Tanner Morris has had a familiar face in the Bisons' dugout since being promoted from Double-A New Hampshire in June. Bisons manager Casey Candaele was the young infielder’s manager during Morris’s first professional season at Low-A Vancouver.
“It’s been great because most of the guys here, minus a couple pitchers that just got called up to the majors, there’s nobody here that I played with,” Morris said in an interview with The Herd Chronicles shortly after joining the Bisons. “So having Casey as the manager is very helpful. I played three or four months for him and I’m comfortable because we’ve worked together quite a bit. Everybody else is new.”
Morris's road to Sahlen Field began in Virginia. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The journey from his home in Central Virginia to playing Triple-A baseball has taken Morris to not only Vancouver, but also Oregon, New Hampshire and finally to Buffalo.
Morris excelled at baseball at a young age. He was second-team All-State in Virginia during his eighth grade, freshman, and sophomore seasons and first-team All-State during his final two years of high school. His head coach for much of his time growing up was legendary major-league closer Billy Wagner.
“That was awesome,” Morris said of playing for Wagner. “He lives about a mile down the road from me. I played for him, I think it was the year he retired. He started coaching me when I was thirteen. I played travel ball for him until I was sixteen or seventeen and then I moved over to Miller School where he coached high school baseball.”
After graduating from high school, Morris was able to attend his dream college located about twenty minutes from his home – the University of Virginia.
“Yeah, that was the place,” he said. “My uncle played there. My family has always been UVA fans. So it was the place I wanted to go when I was younger.”
He had a strong freshman season for the Cavaliers, starting 50 of 51 games and slashing .298/.397/.374. He spent the following summer playing in the prestigious Cape Cod League, where he slashed .331/.404/.449 in 35 games for the Harwich Mariners.
“The Cape Cod League was a lot of fun,” he remembered. “I had great host parents. Just the whole Cape experience, with the food, getting to travel around the Cape and play baseball was really fun.”
Morris had a monster sophomore season at UVA, leading the team in batting average (.345), runs (56), hits (77), doubles (21), home runs (5), walks (41), slugging percentage (.507) and on-base percentage (.452).
His big season led to him being selected by the Blue Jays in the fifth round of Major League Baseball’s 2019 June Amateur draft. Morris was expecting to be selected by the Minnesota Twins who were two picks after the Blue Jays. He was unaware Toronto had interest in him.
“I was actually golfing,” he said. “I’d just gotten off the phone with the Twins and we had a deal in place that they were going to draft me. Then the Blue Jays drafted me. I hadn’t heard from the Blue Jays at all. Then I got a text from the Twins guy wondering what happened – but I didn’t know what happened. About ten or fifteen minutes later my agent called me and said that the Blue Jays had drafted me.”
After the draft, Morris reported to the Vancouver Canadians, the Blue Jays low-A affiliate at that time. He slashed .246/.384/.346 in 64 games in his first taste of professional baseball.
“The most difficult thing for me was just not having a car,” Morris said of playing on the west coast his first season. “I think I lost like fifteen pounds that season. Other than that – I played travel ball and we were on a thirty day road trip through California and Arizona and then all the way back to Louisville. I’d done the travel ball a lot. I was used to being away from home. The Cape was three months also. So it was nothing new for me there.”
His new manager in Vancouver, Casey Candaele, was impressed with Morris’s immediate willingness to learn.
“The one thing with Tanner that was very apparent when he came into professional baseball, he looked around and he made comments like – hey I need to work on some things that I need to get better at,” Candaele said. “Just watching players around him and seeing how they played. He was like you know what, I need to work on my game a little bit. He was a good player when he got here, when he signed coming out of the University of Virginia, but he knew that to be capable of getting to the big leagues there were things that he needed to work on. For a player to be that aware of self-evaluation and to know that they need to get better – that’s a big thing in this game to understand and to go about trying to correct and get better.”
The 2020 season was derailed when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the minor-league baseball season to be cancelled.
“I was at home all summer for the first summer since probably when I was in eighth grade,” he said. “I gave some young kids some lessons and learned a lot working with young kids and hopefully they learned something from me as well. I did that and I did a lot of fishing, some turkey hunting, some things I usually don’t get to do because I’m always away at that time of the year. So it was a great experience.”
Morris returned to play for the Canadians in 2021 – but this time things were much different. Vancouver changed classifications under the minor-league realignment and became the Blue Jays' High-A affiliate. Also, due to border restrictions caused by the pandemic, the Canadians played their home games in the U.S. at Ron Tonkin Field in Hillsboro, Oregon, rather than in Vancouver. Hillsboro also has a team in the same division, resulting in many games being played at the same field for the Canadians.
“That meant that when Hillsboro was at home (and we played them), we were also still at home. So we played a lot of home games. It was different than this year’s format where we’re basically on the road every other week. It got a little tiring because there were only like six teams in that league, so we played against the same guys all the time.”
Like many players in the Blue Jays system, Morris can play multiple positions.
“I played a little bit of outfield when I was really young because I always played up a couple years. I also played second. I think I was about thirteen years old when I moved to shortstop and then I mainly played shortstop from then through college. In pro ball now I’m obviously shifting to second and third and maybe some outfield and maybe some first – that might come in the future. It’s been different, but from a young age on Little League teams and travel ball teams I played most of the positions. I’ve never played first and I’ve never played center field, but all the other positions I’ve played at some point in my career.”
Morris holding down the hot corner for the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian M. Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Morris began this season at Double-A New Hampshire, where he tore up Eastern League pitching. He led the Fisher Cats in batting average (.312), on-base percentage (.430), OPS (.898), walks (30), and runs scored (35) at the time of his June promotion to Triple-A, where he joined a Bisons team attempting to win their second consecutive division championship.
“The ballpark – the wind blows in,” he chuckled when asked for his early impressions on Sahlen Field. “That’s different than New Hampshire where the wind blows out. It’s a really nice field. The team has been great. They’ve been very welcoming. I’ve gotten to know some of the guys a little better and I’m starting to get a little more comfortable here.”
Although he doesn’t yet have the high batting average he had in Double-A, Morris continues to get on base at a high rate. He’s shown great plate discipline since joining the Bisons, drawing 17 walks in just 86 plate appearances.
“He’s having good at-bats,” Candaele said. “I think he has like a .350 on base percentage or somewhere around there. If you’re looking at that, that’s a pretty good sign he understands the strike zone. That’s a big part of being successful at the plate.”
Morris’s transition to Triple-A has certainly been made easier by the fact he’s once again playing for Candaele.
“When you’re playing for Casey, you feel like he’s in your corner,” Morris said. “He wants you to do well. He’s there to support you any way you need help. It’s always been a pleasure to play for him. More than that, what I enjoy about Casey is his personality. He comes to the field every day in a good mood and he’s happy. I think in a long season, a coaching staff that’s happy and wants to be there – that excites me and makes me want to play well for them and also play well for myself and my team.”