We’re all faced with tough decisions in our lives, one’s that could ultimately impact and alter our dreams. While we should never give up on an aspiring ambition, adulthood and life has a funny, and often, cruel way of changing our course.
We’ve heard people in our lives tell us that it’s time to make practical decisions, to unfortunately let go of desired goals and aspirations we held so dear in our youth. It’s time to grow up.
But what if a dream just won’t die? What if a dream remains dormant, waiting for the right moment in time to reappear and justify the long hours of hard work and determination we put into it? What if a dream could turn into a reality in a near blink of an eye?
For a 35-year-old science teacher and baseball coach, that is exactly what happened.
Jim Morris lived a turbulent life during his youth. His father was in the military, and as he’s described in other interviews, with abusive both physically and mentally. Growing up with a military father meant Jim and his family were always relocating. The young Morris took to the game of baseball, a consistent constant in his life, where no matter what coast he was on, baseball would never be far away.
Morris’ story became known world-wide when the 2002 Disney film, The Rookie, was released in theaters. It told the tale of Morris and his upbringing, moving to a town in Texas called Brownwood, one that had no formal high school baseball team. Morris would play football during the school year, while playing baseball in a 10-game summer league.
It was there that a roving scout discovered Morris, who pitched and played center field. Initially drafted in the 18th round by the New York Yankees in 1982, Morris passed on the opportunity due to his ill grandfather, and instead was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 1st round of the Secondary Phase of the 1983 January Draft.
Unfortunately for Morris, a barrage of elbow and shoulder surgeries derailed his career, resulting in an early retirement from the game of baseball in 1988. It was then that Morris decided if he couldn’t play the game he loved, perhaps he could teach it. Morris earned his college degree and became a science teacher and baseball coach at Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Texas.
During a speech to his players on the importance of dreams and hard work, his kids turned the table on him. They convinced Morris that he too needed to live that credo, and if they were to win District Championship, he would need to find a major league tryout somewhere. The deal was on.
Morris kept to his word when his team won, attending a tryout and finding that his velocity was 10-12 mph faster than when he played in the minors in the ’80s. Morris was signed to a professional contract with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and shot through the minors in just three months.
On September 18, 1999, at 35 years and 242 days old, Jim Morris finally fulfilled his dream, making his major league debut in Arlington against the Texas Rangers. In the bottom of the 8th with one on and two outs, Morris was called upon to pitch to shortstop Royce Clayton. It took Morris only four pitches to strike Clayton out, in front of his friends and family.
Morris retired from the game in 2001, and has since gone on to work as an inspirational and motivation speaker, while his Jim “The Rookie” Morris Foundation aids in helping impoverished communities with philanthropic efforts including repairing sports facilities, funding equipment, and encouraging communities to lend a helpful hand.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Morris, where we discussed his early playing days, tenure as a teacher, and living out his dream as a Major League Baseball player at the age of 35.
MMO: Growing up, how did you first get introduced to the game of baseball?
Jim: My dad was in the military and we moved to the West Coast and East Coast. My first recollection of watching a game on TV was watching the Oakland A’s and Vida Blue. Then we moved over to the East Coast to Connecticut and Luis Tiant was pitching and Fred Lynn played center field, and I just thought the game was awesome.
You know, everybody has to do their job. It’s not a one-man show but each guy has to pull his weight to make the team work. It’s something that makes me love the game, so I tried to learn as much about it as I could.
MMO: What positions did you play?
Jim: I was a center fielder, first baseman, and a pitcher. I tried to talk my coach to letting me catch one time, because I thought I wanted to do all of it. And the first pitch I blinked and the pitch hit me in the chest. The second pitch I reached out for it and the guy swung around and hit me in the back of the head, and I was done. And I said, I’ll go play the field!
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Jim: I loved Fred Lynn; the way he played centerfield. He just exuded this confidence and happiness of being on the field, he just wanted to play. Pete Rose, is looked down upon now because of what he did, but he played the game with ferocity and he loved playing, he loved competing. And so anyone that has fun playing are guys I ike to watch.
