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Mudville: November 24, 2020 12:30 pm PDT
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The Oldest Rookie, Jim Morris

" By the time I got to the mound I knew one thing, I would not have changed anything about my journey. I may have gotten there at an age when everyone else is retiring, but if I would have gotten that dream at 19, I would have been a spoiled brat."

On May 9, 2000, Jim Morris was thrust into an impossible situation. He came out of the bullpen at Yankee Stadium in the bottom of the tenth inning to face Paul O’Neill in a tie game with one out.

Derek Jeter had just walked to load the bases and it was up to Morris to get out of the jam.

O’Neill was the Yankees three hitter and a player so clutch and so tough that he earned the nickname The Warrior.

Morris walked O’Neill on four pitches and the Yankees walked-off with the win.

Morris walked off the mound and would never pitch in the Majors again.

He was battling arm injuries at the time and as he put it in his new book Dream Makers, he was throwing “87 MPH meatballs” up to the plate, down from the usual 98 MPH heaters he was known for.

While that may have been his last appearance in the Majors, it was not an ending for Morris by any means. It was just the beginning of a journey that has been even more improbable than his ascent to the Major Leagues at the age of 35.

That journey was the impetus for his new book Dream Makers, which was released June 23 through Simon & Schuster. It’s a book he said has been 20 years in the making because he couldn’t find an ending.

He was finally able to finish the book because, in his words, “God gave me two endings.”

Morris joins BallNine to discuss his journey, his faith and the role of baseball in America as the country deals with crisis in this week’s edition of Spitballin’.

For those not familiar with Morris by name, he was the 35-year-old high school science teacher from Texas who also coached the school’s baseball team.

He had been a minor league pitcher in the Brewers organization in the 1980s, but a series of arm injuries seemingly ended his career.

A three-inch bone spur damaged his deltoid muscle so badly that most of it was gone.

He probably shouldn’t have been able to do anything strenuous with his left arm after that, let alone increase his fastball velocity ten years later to 98 MPH.

The short version of Morris’ story is that he promised the talented, ragtag high school baseball team he coached that if they won the district tournament, he would tryout for the Major Leagues.

Morris with the Devil Rays

After his team improbably won the tournament for the first time in school history, Morris kept his word and attended a tryout with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He spent much of the tryout changing diapers and talking with his son waiting for his turn to come. Morris was the last person called to the mound and you couldn’t fault scouts if they didn’t have much more than a passing interest.

After Morris fired off twelve straight 98 MPH fastballs, he turned more than a few heads. The fact that he was a lefty had scouts salivating and after conferring with his family, Morris signed with the Devil Rays. After 21 minor league appearances that summer, he was called up in September, less than four months after leaving the classroom. He made his debut against the Rangers in front of 40,000 in his home state of Texas and struck out the first batter he faced, All-Star shortstop Royce Clayton, on four pitches.

Morris released his first book The Oldest Rookie, in 2001 and his story was turned into the award-winning movie The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid in 2002. The movie earned over $80 million, which was nearly four times its $22 million budget. More importantly, the movie and Morris’ story inspired countless people never to give up on their dreams. If you ever need inspiration in your life, baseball-related or not, take two hours of your time to watch The Rookie.

Then sit down with Dream Makers to learn what the following two decades had in store for Morris.

If you don’t believe in miracles, Morris’ story might change your mind. It’s not just that he went from being a high school teacher to Major League pitcher in less than a year, it’s the incredible path his life took from childhood, to the Majors and then beyond.

Sometimes things that may be perceived as a miracle can be dismissed as coincidence or a stroke of pure luck. However, when the timeline of someone’s life is dotted with incidents that not only defy logic but fly in the face of medical science on multiple occasions, it can make a believer out of just about anyone.

In this time of crisis in America, many are looking for miracles. Look no further than Jim Morris and his story as we go Spitballin’ with the man who lived the dream of every aging athlete who ever dared to think, “What might have been?”

Thanks for joining us for this week’s edition of Spitballin’. You’re our first guest who had his life made into a movie! You have a new book out called Dream Makers. How did this book, your second one, come about?

