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Morris, Jim

Jim Morris

1964-

American baseball player

The relief pitcher Jim Morris became one of baseball's oldest rookies in 1999, when at age 35 he signed with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. A high school science teacher and baseball coach who had formerly played in the minor leagues, Morris stunned the Devil Rays' talent scouts with his 98-mile-per-hour fastball. Although he played for only two seasons and pitched in only 21 major league games, Morris captured baseball fans' imaginations with his Cinderella story, which took him from the classrooms and baseball diamond of a Texas high school to the national arena of a big league stadium. His made-for-Hollywood tale became a major motion picture, The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid, in 2002.

James Samuel Morris Jr. was born on January 19, 1964, in Brownwood, Texas. His father was in the U.S. Navy, so his family moved often. For young Morris, baseball became a way to make friends in new towns. It was also his passion and the source of his aspirations, as he dreamed of playing in the major leagues one day.

At age 18, Morris was selected by the New York Yankees in the first round of the major league baseball draft. He chose to continue his education first, but turned down football scholarships from Penn State and Notre Dame because he wouldn't be allowed to play college baseball. Instead he enrolled at Angelo State University on an academic scholarship. In 1984 Morris attended major league tryouts again and was recruited by the Milwaukee Brewers.

Derailed by Arm Injuries

As a pitcher in the Brewers' minor league farm system, Morris was plagued by a series of arm injuries. Chronic pain in his pitching arm led to several operations,

including one that involved replacing a tendon in his left elbow with one from his right ankle. But the surgeries failed to alleviate the pain, and Morris was forced to retire from baseball in 1988, at age 24, before he had graduated from Class A of the minor leagues.

Leaving baseball behind, Morris set out to pursue a career in teaching. He obtained a bachelor's degree, and took a job as a high school science teacher and baseball coach in Big Lake, Texas. With his wife, Lorri, whom he'd married in his minor league days, he raised three children in the town of San Angelo. Over the years, Morris kept fit and participated in many sports. When he was 27 he became an All-American punter in college football. He played baseball in the local "beer leagues" and pitched at batting practice to the high school team he coached.

Morris challenged his young ballplayers with fast pitches, and his Reagan County High School Owls became strong hitters. After batting practice Morris would sometimes ask students to stay and catch for him so he could keep his arm in shape. It was here that the former minor league player let loose his powerful fastballs. "He'd just unleash, balls coming so hard and so fast, it hurt my hand sometimes," one young player told Dawn Fratangelo NBC-TV's Dateline. The Owls began to suspect that their coach had the talent for the major leagues.

As the Owls prepared for the 1999 season, Morris urged them to try to make the playoffs that year. While he was giving a pep talk one day, his players interrupted him. "They stopped me mid-speech," Morris told Dateline, "and they said, you know, 'Wait a minute. You're sitting her preaching to us and telling us all this stuff that we need to do, and yet, you're sitting here coaching and teaching and not trying to play baseball, and you throw harder than anybody we've ever seen.'" That day, Morris made a deal with his players. If they made the playoffs that year, he would try out for the next major league team that passed through the area.

Tried Out for Major Leagues

The Owls did make it to the playoffs, and then it was Morris's turn. On a 103-degree Saturday in June, the 35-year-old science teacher drove two hours with his children to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays tryout camp. Surrounded by 20-year-old wannabe baseball players, the left-handed pitcher lied about his age so the scouts would give him a chance. When it was his turn at the mound, Morris threw a 94-mile-per-hour pitch, followed by several 98-mile-per-hour throws. He was as dumb-founded as the scouts; after ten years of retirement and four arm surgeries, Morris's fastball had increased in speed by about ten miles per hour.

The Devil Rays signed Morris almost immediately, and he spent the summer in a minor league farm camp. After three months of intense work, which kept him away from his family and focused completely on pitching, Morris was called to the major leagues, becoming baseball's oldest rookie pitcher in nearly 30 years. His first game was on September 18, 1999, in the home stadium of the Texas Rangers. Morris's family took a seat in the audience, and his wife burst into tears when she saw her husband in his baseball uniform. When he was called in to pitch, he struck out the first batter, Royce Clayton.

