In his long baseball career, Willie Morales was a Badger, a Wildcat, a Sidewinder, a Whitecap, a Trapper, a Red Wing, a Driller, a Sky Sox and most of all, an Oriole.
On April 9, 2000, the catcher from Tucson High School looked at the lineup card for a Baltimore-Detroit game at Camden Yards and saw his name next to that of Orioles Cal Ripken, Will Clark and Albert Belle.
“It was pretty funny because when I was growing up I had a poster of Will Clark hanging above my bed,” says Morales, now a paramedic/firefighter working out of Station 5 in Tucson.
It was a day the man who played in 1,004 minor-league baseball games will never forget. There were 42,178 fans at Camden Yards and Morales singled off Tigers pitcher C.J. Nitkowski in his first big-league at-bat.
“I remember that day like it was yesterday,” he says now.
Those who watched Morales in his baseball days at Tucson High suspected he would someday play in the big leagues.
You can make a good case that Morales belongs in the select company with those such as Paul Moskau, Ed Vosberg, Sam Khalifa, Shelley Duncan and J.J. Hardy as the top high school baseball players in Tucson history.
The case? Morales left THS with 154 career hits, the most of all big schools in Arizona at the time. It didn’t take long to see that Morales had that “it” factor. He hit .406 for Tucson High’s 1987 state champions. He was a freshman. A year later, as the Badgers went 28-2 as one of the top teams in state history, Morales hit .475. He went 4 for 6 in those championship victories.
As a senior in 1990, Morales hit .506 and was named Tucson’s co-Player of the Year with fellow Badger Tavo Alvarez, a dominant pitcher and future major-leaguer who went 13-1 that year.
ESPN sent a film crew to Tucson. Its feature on Morales and Alvarez was titled “Best Battery in America.”
Now, married with two adult children and two stepchildren, Morales looks back on his baseball days with no regrets. After becoming a third-team All-American catcher at Arizona in 1993, a first-team All-Pac-10 catcher who was a big part of the 1992 Pac-10 championship team, Morales was drafted in the 14th round by the Oakland A’s.
He retired in 2004 after being part of the Oakland, Baltimore, St. Louis, Colorado and Arizona organizations. Although offered a scouting job by the Milwaukee Brewers, Morales chose to return to Tucson, complete his UA degree and spend more time at home with his daughters, Hanna, now 23, and Emily, 19.
“I felt like I left no stone unturned on the baseball field,” says Morales. “I was very single-minded in what I was trying to do. I missed out on quite a bit of what most teenagers do, but I don’t regret that at all. Baseball was what I wanted to do. I was a head shorter than most ballplayers, maybe a step slower, too, but I maximized every single bit of my potential. I just couldn’t be OK. I had to be at my best every day.”
Part of Morales’ upbringing included the discipline to academics. He applied for admission to Stanford and was accepted by Notre Dame, although in the end he chose to stay home and play for Jerry Kindall’s Arizona Wildcats.
He could write a compelling travelogue about his days on the baseball road, from Michigan to Alabama and from Tacoma to Tucson.
“If I could pick one city as my favorite it would probably be Grand Rapids, Michigan, my first full year in the A’s organization,” he says. “They hadn’t had baseball for a couple of decades and they built a new ballpark. It seemed like we had a sellout every night.”
Indeed the Western Michigan Whitecaps drew 463,039 fans at Old Kent Park — more than any yearly total of Tucson’s minor-league teams — and qualified for playoffs on the final night of the regular season.
Morales hit 13 home runs and was named the Midwest League’s top defensive catcher. His road to the big leagues had begun.
He retired at 32, completed his UA degree and had one more difficult decision — the life of a baseball scout/coach, or working as a paramedic and spending more time with his family.
“It was hard for me to start thinking about getting on buses and starting all over again,” he says. “The fire department called me two weeks before spring training and offered me a job. I had to do some soul-searching, but in the end I didn’t want to be sweating out my job in baseball year to year. I knew I could have a good life, get a pension in 20 years, and be present in my children’s lives if I chose to be a fireman.
“In my heart, I know I made the right choice. I’ve had a good life; I’m in a good place.”