MMO: You mentioned how you and your family moved around a lot in your youth. When you settled in Brownwood, Texas, the school had no baseball team. How did you continue to play?
Jim: I was a football player and we had 10 games during summer league. One day a roving scout for Major League Baseball came through town and I hit three home runs and I struck out like fifteen batters. All of a sudden I’m on the radar.
The Yankees had drafted me first and I could’ve played center field or pitched, and I passed on that because my grandfather was sick and I wanted to stay close to home. So the second time I got drafted he had passed away, and the Brewers drafted me as a pitcher. I signed that contract and took off, but I got noticed just because of that roving scout.
MMO: Can you talk about your time in the Milwaukee Brewers’ organization? I’ve read that you went through many injuries and surgeries during that time.
Jim: I did. I had nine elbow surgeries and four shoulder surgeries. Shoulder surgeries are from pitching a little bit, but mostly from high school and college football. So kind of a mixture of injuries but I had a lot of arm injuries.
On our rookie league team with the Brewers, I was just thinking about this earlier, there were so many guys on that team. You know, very few people ever make it to the big leagues, but of the 25 guys on that team about 15 went to the big leagues. That rookie league team was just loaded! I had fun watching those guys go up and I fell out because my arm was hurt all the time. I thought I’ll go to school, I’ll teach and coach the game. And then I get a shot at it later in life because of that group of kids (his high school team).
MMO: Did you have Tommy John surgery?
Jim: Twice. The first time was in ’86 and I was in the hospital for five days. The second time was in 2000 and I was in the hospital for four hours. Medicine has moved a LONG way up the road.
MMO: How did you transition to a high school science teacher after your initial retirement from baseball?
Jim: I went to college and I thought, if I couldn’t play the game I love maybe I could teach it. And so English and sciences were my strong suits; if I was a math teacher I would never get a job. But science I eat up for some reason and so that fit because a lot of people in Texas needed science teachers or coaches and I fit the bill.
MMO: Did you continue playing any organized baseball between your first retirement and teaching?
Jim: I did play softball, and I played for one of the best teams in the country eventually. We played a lot, and that was fun. We were ranked fourth in the country and we had fun. I liked to compete and I love sports and when I went back to college at 27-28 I played football. So I got my fill of competition in softball and football.
MMO: You made a bet with your high school team about winning District, that you would find a tryout for the majors. Can you talk a little about that and what your initial thoughts were when they won and you had to go make good on your end?
Jim: Oh man, that day (Districts) they didn’t expect to win and we came back in the last inning to score three and won. I just remember watching these guys celebrate, and the last thing I thought was, I will go tryout. For a few months I hadn’t thought about the bet.
The kids are getting on the bus and going, “Hey coach, it’s your turn.” And I’m going, ‘Oh my God I have to do this!’ I’ve had ten surgeries (and) at that point I weighed 250 pounds, I’m like, this is going to be hilarious! I can’t even get high school kids out and I’m going to go try out?
Several weeks later, school is over, and in baseball we got knocked out of the playoffs. I go to the tryout, nobody even wanted to play catch with me because I’m so old and they thought I was a joke. I had my three kids there, 8, 4, and 1 and so I’m the last guy to try out. And the first pitch I throw the scout shakes the radar gun and I go, ‘Oh my God I can’t even throw hard enough to register!’ Then I throw a few more and then they had a guy step in the box and the guy goes, “You want me to step in the box?” And I was like, huh? Maybe I’m throwing better than I thought I was.
I get done and the scout who’s about 70 comes up to me and goes, “I remember you in junior college, you were a football star that everyone wanted to make a pitcher out of.” I said, ‘Yes sir.’ He said, “You just threw 94 without warming up and everything after that first pitch was 98.” I know I just looked at him with this stupid look on my face like he’s got to be kidding me. A high school coach is hitting that?