The question I have been asked the most over the past 20 years is, “The movie is awesome. Dennis Quaid did a great job. Your story is great, but what has happened since baseball?” That is a loaded question, but that’s what Dream Makers is. The book is 20 years in the making. When I tried to come up with the ending on my own, it never worked.

After I left the Rays, I signed with the Dodgers in 2001. In a period of five days, I went from throwing 95-98 to not even being able to judge a ball thrown back to me. My balance was gone and my hand-eye coordination was gone. That all happened in just five days. This person who taught baseball and taught kids how to bunt couldn’t even go through a bunting drill and put the ball on the bat. It was ridiculous. I didn’t know what was going on.

During that same period of time, my son called me and asked, “When are you coming home?” Jim Tracy was our manager at the time, and I went in and told him, “Look, I’m not ever gonna set the world on fire in baseball. This is a chance for me to be a good dad and I’m going home.” He handled it with grace and told me if I ever needed anything to just let him know. He sent me home with bats, balls, gloves and helmets for the kids. He had so much grace and humility. I love that guy.

Dream Makers came about because of a question that was asked repeatedly of me, “What have you done since?” So, I wanted to answer that question to the point that I wanted people to think that I’m sitting in their living room talking to them. I want to tell my story, good, bad and ugly. And I mix humor in it because, you know what, we need hope and we need grace and we need to be able to laugh. If there’s something ridiculous that happens to you, you should be able to laugh about it and make fun of yourself. Surely we’re not gonna get in trouble for making fun of ourselves.

Morris with Dennis Quaid, who portayed Jim in the movie “The Rookie”

So, once you left baseball your life took a path of incredible ups and downs that you talk about with brutal honesty in Dream Makers. Can you give fans a glimpse of some of the obstacles you faced?

In the 15 years after I left baseball, I had 20 surgeries and then 30 more surgeries. I’m like, “What is going on?” My nervous system seemed to be attacked. Eventually I went to a world-renowned movement specialist in Houston. He does all of these tests on me for about eight hours and he comes in and in about two seconds he just goes, “You have CTE-induced Parkinson’s that is gonna turn into Parkinson’s. It’s gonna get worse. You have had too many concussions. Take these pills.”

So, I took the pills and it helped my symptoms. My balance got better, and my tremors weren’t nearly as bad. I was able to think a little bit too, but it killed my stomach. So, I had another ten surgeries and I had gastric bypass. It was just this long road and I was still working as a motivational speaker. But in between, the Parkinson’s was just tearing me up. It was to the point where just three years ago in 2017, my mom bought me a cane just to walk around the block. I couldn’t even walk. It was that bad.

Now, three years later, I am walking, I am lifting, I am running. I have been tested for Parkinson’s again, they have done the brain scans with their nuclear medicine and they told me my dopamine levels were perfect. They said, “You do not have Parkinson’s.” My neurologist looked at me and said, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years and this doesn’t happen. How did you get well?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She told me that people do not get well once they have Parkinson’s, they get worse. I said, “I know! You told me that every time I came for five years, but here I am.” She did all her physical tests and everything else and she said that I showed no signs of Parkinson’s whatsoever.

I don’t want to give anything away to fans who will read Dream Makers, but the story you tell in your book about being startled in the middle of the night, the religious experience the next day and the feathers that you found absolutely gave me goosebumps. Without giving too much away, can you share anything about your experience and that story in the book?

I don’t want to give one group of your audience a message where they say, “That healing is not for me, because that’s not part of my life.” But, on the other hand, I would like them to say, “You know what, I shouldn’t ever give up on life.” As a person with profound faith, I gave up. I started drinking when the doctors prescribed the pills. I didn’t abuse the pills, but they didn’t work so I drank. It’s been almost four years now though and it was a total healing from the inside out. That’s what the story with the feathers is about. That’s why I wanted to have one feather on the cover of the book. I thought it was a great picture, but the people at the book company wanted something else. I was like, “No, this is my story, and this is how it happened.”

While Dream Makers is largely inspiring and uplifting, it can be raw and very honest at times. You talk about the struggles you faced with alcohol as you dealt with multiple health issues. It’s something so many people can relate to. Can you talk a little about that?

