It isn't hard to find Morgan Ensberg in Astros camp this spring - just follow the sound of the quips. Whether he's razzing players for complaining that he throws BP fastballs too fast or criticizing a curveball-throwing pitching machine, Ensberg seems to be having the time of his life this spring since re-joining the Astros as a developmental specialist.
It wasn't always this way, though. Especially not in Kissimmee. Especially not on March 12, 2000, during one of his first spring trainings with Houston.
Back in 2000, Ensberg was an eager 24-year-old minor leaguer from Hermosa Beach, California. He'd been named an All-American and Team MVP for the University of Southern California, who won the National Championship in 1998. He'd been a big deal at USC, still appearing in top ten lists in at least ten offensive categories. He's still the only Trojan to put together a 20/20 season. He was rewarded by being drafted in the 9th round by Houston.
In 2000, Ensberg was coming off a season in which he had just slashed .239/.353/.412 in high-A ball. Entering the season as a 24-year-old prospect struggling to hit the curveball, having committed 35 errors the previous year, he knew very well that this might be his last camp as a professional baseball player. Though he'd shown a lot of promise as a minor leaguer, all it took was a little bit of bad luck and he'd be looking for a job back in Hermosa Beach.
He had a chance that year, if he could control his mental errors in Spring Training. Third baseman Ken Caminiti was beginning to show his age, and while Chris Truby was the favorite to start, Ensberg had a chance to make an impression that Spring. If there was an injury or a trade, he wanted to be the first person the organization thought of to call up.
He was staying at the same run-down Holiday Inn, on Kissimmee Boulevard, that all the minor leaguers stayed in during spring camp. Like a college dorm, the players frequently left their doors open, walking back and forth between to say hi or to drop in on one another for a while. So it happened that on the night of March 12, 2000, Ensberg and four of his teammates - Keith Ginter, Derek Nicholson, Mike Rose, and Eric Cole - gathered in Ensberg's and Ginter's room to watch SportsCenter with Ginter's girlfriend, Alicia Szczerba.
Szczerba got up to go see a friend in another room, and that's when Morgan Ensberg's life changed. Two men had been hanging around in the breezeway outside of the players' rooms, duffel bags strapped to their shoulders. The players had noticed them, and they had noticed the players, but people hanging around divey motels wasn't anything out of the ordinary.
As Szczbera opened the door, though, the two men - one wearing a ski mask, the other in a skullcap with a green bandanna over his face, and both of them armed - shoved her back into the room. As the man in the ski mask - a convicted felon named Richard Cook - began loading everyone's wallets, car keys, and cell phones into the duffel bag, the man in the bandanna - Alexander Williams - pressed his gun against the back of Ensberg's head. "You a tough guy?" the man asked him. "You a hero?"
He tied the six of them up with plastic zip-ties, put duct tape over their mouths, and threw blankets over their heads as his partner tore through the room, taking what precious few valuables the minor leaguers had.
An hour passed. And in that hour, Morgan Ensberg prepared himself to die.
The grandson of a Lutheran minister, Morgan Ensberg had always been a religious man, and it was his belief that a man could not kill another if he could see his face. He wriggled free of his blankets, so that the gunmen would see his face and not just a pile of blankets.
Then there was a noise next door. The gunmen said they'd be back with company. They left the room.
Mike Rose noticed they'd left the door ajar. He freed himself of the zip-ties around his wrists and ankles, and shut and locked the door. Ensberg also freed himself and called the front desk. When the gunmen returned, second baseman Aaron Miles in tow, they found the door locked and the police were on their way.
Cook leaped over the railing and escaped. Williams shoved Aaron Miles back into his room at gunpoint. The police rescued Ensberg and his companions and dug in for a standoff. Miles wasn't having any of it. Though he stood just 5'8", 180 lbs. soaking wet, Aaron Miles was the son of a heavyweight boxer, and he knew how to take care of himself. After a half hour of waiting for the police to rescue him, he took matters into his own hands. As Tom Friend wrote in ESPN: The Magazine:
He attacked the 5'11", 175-pound intruder, and during the struggle, Miles bit Williams on the forearm while Williams bit Miles fiercely on the upper back. Both had their hands on the gun, and eventually, with Miles lying on top of the burglar, a SWAT policeman who'd broken through a window had no choice but to fire six close-range gunshots.
All six shots found their mark. Miles raced out of the room and into Rose's arms. The players were all taken to the Kissimmee police station, where they were met by then-Astros Assistant VP of Player Development, Tim Purpura. Purpura witnessed Ensberg call his father - at one in the morning - and tell him over and over again that he was okay, falling to his knees and crying during the conversation.
Ensberg began working with a psychiatrist, but he was forever damaged that night. It's still hard for him to be around crowds. He doesn't like to stand in front of fans and sign autographs. But when he steps on a field, either as a player or as a developmental specialist, he's at home. This is where he can live. Where no one can hurt him. This is baseball, and this is supposed to be fun. The only reminders he needs are the white scars on his wrists as he passes the now-closed Holiday Inn on Kissimmee Boulevard as he drives to work every day.