustangs outslugged Wilson Hunt 15-10 to wrap up the 3A title. That showed what Morris could do under pressure on the biggest stage for a high school player.
Morris spent last summer playing for Gantt’s Rowan County American Legion squad. He often was stationed in left field because Rowan had a surplus of infielders and a shortage of natural outfielders. He batted .328 and scored 44 runs for a 30-13 team.
Everyone knew Morris would start for East as a senior, but there was uncertainty where he’d be. The huge holes were at third base and shortstop, positions vacated by prep all-stars and current Appalachian State freshmen Noah Holmes and Preston Troutman.
Coach Brian Hightower quickly settled on Morris as his new shortstop.
“Justin was a good player as a junior, but he’s really improved,” Hightower said. “He’s definitely a lot stronger and a lot faster because of all the offseason work he put in, and I think with that added strength and speed comes a lot of confidence.
“Justin’s a legit shortstop. He’s made all kinds of nice plays for us.”
Morris has adapted to the other side of second base with ease. He has enough arm to make the long throw from the hole and enough quickness to cover ground and start double plays.
“I’ve been a second baseman most of my life, but I guess I knew after the first few days at the beginning of the season, I’d be the shortstop,” Morris said. “I like it. You get more balls hit to you over there.”
On offense, Morris’ at-bats are more critical to East this season. He’s leading off or batting second and is a key tablesetter for the sluggers — Luke Thomas, Andy Austin and Nathan Fulbright.
Morris has scored 22 runs this year, one of them on his first varsity homer at Davie.
He’s had six multi-hit games and is batting .365.
More importantly, his on-base percentage is .476. Like Rose, especially when leading off an inning, he understands the value of a walk.
And when that umpire growls “Ball Four,” Morris doesn’t waste any time at all getting down to first base.