Chronology

1964 Born on January 19 in Brownwood, Texas
1982 Attends Angelo State University on an academic scholarship
1984 Drafted by Milwaukee Brewers; plays in minor league farm system
1988 Retires from minor leagues after series of arm injuries
1991 Plays football for Angelo State
mid-1990s Becomes science teacher and baseball coach at Reagan County High School
1999 Drafted by Tampa Bay Devil Rays; begins pitching in minor league farm system
1999 Pitches first major league game, September 18
2000 Traded to Los Angeles Dodgers
2001 Retires from baseball
2001 Publishes autobiography, The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy
2002 Disney film The Rookie debuts nationwide

Morris's big league career was brief, but every moment was a gift for the Devil Rays' pitcher. "I wake up some mornings, and it hits me that I'm 36 years old and getting to do what I wanted to do when I was 5," he told Richard Justice of the Montreal Gazette. "It's an amazing feeling. This wasn't supposed to happen for me. God gave this to me." Morris went on to pitch for the Devil Rays in the 2000 season, and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers before retiring from baseball in 2001. He had served as a relief pitcher in 21 major league games, was 0-0 with a 4.80 Earned-Run Average (ERA), and had logged 13 strikeouts.

In April 2001 Morris published his autobiography, The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy, co-written with Joel Engel. Almost a year later, on March 29, 2002, The Rookie, the motion picture depicting Morris's life, opened in theaters across the country. Aware that his story had inspired many people to follow their dreams, Morris became a motivational speaker after his retirement from baseball in 2001.

The Rookie

The Rookie, directed by John Lee Hancock, told the tale of Jim Morris's rise from a small-town high school science teacher and coach to a major league baseball player. It was Morris's sports agent, Steve Cantor, who had convinced the pitcher that his story could make a Hollywood movie. Walt Disney picked up the project, casting actor Dennis Quaid in the starring role. The actress Rachel Griffiths, of HBO's Six Feet Under, played Morris's wife, Lorri.

The Disney film remained faithful to the pitcher's real-life story, beginning with his Navy brat childhood in Texas and exploring Morris's relationships with his father, wife, children, and students. "The message we wanted to convey was that it's not a baseball movie. It's a family-oriented movie," Morris told ESPN.com. "It entails relationships with high school kids and adults, adults and adults, adults with children. Baseball just happened to be the dream that I pursued." A box-office success, The Rookie received favorable reviews as one of the best family and "feel-good" movies of the year.

Awards and Accomplishments

1991 Became All-American athlete as a college punter
1999 Became baseball's oldest rookie in nearly 30 years

SELECTED WRITINGS BY MORRIS:

(With Joel Engel) The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1991.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Periodicals

Justice, Richard. "Tale of Ancient Reliever." (Montreal) Gazette (May 2, 2002): E1.

Lawson, Terry. "Pitcher Jim Morris' Personal Field of Dreams." Toronto Star (March 27, 2002): F4.

Other

Dateline. NBC News (April 27, 2002).

"Jim Morris: Biography." Jim Morris Official Web Site. http://www.jimmorrisjr.com/bio.html (November 13, 2002).

"Jim Morris Statistics." BaseballReference.com. http://www.baseball-reference.com/m/morrija03.shtml (November 30, 2002).

"Ten Burning Questions for Jim Morris." ESPN.com. http://espn.go.com/page2/s/questions/jimmorris.html (November 13, 2002).

Sketch by Wendy Kagan

Career Statistics

Yr Team W L ERA IP H ER BB SO SV
TB: Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
1999 TB 0 0 5.79 4.7 3 3 2 3 0
2000 TB 0 0 4.35 10.3 10 5 7 10 0

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