Jim Morris – The Rookie

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“You’re born with your name, you die with your name. What you do with it in-between is a legacy you leave behind for everybody else. Who do you want to be?” Jim Morris recollects these words of his grandfather while speaking at an event in 2018. “The Oldest Rookie” is how Jim Morris describes himself on his website. Strictly speaking, he is not the oldest rookie to make his debut in Major league baseball. But what Jim Morris is, is inspiring. His story is one of perseverance, self-belief and taking chances. 

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Brownwood, Texas. New Haven, Connecticut. Great Lakes, Illinois. Jacksonville, Florida. Back to Brownwood. Jim Morris could have been considered a journeyman baseball player before he was old enough to drive himself to his games. But Jimmy loved baseball and would play his beloved game wherever it would be played; luckily so, as his father, Jim Sr. would regularly move with his job in the Navy with his family in tow. Unfortunately for Jimmy, settling in Brownwood meant a temporary break from his first love due to the town’s lack of a baseball program. So instead, he began a short affair with football while attending Brownwood High School Lions from 1979-82, and a productive affair it was, as the team won a state championship. But like any first love, Jimmy never forgot about baseball. 

After being selected 466th overall in the 1982 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, he did not sign with the organisation and continued his academic career at Ranger College in Ranger, TX. He was later selected fourth overall in the 1983 January Secondary amateur draft by the Milwaukee Brewers, this time signing. Unfortunately, injuries struck early and often for Jimmy. He was plagued by arm injuries throughout his minor league career that caused him to miss all of the 1986 season and only make four pitching appearances in the 1987 season. He was released that year, never having pitched at a level higher than the single-A minor leagues. Morris did not pitch in the 1988 season but was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 1989. However, his old arm injuries resurfaced and limited him to just two pitching appearances before he was again released before breaking past the single-A minor leagues. 

With it becoming apparent that his time in baseball was over, Morris switched career paths. He became a high school teacher after relocating with his wife and children to Big Lake, Texas. In addition to teaching physical science, he also coached the school baseball team at Reagan County High School (contrary to what Disney says, not Big Lake High School), and this was where he stayed for the next decade before his second chance began. 

In a recent interview with the guardian, Morris told:

“I had a lot of fun teaching and coaching. I got to Reagan County High School and had a team who had one win each year for the three years before I came. I had eight kids for the first practice session and had to persuade two others to come. We had batting practice and I liked to pitch from the mound so I could see what they were doing. One day the catcher, Joel, said to me: ‘You’re hurting my hand, man.’ I didn’t think I was pitching hard at all. Even when I was in the minors I threw a max of 88mph.”

While coaching the Reagan County Owls during the spring of 1999, coach Morris and his players struck up a deal. If the team won the District Championship for the first time in their history, Morris would try and revive his dream of playing in the major leagues. 

“We lost our first two games. I talked to them about hopes, dreams and goals. I said: ‘It’s more than baseball. You all need to go out and live life.’ The kids were smiling. Joel said: ‘What about your dream, coach?’ I said: ‘My dream is to see you succeed in the classroom and on the field.’ He said: ‘We think you still want to play,’ so I told him: ‘I don’t have 85% of muscle in my shoulder and I’m 260 pounds because your mums keep feeding me tortillas.’

“They saw the joy I had on the mound when I threw. Joel asked: ‘Why are you telling us to chase our dreams when you’re not even chasing your own? If we win the district championship, you go for the tryout.’ So, I did what any parent who wants to see kids succeed would do, and said yes.”

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The Owls won their divisional title, and Jim Morris had a deal to uphold, so he made the journey to one of the organised tryouts for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays that were held nearby in Texas. It was clear from the start that the scouts were not at all interested in a rookie well into his 30s, telling him that he would be allowed to throw only to fulfil his promise to his students and that he would have to be the last tryout of the day. Morris took to the mound after his long wait… and threw the first pitch straight over the catcher’s head. Morris saw a scout in the stand checking his radar gun and thought he’d managed to pitch so slowly that it wouldn’t even register. After he threw his 60 pitches, the scout came over to inform Morris that his first pitch was 94mph, and that the others climbed as high as 98mph, 12 of them consecutively to be exact. Regardless of age, a 98mph fastball is too good to pass up. With that, Morris signed a professional contract with the Devil Rays at the age of 35.

He immediately bested his previous record by being sent to the AA affiliate Orlando Rays before quickly advancing to the AAA Durham Bulls. He managed to put in plenty of impressive pitching performances in that time to earn himself a spot on the Rays roster when the rosters expanded in September. Finally, on September 18th 1999, Jim Morris had his childhood dream come true. The Rays were on the road in Arlington to face the Texas Rangers and required pitching help. Over 30 years after he first picked up a ball, 17 years after he was first drafted and a decade after his dream was ended by injury, Jim Morris was a major league baseball player. 

Morris closed out the game against the Rangers by striking out Royce Clayton with four pitches; he made four more appearances that season. The 2000 season yielded 16 more major league appearances before the old arm injuries began to take hold again. His final appearance came on May 9th 2000, at Yankee Stadium. In December 2000, Morris signed a minor league contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers but was released in spring training before the season began. The Rookie’s time in the show was over. He would never play professional baseball again. 

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Since the end of his time in baseball, Morris continues to inspire countless others with his underdog story and often appears as a motivational speaker. He penned his autobiography The Oldest Rookie and his second book, Dream Makers, covering his time in the 20 years after his retirement from baseball. Morris also inspired the events of the 2002 Disney movie The Rookie, allowing a whole new generation of baseball fans to connect with a remarkable story and learn that it really is never too late to chase a dream.

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