Down to an 0-2 count, Christopher Morel had to remind himself that this moment wasn’t too big for him.
In his first big league at-bat on May 17, just hours after the Cubs officially called him up from Double-A Tennessee, Morel had fallen behind in the count after taking a slider for a strike and then swinging through another against Pirates reliever Chase De Jong. Just an inning earlier, Morel had been talking to Willson Contreras and Alfonso Rivas in the dugout. He told them that if he got the chance to bat, he would take one deep, just like Contreras had done nearly six years earlier in his first at-bat.
But here he was, with just one strike left to work with, and since it was the bottom of the eighth and the Cubs were up 6 runs, it was very likely it would be Morel’s only chance to hit that night. So, the rookie had to tell himself that this situation was nothing he couldn’t handle.
“I concentrated. I said, ‘I can do it. I could do it before, so I can do it right now,'” Morel said. “That’s what I thought.”
By now, you know the rest of the story from Morel’s magical debut.
Morel took three balls well outside of the zone, quickly working his way back into a full count. De Jong tried to run a high four-seamer by him, but Morel wasn’t fooled. One quick twitch of the wrists later, Morel launched the ball 417 feet to left field and ended his first career at-bat with his first career home run.
A magical moment, indeed, one that would’ve broken the roof off of Wrigley Field if it had one. And maybe even more magical was the excitement the homer elicited from those watching along in the dugout.
Sure, any rookie who goes deep in their first at-bat would’ve gotten the same reaction. Still, it was a debut that veterans in the locker room couldn’t help but gush about in the locker room later on.
“It was amazing,” Contreras said. “He told me (he was going to homer), and I felt like he was going to get something done, but I was thinking of a base hit, just a blooper, just something positive. Once I saw the ball going out, I was like, that was a no-doubt.”
Contreras, in particular, has tremendous respect for what Morel went through to get to that moment in his life.
Morel was born in the city of Santiago in the Dominican Republic, and like many players who come from Latin America, had to go through plenty of obstacles to realize his dream of making it to the big leagues. One of those obstacles came in late 2015 — the biggest and toughest of them all, actually — on his way home from instructional league after signing with the Cubs organization in August as a 16-year-old.
Morel’s story wasn’t well known until Contreras mentioned it during that postgame interview. Contreras said he told Morel “‘God is good, and you’re blessed to still be playing baseball.'” Wanting to learn a little more about what Contreras meant, a few reporters stuck around to see what that story was all about.
Here it is: On that trip back to Santiago, Morel hopped off the bus and went into a cafeteria to grab a bite to eat. When he noticed that the bus was getting ready to leave, Morel rushed out of the cafeteria to catch it. Only the door didn’t open completely, and he crashed into it.
The shattered glass slashed him left arm — slicing a nerve and a tendon in the process — and cut the left side of his face. The injury required surgery, and he nearly lost his left eye.
It would be a long, difficult journey to rehab the injury. Morel said the team told him he wouldn’t play for two years — which given the severity of the situation, probably seemed like a best-case scenario.
After missing a full season in 2016, though, Morel felt like he was ready to go by the time 2017 rolled around, and he played in the Dominican Summer League that year. Was it a surprise to see him this quickly? To some, yes, but not to Contreras, who could tell upon meeting him that he had the work ethic and the mental fortitude to make it far past what could’ve been a career-ending injury.
Contreras has his own inspiring story of making it out of Venezuela and working his way up to the big leagues. Because of what Morel brings to the table, Contreras wasn’t surprised at all that nothing stopped him from eventually getting to this point.
“They’re all the same,” Contreras said of the journey. “Guys from Venezuela, guys from the Dominican. We all take the same road. Sometimes it’s easier for some of the guys, sometimes it’s harder for other ones. There are guys that got signed that have really good talent, and then guys that sign that have to develop their talent a little bit. But he’s a guy that just has talent.”
That talent and work ethic also combined to turn Morel into one of the most versatile players in the system. During his first two seasons in the minors, Morel played only on the left side of the infield. In 2019, he got his first crack at playing the outfield, appearing once in left for South Bend. The lost minor league season in 2020 gave him more opportunities to work all over the field, and in 2021, Morel played at least six games in six different positions.
Moving around the field can seem like a tough ask, but for Morel, it’s simple.
“For me, every position is the same,” he said. “Just catch the ball and (make a) good throw.”
That versatility also put him in a good position when IL placements left holes around the field on the big league roster. The day Morel was called up, the Cubs had six regular position players sitting on the IL from both the infield and the outfield. They needed someone who could help regularly plug some of those holes and give the healthy players on the roster a breather. Despite Morel still playing in Double-A at the time, the Cubs thought he was ready to make the jump.
“He’s so versatile defensively,” Cubs VP of player development Jared Banner said. “He can play all over the field. Can help you in infield, can help you in the outfield. He has reached many of his development goals that we set out for him, and then an opportunity arose and he was the right guy at the right time.”
As soon as he arrived, those on the active roster couldn’t wait to see him in action. Morel was added to the 40-man roster in November 2020, and over the spring trainings that followed, the big leaguers got to see who he was as a person outside of just being a ballplayer. So when he finally entered the Cubs’ clubhouse at Wrigley, the vets couldn’t wait to welcome him.
“The thing that I was proud of that I heard yesterday that was really cool from my standpoint is that, Christopher Morel came in and said, ‘It feels like family here,'” manager David Ross said. “For a young guy, I don’t know that when I came up (with the Dodgers) I felt like I was around family, that’s for sure. We had a bunch of guys in LA that were awesome to me. But I think that when you come in and the young guys feel at home to be themselves and play the way they’re capable of playing, that’s the goal.”
Since then, Morel has been everything the Cubs could have asked him to be.
On Monday, Morel started at shortstop as the Cubs opened their series in Cincinnati. Over the week prior, Morel had started at third base, second base and center field. That stretch made him the first Cub since 1904 to start at four different positions in his first five major league starts.
Making the jump to the big leagues can be tough enough, but to then be asked to fill in all over the field? It certainly takes a special player to do that.
On the other side of the ball, Morel has quickly put together an impressive stretch, too. After that first-at-bat homer, Morel has since added another nine hits (including his second career home run) in just 31 at-bats. In nine games, Morel is slashing .313/.405/.563, has scored seven runs and knocked in four more. He’s hitting the ball hard, as his 93.4 mph average exit velocity shows, and he enters Saturday’s matchup on the South Side with a 171 wRC+.
“He’s not afraid. He has no fear,” Contreras said. “That’s what he shows. He has confidence in himself. He’s been doing it from Double-A, and now that he’s here, I haven’t seen a change yet. So hopefully, he keeps it up.”
Yes, it’s entirely too early to say Morel is going to be on Hoyer’s “Next Great Cubs Team.” He has just 37 plate appearances at the major league level (and only 76 total above Double-A). He’s played well in his first week-plus as a big leaguer, but he’s still only 22 years old, and when some of the injured players return to the active roster, it’s very possible he gets sent back down.
But his story is an encouraging tale of a young player who worked his way back from catastrophe to finally live his dream — and then excelled when he got there.
Whether or not he stays up with the Cubs for the long haul, he’s already completely endeared himself to the team.
“The energy he brings, I think he’s just a good guy to have around,” Keegan Thompson said. “He’s a hard guy not to root for.”
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