This 'Rookie' is a major prospect
Former Tampa Bay Devil Ray Jim Morris, left, hands a baseball to Dennis Quaid after giving the actor a demonstration of the different ways a pitcher grips a baseball.
By BILLY NORRIS
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2002
Fulfilling a dream -- one that had been locked away in your heart for more than 10 years after you thought you'd thrown away the key -- sounds like another Hollywood-concocted plot and happy ending, right?
This baseball story told on screen works because Hollywood couldn't make up a story this moving, nor concoct a man as genuine as Jim Morris, whose sincerity shines through during an interview.
Well, not in the case of Jim Morris, a 35-year-old high school chemistry teacher turned major-league pitcher. His life is like a fairy tale.
But his story is true. As told in The Rookie, with its themes of getting second chances and believing in yourself, it's not only heartwarming but a morale booster.
"This film transcends baseball. It's not just a sports movie, it's a movie about life and relationships," said Morris in a recent interview at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel and Resort in St. Petersburg, where he appeared with Rookie star Dennis Quaid.
The Rookie, which opens in theaters March 29 shows us Jim Morris (Quaid) as an ordinary guy, living in a small town in west Texas, teaching high school science and coaching the baseball team. But the players are down in the dumps and their skills are suffering; they need some serious help, physically and mentally.
Ten years earlier, Morris had been drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, but he left baseball after a shoulder injury. One day after practice, he decides to throw to the team catcher to see if his arm has anything left. Much to his surprise, he throws a bullet over home plate. He repeats the feat again and again. After his players watch in awe, they present him with a challenge: If they can win the district competition, Morris will have to find a major-league camp offering an open tryout and sign up. He decides to accept their terms as a means of motivating his team.
Lo and behold, the team holds up its end of the bargain, and so does the coach.
The tryouts are held by the Devil Rays' minor-league system. After he is clocked consistently at 98 mph by several scouts, Jim is offered a contract that day. Suddenly he is a giant step closer to achieving his lifelong goal.
"(Devil Rays) scouting director Dan Jennings gave me a call one Saturday evening and said they had this guy with a 98-mph fastball that they'd like to sign," recalled Rays general manager Chuck LaMar in a recent phone interview. "I told Dan, 'Since you're the scouting director, you don't need my permission to sign a player who you liken to a major-league prospect.' That's when he said, 'Well there's a unique circumstance here -- he's 35 years old!'
"Well, at his age, the chances of getting to the major-league level are slim, and he had a good job and a family back in Texas. He knew the odds of making it at his age, but he had such extraordinary ability and velocity that we felt like it was a done deal," LaMar said.
Jim Morris thought he would never return to play baseball after his injury.
"I thought it was over. I had my shoulder fixed and I had been married recently, then I retired and we had kids; then I went to college and you know, that's a full-time thing in itself, and then there's working," said Morris, who was in St. Petersburg to throw out spring training's first pitch for the Rays with Quaid. "You know, you have kids, you pay the bills and you move on. There was no way I was going to go back.
"Everybody has those dreams of, 'What if I could have tried that just one more time?' but I wasn't going to quit coaching and teaching to chase after something that never worked the first time. And, I guess I have a group of 16- and 17-year-old kids to thank for getting me back."
Quaid says the amazing storyline drew him to the role.
"This story was just so unbelievable, and the fact that it was true! If it was a piece of fiction, I wouldn't have done it because it's kind of like, 'come on that would never happen in real life,' but it really did happen to just this ordinary guy. In May he was teaching high school science in some small town in west Texas, and by September he's on the mound in a major league ballpark, fulfilling his lifelong dream. Not only that, but it's in his home state, his family and friends are all there; he couldn't have made it more perfect."
During filming, Quaid had his head in the game, too. His mannerisms on the mound are uncannily similar to those of Morris, and the facial expression he developed is perfect.
"I studied a lot of videos with him; he helped me break it down about his whole approach to pitching, what's going through his head when he's out there, and his whole attitude on the mound," Quaid said. "You know, that's the one thing I wanted to get right and make it look right. As an actor playing a real person, it's your responsibility to make it work," he said.
The movie does real justice to the actual story. According to Morris, The Rookie is more than 90 percent accurate, with only a few embellishments. I was highly impressed by this film, and especially by Jim Morris, who is a humble and genial person.
I'm sure this movie will be enjoyed by everyone. How many movies actually portray the life of a real person with real relationships and real dreams fulfilled? I'll tell you, not many! This flick has it all, the acting, the story, but most of all, the heart. It definitely earns an A+ grade from me.
-- Billy Norris, 14, is in the eighth grade at Seminole Middle School and is a former member of the Times X-Team.
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