Talent, friendship blossom for Morin, Sappington
Halos pitching prospects had their close bond take off with airport encounter in KC
ANAHEIM -- For Mark Sappington and Michael Morin, life changed at the security gate of Kansas City International Airport.
It was the summer of 2012. Sappington and Morin, perfect strangers from close proximities, had just signed on the dotted line. They were bound for Orem, Utah, home of the Angels' Rookie League affiliate and the beginning of their respective professional careers.
Amid carry-on luggage and X-ray machines, something else began -- a friendship they now credit as the main reason for emerging as the best pitching prospects in the Angels' system.
"There aren't too many guys you'd take a bullet for, but I'd take a bullet for him any day," Sappington said of Morin, less than 17 months after meeting him.
"Everything happens for a reason, and honestly I just thank the man upstairs that he brought Sapp into my life," Morin said. "We're the same age, we grew up 30 miles apart from each other, played travel ball, and honestly I didn't know who Mark Sappington was. And I've lived in Kansas City my whole life. So has he. It's incredible the people that come along in your life to help you out on your own specific journey. It's definitely not a coincidence that Sapp and I have crossed paths."
Sappington (a starter who was fifth in MLB.com's latest ranking of the Halos' Top 20 Prospects) and Morin (a reliever ranked ninth) turned heads at Class A Inland Empire, earned unexpected promotions to Double-A Arkansas and provided glimmers of hope for a downtrodden system during their first full seasons in 2013.
Sappington, a fifth-round Draft pick out of Division II Rockhurst, went 12-5 with a 3.45 ERA in 27 starts. He had a 2.04 ERA in his first nine outings. Morin, plucked in the 13th round out of the University of North Carolina, posted a 1.93 ERA with 23 saves and was chosen to pitch in the Arizona Fall League, where he's been just as dominant.
Before that came the offseason work that laid the foundation, when Sappington moved into Morin's mother's house and each of them pushed the other to new limits.
Before that came a summer in Utah, when the 22-year-old Missouri right-handers competed in everything -- from bench presses to wind sprints to card games -- and sparked a fire.
And before that came a chance encounter as they waited to board a connecting flight.
Morin heard that another Kansas City product had been taken by the Angels that June, and when he noticed a chiseled 6-foot-5 male with a Halos bag 20 people ahead of him in the security line, Morin figured that was him. A few minutes later, Sappington passed by and introduced himself. During their 90-minute layover, they talked about how they got there. On the shuttle bus to the Angels' facility, they chatted some more.
Early in the summer, Sappington actually wasn't much of a fan.
"I'm happy-go-lucky, positive, friends with a lot of people, and he's more of just like -- he'll beat you into the ground," Sappington said of Morin. "He's a competitor and he wants to embarrass you. So we'd beat each other back and forth, and it was like, 'Dang.' At first I didn't like him. ... But as time went on, we just crushed it in the weight room and a few weeks into it, we'd start being friends-ish. And when we'd lift together, we'd just push each other. And that blossomed into a friendship."
They bonded over their birthplace, over Christianity, over going unnoticed through college, over rookie-ball struggles -- Morin had a 4.93 ERA in 34 2/3 innings in 2012; Sappington had a 5.15 ERA in 36 2/3 innings -- and over unwavering desires to be great.
Morin's success in 2013 came largely from fastball command, which allowed him to play up a changeup that's one of the best in the Minor Leagues. Sappington's progression stemmed from finally honing the changeup, which general manager Jerry Dipoto believes improved a grade and a half since March.
But both of them credit something else entirely.
It came at the Rockhurst University gymnasium. Sappington moved into the abandoned room of Morin's older sister in late September, to shave his commute in half. (And, as he says, to make sure Morin got out of bed every morning.) Every weekday, Sappington and Morin were up at 6:30 a.m. to get in a couple hours of lifting before Sappington began his shift at a local Lululemon, then got some extra work in when he clocked out. On Saturdays, they'd rest. On Sundays, they stretched for more than an hour, getting ready for another week of doing it all again.
"We didn't miss one lift, man," Sappington said. "There was zero mornings the entire offseason where we just looked at each other and said, 'We want to sleep.'"
Asked how much he credits that offseason training to what transpired the following year, Morin said: "One-hundred percent. The max that it could possibly contribute, that's what it did. If I didn't know Mark Sappington, I probably wouldn't be sitting here in the Arizona Fall League, playing in the Arizona Fall League. I truly believe that."
Morin was kind of bummed, while speaking on the phone Wednesday. He had just given up a ninth-inning two-run homer to blow a game, representing the first runs he had given up in nine appearances at the ultra-competitive showcase. When he returned to his locker and checked his phone, the first thing Morin saw was a supportive text message from Sappington, who's currently enrolled at Rockhurst full-time to complete his bachelor's degree in economics.
There's a good chance Morin and Sappington will both be in Major League Spring Training for the first time next year, and there's an outside chance they'll get called up at some point in 2014.
There's zero chance they would miss another offseason together.
"He's counting down the days for me until we get back together and get in the gym," Morin said of Sappington. "We'll do the whole thing over again. We both had success this year, so why try and change something?"
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.