From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

The Second Time Around

If you can dream it, you can do it.

Walt Disney

Jim Morris is living proof that dreams, even the most improbable ones, do come true. His wife, Lorri Morris, still cries when she recalls the moment she saw her husband standing in his big-league uniform that evening in September 1999. She and the three kids had made the three-and-one-half-hour drive from San Angelo, Texas, to Arlington, arriving at the ballpark just as the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays were finishing their pregame warm-ups.

Jim Morris, called up from the minors earlier in the day, had already taken his place in the Tampa Bay bullpen when his family showed up. His son Hunter camped by the dugout hoping for a glimpse of his dad, while Lorri and the two girls made their way around the ballpark to see if he was with the other relievers.

As they peeked over into the bullpen, they saw him for the first time in three months. He was twenty-five pounds lighter than he’d been, but he was smiling and he was a few hours from becoming baseball’s oldest rookie pitcher in thirty-nine years—a thirty-five-year-old left-handed reliever who returned to baseball last summer after a ten-year retirement.

“It was just hard to believe,” Lorri Morris said. “I cried. He cried. It’s just unbelievable.”

Four months earlier, he’d been a science teacher and high school coach making the 140-mile round-trip drive from San Angelo to Big Lake (population: 3,672), learning the lonesome landscape that inspired the songs of James McMurtry and the politics of Lyndon Johnson.

His dream then was to land a high school coaching job in Fort Worth that would allow him more time with his family. And then one day, he challenged his high school team in Big Lake by saying, “What’s it going to take to motivate you guys?”

Actually, Morris doesn’t remember exactly what he said. What he remembers now is that as he was challenging his kids, they were challenging him in return.

“They’d been knocked out of the basketball play-offs on a fluke, and they were down in the dumps about the baseball season,” Morris said. “I kept trying to motivate them. Basically, they threw it on me. They said they could tell by the way I coach and look at the game and how I feel that I still want to play. One of them said something like, ‘You tell us to do one thing, but you’re not willing to do it yourself.’”

At that point, Morris made his players a promise that’s now a Disney movie project.

“I just told them that if they made the play-offs, I’d go to a big-league tryout camp,” he said.

David Werst, owner of the local newspaper, the Big Lake Wildcat, and father of first baseman Joe David Werst, recalled, “He was telling them the usual stuff that coaches tell kids. ‘You guys are good, you can be good, keep a positive attitude,’ all those things. They said, ‘What about you?’ It might have been Joe David who said it first, but several others picked up on it. I mean, they knew he was throwing hard, but they didn’t know it was that hard. It’s just fantastic the way it has turned out.”

The Fighting Owls did make the play-offs, and a few weeks later, Jim Morris fulfilled his end of the deal by loading the three kids into a dusty Cutlass and driving to his hometown of Brown wood to participate in a Devil Rays’ tryout camp.

Veteran scout Doug Gassaway, who had made the two-and-one-half-hour drive from his home near Lake Whitney that morning, recalls that about seventy kids showed up.

“Typical tryout camp,” he said. “None of them could play.”

Morris, soft-spoken, polite and wearing a softball uniform, was the last guy to approach him. He walked up with a beer gut and an eight-year-old trailing behind him, a five-year-old hanging on one leg and a one-year-old in a stroller.

Gassaway asked which one wanted the tryout.

“Me,” Morris said, smiling.

Gassaway rolled his eyes and said, “C’mon, Jimmy, I’m hot and I’m tired. Let’s get this over with so I can go home.”

Morris originally had planned to attend a tryout camp in Dallas because several teams would be there. He decided on Brownwood because he had to keep the kids while Lorri worked and because “there were fewer people to embarrass myself in front of. I figured all I was doing was fulfilling my promise to my high school kids. After that, I could go and get another job in teaching and get back on with my life.”

Morris took the mound and threw a ninety-four-mile-an-hour fastball.

Gassaway saw the reading on his radar gun and said to his assistant, “Something’s wrong. Must be some electrical interference.”

The assistant shook his head. He had also clocked the pitch at ninety-four miles an hour.