I changed nothing from pitching to the high school kids to the tryout, I threw the same, just a nice and easy delivery and all of a sudden I’m not throwing 88 anymore like I was in high school, I’m throwing 98 to 100! And I’m like, how does that work? Three months later I’m not grading papers anymore, I’m in the big leagues.
MMO: You were reaching high 90s and even triple digits as a 35-year-old, which was about ten miles faster than what you were throwing with the Brewers. Any ideas of how you gained that extra velocity?
Jim: Well there’s a secular reason that people who don’t agree with this would think, oh you worked out. Or you did this, you tried to make your motion safe, smooth, and easy to take all the pressure off your arm. I just think at 19-20 years-old I wasn’t ready and God knew I wasn’t ready, but now it’s your turn.
MMO: In the film, it was portrayed that several of your teammates thought of you as a gimmick or publicity stunt. How accurate was that depiction?
Jim: I didn’t really see any of that, to be honest. Everybody was very nice. You know there’s one or two guys just like there are in businesses or sports teams. By and large almost every single person and even the coaches were like, this guy can do the job, he throws 100 mph let’s see what he can do. And everybody accepted me and everybody had fun, I had fun.
I was able to be a kid again at 35 and really enjoyed the game. I was enjoying it this time because there was no pressure to succeed anymore. I didn’t think I would make it, I never thought I would get past the tryout and because of that group of kids, here I am. It was just a blessing.
MMO: September 18, 1999, your major league debut. What do you remember from that day?
Jim: It was awesome. For three months everybody in the big leagues had heard about this crazy science teacher. I’m in my home state in my favorite ballpark, coming into the clubhouse where there’s Wade Boggs who just got his 3000th hit. This guy comes up to me and goes, “That is the best story that I’ve ever heard.” And I’m looking at him and I’m like, ‘You’re Wade Boggs!’ And he looks at me and giggled and we walked in and (Roberto) Hernandez, Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, and all of these guys (were there) and they just treated me like I’ve been there the whole time. It was amazing.
MMO: How happy were you with how the film turned out, and how accurate would you say it was?
Jim: The film is over 85 percent accurate. There were people who wanted to make a movie that had all different scenarios. My deal with Disney was, let’s do this (and) let’s do it right. It’s about the kids and older people who get second chances. It’s about overcoming obstacles and about all these things, and they put that in the film.
When Dennis (Quaid) got the part, he came up to me and he goes, “If you see anything that you don’t like, you tell me to stop.” And so I’m very happy with the whole process. It was overwhelming watching the movie, it was like reliving it because Dennis did such a good job and he and I talked a lot.
MMO: How was the overall process with the book and movie deal?
Jim: We did two separate deals. We did a book deal the same time we were doing the Disney contract. And Disney ended up buying the paperback for us, it was mind-blowing! Here I am teaching in a town of 3,500 people, six months later I pitched in the big leagues, (and then) I’m in downtown New York going to all of these publishing houses. Then we go to California and I’m going to all of these production companies, I mean, who does that? You’re meeting all of these people and you’re like, ‘Wow!’ I tell people I had no lawyer at 35, at 36 I’ve got like 400! (Laughs)
MMO: Can you talk a bit about your foundation?
Jim: We go into inner and urban cities where they’re not getting money for their sports programs. Last year we did the high school in Fort Worth who had nothing, not even baseball uniforms. We got them uniforms, we got them bags, bats, balls, batting cages. We’re getting their field redone. Everybody came in and helped. The football team’s like 6-1. They’re lifting weights, they’re getting stronger like other teams are so they can compete. The baseball team’s coming around.
You have people showing up planting flowers, everybody that went to school there are coming back and helping the kids that are there now. And this is what we want; we want people to get involved again and realize if our kids don’t have things to do at school doing sports, music, whatever it is, then they’ll be on the street. I don’t want them on the street, I want them learning and dreaming.
MMO: Thank you so much for your time today Mr. Morris, I wish you all the best.
Jim: Thank you, Mathew.
Follow Jim on Twitter, @jimmorris6363