It was just a long journey and through these periods of all these surgeries, you’re on opiates. Pre-surgery they give them to you for pain. During it, they give them to you because you need to recover. Afterwards, it’s because you need to get over the pain from the surgery. I had about 58 surgeries over 20 years, that’s about 2.7 surgeries a year, so I was constantly on pain killers. That’s not helping me, because along with the Parkinson’s, you get these headaches that last from January 1st through October.

Then I put vodka on top of the pills and the next thing I know, I’m 52 years old and sitting in a rehab center in West Palm Beach and they’re having me do naked jumping jacks to see if I had any drugs come off my body. If you want a sobering fact, think of yourself at 52 years old doing naked jumping jacks. Not pretty.

That was one ending. I thank God that he gave me the time to reset myself. As a person with a lot of faith, which was taught to me by my grandparents, I know what my faith is supposed to be. I know that over the course of time, doctors were telling me I’m not gonna get well and I bought into that. I kept thinking it’s just not gonna get better. It’s gonna get worse like they’re saying. Then all of a sudden, you’re healed. I say that God didn’t give me one ending, he gave me two. Those are chapters nine and ten in Dream Makers.

Your story is incredible on so many levels. If you could simplify it, what would you hope your readers and fans take from your story?

It’s been a long healing process to get me back to where my faith should have been and to restore my body. They told me I was never supposed to pitch again, but I came back throwing 98. They said with Parkinson’s that it was just gonna get worse and I wasn’t gonna be able to walk eventually. Then I’m told, “Oh, you don’t have Parkinson’s anymore! That’s never happened before. What are we gonna do now?” So, the book is to give people hope. I want them to read it and go, “Wow, there is no obstacle that is too big for me to get through if I surround myself with absolutely the best people possible.” We can get through anything and we can accomplish anything and that’s the gist of it.

With everything going on in the world now, people could really use some uplifting stories and inspiration. I really believe Dream Makers has that covered. How do you think your message fits into the world we live in today?

What I want to leave people with is that we need good stories. We need grace and humor. We need to be able to look at each other and smile. We may have masks on, but you can tell by a person’s movements whether they’re happy or smiling. Our eyes say it. Right now, in this time, there is so much that we must overcome. We’re dealing with this flood of things and for me, faith has carried me through.

Jim Morris is now a sought-after motivational speaker

You have spent your life making an impact on people. From being a high school teacher and coach to inspiring people by improbably making it to the Major Leagues. Now over the past 20 years you have been working as a speaker and overcoming obstacles that seem insurmountable. Can you talk about how that feels to have made a positive impact on so many people in your life?

It started when I had a chance to show that even a group of teenagers in West Texas shouldn’t give up. When I pushed them, they pushed me back and we made each other better. It’s about putting those kinds of people around you; young, old, it doesn’t matter. We’re never too young or old to dream big. Those kids deserved the baseball dream because that’s something I never would have contemplated in my life. The doctors told me I would never pitch again, that it was impossible. But then I came back throwing harder than I ever did and I wanted to share that.

I wanted to get something done on paper with that experience and that was The Rookie, that was a promise to a group of kids. In Dream Makers, the second part of the book was a promise to two ladies who worked at the rehab center who told me that I had a platform and that people needed to read about me and my story. They told me I need to put it out there because people need to know that we’re fighting serious problems right now.

There’s a quote that plays a big part in what you do that says, “If we are failing, we are living.” What is the message behind that quote?

My deal with audiences for the past twenty years is to say that you should never give up on anything. We’re gonna make mistakes, but if you’re making mistakes, that means you’re trying. If you’re trying and failing, at least you’re getting one step closer to where you want to be. And here’s the punchline: the dream you start chasing may not be the one you end up loving the most. Never in my life did I ever think that I would be a speaker in front of people. Never did I think that when the shutdown happened because of Covid, that I would now speak to people on a computer. Now we’re gonna do virtual talks. And all of that came about because there was a group of kids over twenty years ago that when I pushed them, they pushed me back, and now look where we are.