Then thirty-five-year-old Jim Morris threw twelve consecutive ninety-eight-mile-an-hour fastballs.

Gassaway was speechless.

“This is crazy,” the scout said, “but I’m going to call my office and see what they say. I’ll let you know one way or the other.”

When Morris returned home that evening, Lorri asked:

“What are these messages from Doug Gassaway?”

Gassaway had telephoned Devil Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar to tell him he’d found a left-handed pitcher who threw ninety-eight miles an hour.

“Sign him,” LaMar said.

“Chuck, he’s thirty-five years old,” Gassaway said.

Gassaway told LaMar the whole story: As a high school football star for legendary Brownwood High Coach Gordon Wood, Morris had turned down football scholarships to Penn State and Notre Dame because he wouldn’t be allowed to play baseball. Instead, he went to Angelo State on an academic scholarship, and the Milwaukee Brewers drafted him in 1981.

In six seasons, he never made it higher than Class A, and he retired after having surgery on his elbow and his shoulder. He had returned to Texas, earned his teaching degree and married, and now was the father of three. Yet even as he looked for a simpler life, he could not shake what Texan Robert Earl Keen described as “this crazy cowboy dream.”

Two days later, Gassaway had Morris back on the same mound. In a steady rain, Morris was clocked at around ninety-six miles an hour—at least five miles an hour faster than he’d ever thrown before retirement. Two days later, he said good-bye to his wife and kids and headed for Florida and a job that would pay him twelve hundred dollars a month. In simpler terms, he would be making one thousand dollars a month less than he’d made as a teacher (in the majors, he started at the major-league minimum of two hundred thousand dollars, but Lorri has kept her job at Angelo State).

“I honestly don’t know how Lorri made it,” Morris recalled, his voice choking. “I’m here now because of her. I know God had a plan for me that was different than my own plan. I was really homesick, and we were struggling financially. When it seemed like we couldn’t go on, something would happen. One time, it was a contract with a (baseball) glove company. I had them send the check to her. Little things like that would happen to me.”

The Devil Rays pushed him through an abbreviated spring training–type program, and after he appeared in three games for Class A Orlando, he was promoted to AAA Durham.

“One day our scouting director, Dan Jennings, came in my office and said, ‘I’ve got a story you’re not going to believe,’” Devil Rays Manager Larry Rothschild said. “We didn’t bring him up here because he’s a good story. We brought him up because he’s a left-hander with a good arm. He’s thirty-six years old—you’re not going to take your time with him.”

In eighteen games at Durham—yes, the team of Crash Davis and Nuke Laloosh—Morris was 3–1 with a 5.48 ERA and sixteen strikeouts in twenty-three innings. Then came the word that the Devil Rays were bringing him up for a September look-see.

He arrived in Arlington on the afternoon of September 18, and a few hours later—and eighteen years after the Milwaukee Brewers had first drafted him—Jim Morris made his big-league debut by striking out Rangers shortstop Royce Clayton on four pitches that were clocked at ninety-five miles an hour or better. After the game, Jim, Lorri and the kids celebrated with pizza in his hotel room.

“We heard about him a month or so before he got called up,” Devil Rays catcher John Flaherty said. “I remember the guy Sports Illustrated made up—Syd Finch. He was supposed to throw 105 miles an hour, and Jim’s story sounded an awful lot like that. I really didn’t believe it until that night in Texas when he came out of the bullpen.”

Morris appeared in five games during September and was impressive enough to win an invitation to the spring big-league camp. At thirty-six years old, he made the Devil Rays as a left-handed specialist and appeared in sixteen games before being sent back to the minors. He was disappointed about going back to the minors, but still amazed at how far he’d come.

His velocity has declined a bit since last summer, but he has a nice slider and a decent curveball. He struggles with his composure at times, but that’s not surprising considering everything that has happened.

“He’s the best guy in the world,” Flaherty said. “You see kids come up now who think they should have everything handed to him. This is a guy who hasn’t had anything handed to him. He appreciates every day he’s here. He’s trying so hard to learn. He’s had some success and he’s had some failure, but he’s handled it all in a first-class manner.”

Richard Justice

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