“God brought everything back around full circle, and when I was least expecting it is when everything happened,” Jim Morris, the oldest rookie pitcher to play major league baseball in 40 years, told EthicsDaily.com.
A movie about his life, “The Rookie,” opens Friday in theaters across the country. Starring Dennis Quaid as Morris, the movie follows Morris’ path from high school science teacher to the big leagues. That journey began when Morris, also the high school’s baseball coach, made a bet with his team: if they could win the district championship, he would try out for the majors.
That bet sets the movie in motion. In real life, it sparked Morris’ second attempt to play major league baseball.
The first came when the Milwaukee Brewers drafted Morris in 1983. He spent roughly six years in the minor leagues, though much of it passed by on the operating table. Arm injuries plagued the lefty’s career, and by the time he hung up his cleats in 1989, he’d already had two elbow surgeries. But it was a shoulder injury that forced him out.
Married and out of baseball, Morris went back to college, where he discovered his affinity for the sciences. He and his wife Lorri had three children—Hunter, Jessica and Jaimee. And he wound up teaching chemistry and physics and coaching baseball at the high school in Big Lake, Texas.
That’s when he and his team, which knew of his lingering dream, cut the deal.
“I wanted to pull them up” by making the bet, Morris said. He figured if the team did win the district, he would just find a tryout, throw a few pitches, go home and be done with it.
But the team won, and Morris found himself taking his three kids, stroller and all, to the tryout. He told his wife he was taking the kids to see their grandfather. “Which is true,” he said. “I just tried out on the way.”
Amazingly, the team hadn’t leaked a word of the bet. But Lorri found out about it when, after Morris threw pitches close to 100 miles per hour at the tryouts, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization filled his answering machine. She heard the messages before Jim and the kids got home from the tryouts.
The Morris family faced a tough decision. Jim would have to leave his family and go to Florida. He would also have to start in the minor leagues again.
“I was chasing down a dream at that point,” he said. “If you turn down a second chance, what are you teaching your kids?” he remembered thinking.
He set off for Florida, and within three months had moved from AA to AAA minor league ball. He finally got the call from the majors, and joined the Devil Rays on the road … at The Ballpark in Arlington, where they were facing the Texas Rangers.
Morris actually pitched in that game and struck out the first batter he faced: all-star Royce Clayton. That trip also marked the first time he’d seen his family in three months. Morris’ father, with whom he’d always had a fractured relationship, also attended the game, a sign of their improving relationship.
Morris’ father had been a military man. His disciplinarian nature, coupled with the fact that the family was always moving when Morris was a boy, strained their connection.
When Morris was in the ninth grade, his family finally settled in Texas. By that time, he had lived in California, Connecticut, Florida and Virginia.
Morris said he lost friends with every move, but he always had his ball and glove—his treasures since age three. He also remembered wearing his ball uniform under his acolyte’s robe. After extinguishing candles at church, he’d head for the ballpark.
Fast-forward several decades, and Morris was heading out to the ballpark again, but this time in the big leagues. After two seasons, however, he left baseball for the second time.
He gave two reasons for his exit. One was tendonitis. The other was family.
His son called him one evening and asked him how much longer he had to be away. “And that kind of got me,” Morris said. “I wanted to go home and see them achieve their dreams.”
Morris had a dream, and he had lived it. Now he had a family too. “Priorities change as you get older,” he said.
Living that dream changed his faith, too.
During his first push for the majors, Morris characterized his pitching-mound prayers as, “Please don’t let him hit it out of the park.” But the second time around, they changed to, “Show me the way. Whatever happens happens.”
Morris said he learned that “life was bigger than myself” and that he was “a vessel being used for something.”
“There’s no explanation for throwing 85-88 miles per hour the first time around, then laying around for 10 years and coming back throwing 98,” he said.
It was tough on the family when Morris went back to the majors, but he was chasing a childhood dream, and he believed that second chance had been given to him for a reason.
“It was tough doing it, but worth getting it done,” he said.
“It” turned out to be an inspirational story suited for both a book and a movie. His book, The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy, was published in spring 2001.
As for the movie, “I wanted to keep it true and keep it a family movie,” he said. Like his dream, those wishes came true.
“The Rookie” is rated G—a rarity for live-action features—and the movie is “90 percent” true, according to Morris. The main divergence from the facts is that Morris lived in one town and worked in another, whereas the movie combines the towns.
Morris also never used an automobile speed-checking device to clock his pitches, though he said he passed one every day and wished that idea had occurred to him.
Morris now lives in Dallas, where he volunteers with local baseball teams when he’s not taking inspirational speaking engagements.
When he speaks to groups, he speaks from experience. His mantra:
“Never give up on your dreams.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy by Jim Morris and Joel Engel (Hardback)
The Rookie: The Incredible True Story of a Man Who Never Gave Up on His Dream
by Jim Morris and Joel Engel (Paperback)
The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy (Audio Cassette)