Speaking of that 1999 team, do you still keep in touch with any of the kids from the Reagan County Owls team that inspired you to try out for the Devil Rays?

Yes. They’re in their late 30s now and they like to let me know that they’re older now than I was when we had that season together. Which kinda sucks because that makes me really old. But yes, we have fun.

We’ve helped an inner-city high school where we wanted to help get at-risk kids out of the streets and onto the fields. If they’re on the fields, we know where they are. If they’re playing a sport, they’re not carrying a gun. When you get the kids between the lines, whether it’s football, basketball, baseball, softball, volleyball, it’s great. Team sports teach us so much about life. Sports are individual in the fact that you have to play your role to make a team work. If we can teach that to a group of kids, you’re giving them immeasurable ways that they can chase their dreams. You’re showing them that it is possible.

I still talk to the guys. I actually have one I have to call back because he’s raised a bunch of equipment for our foundation. We’re working with a school in need and they’re all a part of it. This guy is someone who just had his second baby, which is amazing because he was a guy that I never thought would have babies and now he’s got two. They’re adorable and they’re just fun to watch. I watch the kids that I taught grow up and become parents, which is really cool.

Your story outside of baseball is so incredible, but I do want to ask you a couple about your time in the Majors. I know you’ve covered this a million times before, but what was that like to step on the mound in Texas for your debut knowing the path you took to get there?

That game I just thought they wanted me to warm up in the bullpen. I had thrown three days in a row in AAA and for eight innings I was just watching a game with a number and my name on my back. Everyone I knew and loved was watching me live my dream in my favorite state in my hometown ballpark. When they told me I was going in, I was like, “Oh, this just got real.”

Texas at the time was in first place and they had 40,000 people in the park. It was just like anyone who grew up loving baseball. It’s the smell of leather and dirt and grass. Popcorn, hot dogs, beer and Coke. People in the stands wearing all the colors of the home team cheering in the stands. That was cool. I made the run in from the bullpen to the mound and I saw this picture of baseball. I smelled baseball.

By the time I got to the mound I knew one thing, I would not have changed anything about my journey. I may have gotten there at an age when everyone else is retiring, but if I would have gotten that dream at 19, I would have been a spoiled brat. At 35, being able to do that and take it in for what it is and not take it for granted, it was pure pleasure. I got to hang around with baseball guys talking pure baseball.

I loved going to different parks. Going to Fenway or Yankee Stadium and watching the way that those fans in the Northeast know and love baseball. That is history to me. That is Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and everybody else who’s ever worn pinstripes. That is just great baseball to me. It reminded me of things like being a kid and wanting to do Luis Tiant’s windup. The only problem was if I turned my back to the plate, I might throw it over someone’s head.

I was always interested in what players thought when they saw themselves on their first baseball card. Going through the journey you did, what was that like being 35 years old and seeing yourself in a Major League uniform for the first time on a baseball card?

It was awesome. I went from teaching in the classroom in the spring of 1999 to signing thousands of cards in my hotel room the next spring training. It was just amazing to think that I went from a classroom grading papers to signing baseball cards. Kids were going to want to collect me on a card which was amazing and hard to believe. To me, that is just getting to be a part of history and that’s why I love the game so much.

There are so many things I want to ask you after reading Dream Makers and being such a fan of your story after watching The Rookie almost 20 years ago, but we would be here all night. As we wrap this up, is there a message you would like to leave for fans who read this interview?

I would leave them with my grandfather’s quote that I heard every day for three years when I left his house. He would always say, “Remember who you are and what you stand for.” You and I know it’s a little different in the book, but that’s basically what it is. We all need to remember where we came from and we need to stand up for what we know is right. That’s what baseball has always done through our democracy. Baseball has been with us through wars, recessions, depressions. When men couldn’t play during the war, the ladies took over and you had A League of Their Own. Baseball has seen us through the history of the United States of America.

Jim Morris’ second book, Dream Makers, was released on June 23, 2020. To learn more about the book or to purchase a copy, you can visit his website www.dreammakersbook.com. Morris also is a highly sought-after motivational speaker. You could learn more about his public speaking career and his other endeavors by visiting his website www.jimtherookiemorris.com.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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