From the Big Leagues to the Big Screen: The Story of Jim Morris
January 14, 2014 9 Comments
I had the privilege of interviewing legendary major league pitcher Jim Morris a few months ago. Here is how the conversation went:
Baseball fan or not, it is very likely you know something about former Devil Rays pitcher Jim “The Rookie” Morris. You will recall almost fourteen years ago when Walt Disney Pictures began launching real life sports dramas starting with Remember the Titans (2000). The next in line was The Rookie (2002), led by Dennis Quaid as big league hopeful, Jim Morris.
Not only did Morris’s life inspire a movie, but he also wrote a book, The Rookie, formerly titled The Oldest Rookie (coauthored by Joel Engel) which gives fans further insight into his life. In the preface Morris states, “It’s not me who touches people; it’s what I represent: the possibility that dreams from long ago may still come true, even if they look lost forever.”
“But what about people whose dreams really are lost forever?” I asked him over the phone. “People’s dreams aren’t lost forever,” he said adamantly. “You’ve got to dream a dream and make it come true.” This stubborn persistence does not stop at just words, as exemplified by his life story of achieving the big leagues at the age of thirty-five (twenty-eight is considered elderly in the modern world of professional baseball).
But he’s more than persistent. Somewhere beneath the taciturn exterior is a big-hearted man who finds value in people and seeks to connect. In one episode as described in his book, Morris and a group of guys are playing Poker while a storm rages outside. Morris draws back the curtains and jumps at the site of Andre the Giant peering in (no joke), probably looking for shelter. All of them were too stunned to do the polite thing and invite him in. “What would you have talked to him about if you had invited him to join you guys?” I asked. His answer didn’t miss a beat:
“I would have liked to get to know him. Get to know the man instead of the persona. You want to see what they’re like and see what their hearts are like.” He then quoted his grandfather, Ernest, “Don’t judge anybody by the outside.”
His relationship with his grandfather proved to be tantamount in Morris’s life. It was his grandfather who taught Morris, among other things, to follow his dreams, and how to treat a lady, be respectful, and be a God-fearing man. It was his grandparents that helped show him the way to God. From fifteen on, he knew that the way toward God was the path he wanted to take. “After my surgery I went from 88 mph throws to 98 mph throws.” He went on to say that that could only have been God, and that no one’s complained about him publicly attributing his success and talent to his Lord.
Even moving from town to town (his father was in the Navy), Morris has been playing baseball since he was three years old. Even from that age, his throw impressed the neighborhood kids enough to invite him to play in their games. Even before he made it to the minors, he was told that it could take more than a decade to make it to the major leagues – if he made it at all. I asked him if any part of him wanted to throw in the towel at that point. “No. I’m stubborn,” he answered.
Though he hadn’t yet hit seventy home runs in one major league season, Morris struck Mark McGwire out early in his career. One could only imagine what Morris thought years later in 1998 watching his former competitor rewrite baseball history. When I asked if he wished he could pitch to him again, he said that you “always want to pitch to someone again, especially when they’re at the top of their game.”
Morris would have had no regrets if his journey to the big leagues stopped at the triple-A’s or lower. “I did something to help a group of kids trust adults.” And that’s where the Disney movie picks up Morris’s life. As a high school biology teacher and baseball coach, his team made a wager with him that if they won the District Championship he would have to try out for the major leagues. He became a superstar literally overnight.
They won, he tried out, and he was drafted by the Tampa Devil Rays, thanks to his 12 consecutive 98-mph pitches – not his age. By his second day in the big leagues, he had to change his name to get a hotel room because everyone from everywhere wanted to hear and report his story, and why it took so long for this old rookie to finally find his place on the pitcher’s mound. When he and his agent pitched the movie idea to Disney that week, he told them, “I want [the movie] to be about the kids and second chances.” As soon as those words were out of his mouth in the producer’s office, he thought, That’s it. I’m done.
The movie was not only green-lit – it was everything Morris wanted, lacking only the relationship between him and his grandfather, and the impact he had on young Jim’s life. Aside from that, Morris was pleased with the final cut of director John Lee Hancock’s 2000 film. Since then, he’s directed The Alamo, The Blindside, and most recently the critically-acclaimed Saving Mr. Banks, which Morris expressed enthusiasm for. “[He’s] one of the smartest people I’ve ever met,” said Morris about the director. He couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is for Hancock to get the facts right for his movies.
While filming, actor Dennis Quaid told Morris that if he sees anything wrong or out of character for him, stop him and correct him. Morris doesn’t keep in touch with his portrayer, although Quaid extended an invitation for him and his family to come out and stay at his ranch in Wyoming any time he’d like. “I feel like guys like him are on a different planet than guys like you and me,” said Morris when I asked if he plans on taking him up on that offer. “I just wouldn’t want to bother him.” I would love to hear someday that he took him up on it.
Jim Morris realized his childhood dream, with the help of a bunch of kids, at thirty-five. He pitched in twenty-one major league games from September 1999 to May 2000. Now, several years later, he’s travelling the world speaking to dreamers and baseball enthusiasts. He’s the official spokesman for Arms of Hope, a Texas-based non-profit Christian organization that assists children and single mothers in need of help. (You can check out their website at armsofhope.org.) He lives with his wife and children in Kerrville, Texas with their two dogs Max and Butter. Oh, and he’s still teaching baseball. I guess some dreams, even after they’ve come true, refuse to die.
For more information on Jim Morris, visit his website at Jimtherookiemorris.com.