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'The Rookie' inspires private-school students, parents
Chris Beattie/Staff Photo - Former Major League pitcher Jim Morris talks about chasing dreams last Thursday at North Texas Christian Academy in McKinney. Morris, the inspiration behind Disney's 2002 movie 'The Rookie,' tells his story at schools, churches and conventions all over the world.
Twelve years after his last big-league pitch, Jim Morris still brings the heat -- just with words, not fastballs.
Morris, the inspiration behind Disney's 2002 movie, "The Rookie," made his latest trip to the speaker's mound last Thursday at North Texas Christian Academy in McKinney.
The former 35-year-old Tampa Bay Devil Rays' rookie pitcher has spent the past decade telling his story, unveiling details left out of Hollywood's version. Surprisingly, baseball is just a small part.
"It wasn't about me," he said at NTCA's banquet. "It was about dreams, it was about second chances, and it was about high school kids nobody believed in."
Morris has spoken at schools, churches and corporations all over the world -- South Korea, Japan, Switzerland, Italy -- and, for schools, his message is constant: "Live your life, don't let life live you."
Chase your dreams no matter what, and don't let anyone or anything stand in your way. Not even 11 off-years and seven surgeries, the obstacles that separated Morris from his first stint in the Minor Leagues to his pro revival documented in "The Rookie."
Morris said the film is "over 80 percent accurate." Dennis Quaid, the actor who plays Morris, in regards to that ratio, urged Morris to "take it and run with it."
Morris allowed Disney to do so as long as the movie fit the life lessons, and it did.
"When you have a movie made about you, you have to go back and look at things you've done in your life," Morris said. "There are two types of people...dream-makers and dream-breakers."
Such a theme comes out in the movie, just not as clearly as in Morris' life, he said. As NTCA elementary and middle-school students, staff and parents filed into the school's sanctuary, Morris began his clarification, a message of distinction.
"Dream-breakers" nearly stalled Morris before he even started his chase. His father told him as a kid that "children should be seen and not heard." In high school, a guidance counselor told him he'd better find a sport because he was "too stupid to go to college."
Fortunately for Morris -- and now, for probably millions of fans -- he had found baseball at age 3.
"In between the white lines of that baseball field, I could be the kid I was supposed to be," Morris said. "I could tune out that negative voice."
But with his father in the U.S. Navy, the family moved all over, forcing Morris to 30 schools in 10 years. At age 15, he entered Brownwood High School in Texas, where football ruled. There was no baseball team.
His football coach Gordon Wood, another "dream-breaker," scoffed at Morris' decision to play baseball. Wood made sure every university that promised Morris a scholarship yanked its offer.
Baseball was the dream. His grandparents, with whom he lived in Brownwood, were the dream-makers.
"They taught me things in three years that turned around everything I'd learned the past 15," Morris said. "They wanted other people to dream and go farther than they ever thought they could."
His grandfather Ernest was "opposite of anything my dad stood for," Morris said. Ernest taught him to hold judgment, be honest, say "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am." Politicians and celebrities from all over Texas and the U.S. came to Ernest Morris Menswear for their suits, "because the quality of the man," Morris said.
Soon after Morris graduated from Brownwood, his grandfather died of Lou Gehrig's Disease. His strongest dream-maker was gone.
"People came from all over the country to pay their respects to a man they knew lived for other people," Morris said. "It wasn't ever about him."
His dream was still in sight. The Milwaukee Brewers selected 19-year-old Morris fourth overall in the 1983 amateur baseball draft. Driving from Brownwood to spring training in Phoenix, Ariz., he passed through Big Lake, Texas and questioned who would ever live there.
Over the next four and a half years, he had six surgeries on his throwing arm, never getting out of single-A ball. His dream was dead at 24 -- so he thought.
Morris thrived in anatomy and physiology classes in college. One professor told him he could do anything he wanted, and Morris began living up, not down, to expectations.
Before graduating, a football team doctor worked a seventh surgery on Morris' arm, curious as to why a football-playing Morris gave up baseball. He repaired a destroyed rotator cuff as much as possible and cut out 80 percent of Morris' deltoid muscle.
"You will never, ever pitch again," Morris said the doctor told him. "It's physically impossible."
So Morris got married, had kids and started teaching physical science and coaching baseball at Reagan County High School -- in Big Lake, Texas.
Their second year together, in 1999, the Reagan County Owls got off to a horrid two-loss start. They had overheard the athletic director tell Morris that their school was just a stepping stone for anyone who wanted to be someone, that no one cared about it. Twenty minutes into an Ernest-driven outfield pep talk, the team shook Morris's dream back to life.
"My catcher looked me in the eye and said, 'Coach, what about your dreams?'" Morris told the NTCA listeners. "He says, 'Why do you keep telling us to chase our dreams if you're not willing to do it yourself?'"
Morris promised to try out for the majors if they won district. Both lived up to their end.
And the rest is "his"-story. Morris pitched at an open tryout for the Devil Rays later that year, Tampa Bay scout Doug Gassaway allowing it just so Morris could keep his promise.
Twelve straight pitches clocked in at 98 mph.
Morris put his three kids in their car and nearly drove off before Gassaway stopped him. He told Morris that regardless of his age, he had to call in a left-hander who throws that fast.
"That's when it hit me -- those kids were right," Morris said. "When I pushed them, they pushed back, and we were all better for it."
Morris played just 21 games for Tampa Bay in 1999 and 2000. He finished with a career 0-0 record, 4.80 earned run average (ERA) and 13 strikeouts.
But Disney had approached him about the movie his third night in the big leagues. After he quit playing in 2001, his attention turned to "The Rookie."
Last week, his focus was on the NTCA crowd, captivated by his speech. Looking on stage like hundreds of catchers at home plate, they nodded their sign of approval.
The movie, its story, his life -- they've since become Morris's pitching mound, from which he throws inspiration.
His favorite pitch: the dream-maker.
"If you can remember who you are, you've had a pretty good day," he concluded. "Get up and do it again."