The Unnatural

How Jim Morris went from high school teacher to major leaguer.

Jim Morris (left) and Dennis Quaid on the set of The Rookie.

This is a story straight out of a Hollywood movie. A former minor league pitcher turned high school teacher/baseball coach makes a bet with his team: If the kids win the district championship he promises to audition for the major leagues. In this land of make believe, the youths win the title, their teacher attends the tryout, and he proceeds to wow the scouts with a 98 mph fastball. Next thing he knows, the ex-high school coach is striking out major league stars at hallowed grounds like Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium.

Only this is a true story. It happened to Jim Morris in 1999, when he surprised his students, baseball executives and himself by securing a job as a reliever for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Documented in the new book “The Oldest Rookie,” by Jim Morris and Joel Engel (Little, Brown & Company), Disney is currently filming a movie version of the story with actor Dennis Quaid starring as Morris. And, in a case of art imitating life, Morris makes a cameo appearance as an umpire, the latest twist in this real-life fairy tale.

Jim Morris grew up in football crazy West Texas, dreaming of one day playing major league baseball. After high school he was drafted by the New York Yankees but played junior college ball before being drafted again, this time by the Milwaukee Brewers. An exceptional athlete, Morris was accustomed to dominating the competition, but with limited baseball experience and a fastball that peaked in the high-eighties, he struggled in the minors. His troubles were compounded by arm injuries, which further stunted his development. After several years—and a handful of major surgeries on his pitching arm—Morris reluctantly gave up on his dream of playing in the majors, resigned to a rewarding but unglamorous teaching career.

In his late-twenties, Morris was taking classes and working part-time when he decided to try football, walking on at Division II Angelo State University, where he led the nation in punting. When no NFL scouts called, he began devoting all his time to teaching. At age 35, Morris found himself pitching batting practice—throwing much too fast, if you ask his students—to the Reagan County High School Owls in the hardscrabble town of Big Lake, Texas. That’s when senior catcher, Joel DeLaGarza, proposed the bet that would change his life. After the Owls surprised everyone by winning a school-first league title, Morris elected to attend a small Devil Rays tryout at Howard Payne University—“so I would embarrass myself in front of as few people as possible,” he said. At the tryout, “the parents were my age and the kids were like 18 years old. I said ‘Oh, man. What have I done?’” recalled Morris.

But Morris was determined to hold up his end of the bargain. Arriving with his three young children in tow and dressed in three-sizes-too-large softball pants, a T-shirt and ten-year-old cleats, Morris approached a potbellied Devil Rays scout named Doug Gassaway. “How many kids did you bring to try out?” asked Gassaway. Morris sheepishly explained his situation and Gassaway agreed to let him throw—after the teenagers finished their workouts.

When Morris finally took the mound, he threw a pitch and looked up to find Gassaway shaking his radar gun. Gassaway immediately called for a backup gun and trained both on Morris, repeatedly calling for fastballs. “My first pitch was 94 and everything after that was 96-98 mph,” said Morris. “By the time I threw the fifth or sixth pitch all the kids had congregated around the backstop and the parents had moved to the benches behind the plate. When I was finished I figured I had done OK, because I’d throw a few pitches and Gassaway would say, ‘I wish you were ten years younger.’ Don’t we all, I said. When we were done Gassaway said, ‘They are going to think I am off-the-wall crazy, but I’ve got to call this in.’”

By the time Morris got home the Devil Rays had already called several times. The messages prompted Morris’ wife Lorri to quip, ‘Do you know how old you are?’ 

“Two days later I went back so they could make sure it wasn’t a fluke,” said Morris. “Two days after that I was in Florida getting in shape.” 

How does Morris account for throwing harder at 35 than 25? “Giving my body ten years off and letting it mature on it’s own,” he says. “Also, throwing [high school] batting practice. I tried to smooth out my motion so I could throw batting practice every day and not get sore.” 

After relatively short stints at Double-A and Triple-A, he was called up to the Devil Rays in September of 1999. When he arrived at the team’s hotel—his debut came on the road against the Texas Rangers—new teammate and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs hugged him and said his was the best story he ever heard. That night Morris struck out the first batter he faced, Royce Clayton, and became the second oldest rookie in major league history. 

Although Morris retired from baseball this spring—tendinitis and elbow surgery quickly intruded on his short major league career—he says he will cherish the memories, especially visiting Yankee Stadium. “One night I was in right field during batting practice, in shouting distance of the bleacher creatures,” recalls Morris. “They figured out who I was…. ‘Morris!!! You suck! It’s a great story but you suck!’ That was pretty cool,” laughs Morris. 

But his favorite baseball moment occurred as he was entering the Yankee Stadium visitors clubhouse for what turned out to be the last time: “I heard a loud voice from behind me,” remembers Morris. ‘Hey, Morris! Can I have your autograph?’ I turned around and it was a big policeman. He said, ‘You give guys like us a fighting chance.’”