The Oldest Rookie

78953 john morris

Jim Morris' love of baseball dates back to his boyhood, when his grandmother gave him a ball, glove, bat, and hat. "And I never put it down after that," he recalls. "I love baseball."

Just last year, he was a science teacher and the baseball coach at Reagan County High School. The team had great potential, but the players needed motivation. So Morris sat them down to talk about making the effort to make their dreams come true.

Late Bloomers
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"And one of my kids looked at me and said, 'Well, you're not even practicing what you preach, and you want us to listen to you?'" he recalls. "And I stepped back for a second. And they said, 'We can tell by the way you throw at batting practice, and the way you coach, and the gleam in your eye when you're on the field, that you've got unfinished business with baseball.'"

When he was their age, Morris was one of the top pitching prospects in the nation. He wasn't really fast on the radar guns they use to measure a pitcher's speed, certainly not 98 miles an hour. And while pitching in baseball's minor leagues he developed serious arm problems that required several major operations. At age 24, his career was over.

"It just got tiresome, and I figured out God was trying to tell me that it was time to do something else," he said.

So Morris and his family headed toward Big Lake, Texas, which is 70 miles west of their home in San Angelo, which is 250 miles west of Dallas, to teach science and coach baseball.

That's where Morris and his players cut a deal none of them will ever forget. When they made the state championships last year, he had to go to a major league tryout camp as an overweight, over-age pitcher, matching skills with players barely old enough to shave.

"Up to that point, I hadn't thought about it much," he recalls, "and I thought, 'Oh, my God, I've really gotta do this now - 36, I've got three kids, a family, a job. And I'm gonna have to throw with 21-year-olds."

What Morris didn't know was that his surgically repaired left arm was better than it had ever been.

"My arm, I guess, was in pretty good shape. The rest of my body was in coaching shape," he says. "But even at that point I thought, 'I'll go try out. I'll go throw, embarass myself, get back in the car and drive home, and I won't have to worry about it."

After his first tryout, as soon as he finished, "about five kids come running over to me, and they said, 'You're throwing 98 miles an hour!' And I went, 'Get outta here! No way!'"

So despite his age, inexperience, and surgically repaired arm, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays of the American League offered Jim Morris a contract. It was a minor league deal worth a lot less money than he was making teaching school.

But he had made that promise to his players.

His is a close-knit family. Still, he was afraid to tell his mother, Ollie Hale, what he was going to do. And he agonized about being away from his wife, Lorri, and their three kids. But there was that unfinished business with baseball.

Of his family, Morris says, "They made a lot of sacrifices. Lorri did a hard job last year. She had her full-time job, take care of three kids and pay the bills just with her paycheck. She had a tough time with it while the 35-year-old was out playing a kid's game."

He had not played organized baseball in 10 years. But it wasn't long before the old coach found himself pitching for Tampa's top minor league team, the Durham Bulls, the same team that the aging Kevin Costner played for in the movie Bull Durham.

Morris was on a roll. In mid-September, Tampa Bay brought him up to the big team, the Devil Rays, for a trial run.

Larry Rothschild, the Tampa Bay manager, is a veteran baseball man. "I guess, like everybody, I was a little skeptical," he recalls. "But they kept telling me over and over, as he went through the workouts and everything. And then, you start to believe it."

Finally, he got called up for a game in Arlington, Texas, where he saw his family for the first time in three months. "But it's in front of 50,000 people in one of the best stadiums in the country. And I've got a big league uniform on with my name on the back, and I'm there to play," he says.

And there in the stands was his wife.

"And when I saw her," he recalls, "I looked up, and she got my attention. And she had tears in her eyes, and I was crying. I look up, and there's a couple of guys in the bullpen, and they were wiping tears out of their eyes. And I mean, overwhelming, unbelievable experience."

That was only the beginning. A book deal for half a million dollars followed. Disney picked up the movie rights. And this spring training, under the watchful eye of manager Rothschild, Morris, one of the oldest rookies in baseball history was trying to prove he's the real deal.

But is it realistic for Morris to expect to become a successful big league pitcher?

"I give him a good chance," said Rothschild. "It still surprises people, because I still think people look and say, 'It just can't happen this way.' But it has, and it's very real."

Morris hasn't made it yet. Recently, he was sent bacto the minor leagues for a little more seasoning. But he is only a phone call away from the big time.

And he is still motivated by his high school players back in west Texas, the ones who once reminded him of his unfinished business with baseball.

"I'm excited for them, being able to see that they've actually taught me a lesson," he says. "Here I was, in charge of teaching and coaching them, and they turned it back on me and taught me a big lesson."

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