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'The Rookie': Bigger than baseball

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Ron Weiskind Post-Gazette Movie Editor

CLEVELAND -- This is what it's like growing up male in Texas. You play football, or try to.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays relief pitcher Jim Morris throws a pitch in a game against the Texas Rangers Sept. 18, 1999, four months after he was back in Texas working as a coach and teacher. At 35, he was baseball's oldest rookie since 1970 and was throwing 95 mph pitches past big league hitters. (Jon Freilick/Associated Press)

Jim Morris played football. But he loved baseball. In the one-horse towns of dusty west Texas, baseball was the one-legged mule.

Morris was as stubborn as one. Maybe that explains how he ended up becoming a 35-year-old rookie with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. At 35, most ballplayers are ready to hang up the spikes. Morris hadn't played professionally in more than 10 years, after a short stint in the minor leagues cut short, in his own words, by "injuries and immaturity."

He was teaching science and coaching high school baseball in Big Lake, Texas, a town named for a dry hole. Morris had to plant the grass in the baseball field, because no one else cared enough. In Big Lake, only the gridiron was green.

 
 
Movie Review

'The Rookie'

   
 

His players, tired of catching his hard heat and challenged by Morris to chase a dream, made him a bet. If we win the district championship, you go to a big-league tryout. They did. He did. He threw 98 mph fastballs. The scouts brought out a second radar gun, thinking the first was broken. After a few months in the minors, Tampa Bay called him up -- when they happened to be playing a series in Texas.

Morris wound up pitching in 21 games over two seasons, neither winning nor losing a game and compiling a 4.80 earned run average.

"I think if this had been a fictional story, I don't think anyone would be doing it because it's too unbelievable," says actor Dennis Quaid, who plays Morris in the movie "The Rookie." The two of them are perched side by side in a room in the Ritz-Carlton, but Quaid seems to be trying to take a back seat to Morris, letting him do most of the talking and for good reason. Morris has found a new career as a motivational speaker, and few people are as qualified in life experience.

When Disney bought the rights to his story, Morris was adamant that "The Rookie" not be a baseball movie so much as one about second chances and relationships.

"This movie transcends baseball," Quaid says. "All of us do have something we wish we could do or wish we had done, and this movie speaks to that. I'd like to be on the Senior PGA Tour."

Quaid has played athletes in various movies, but wasn't one in school even though he, too, grew up male in Texas.

"It's a rite of passage to go out for the football team in Texas. That's how I got into drama. I didn't make the football team. In drama what I wanted to do was meet girls."

It was different for Morris, a Navy brat who spent enough time outside Texas to develop impressive baseball skills at a young age. But his father, a Lone Star native, had other ideas.

"We didn't get along," Morris says. "He had one thing in mind and I had another. He was a dad thinking he's right, and I was a teen-ager thinking I was right. I wanted to stay in Florida playing high school baseball. He wanted me to go home and play football."

Dad prevailed. But Morris persevered. At 19, he signed with the Milwaukee Brewers organization and took his shot. Between the injuries and "thinking I was better than I really was -- played havoc with my brain cells. I retired by the time I was 25 to go back and pursue a job and an education."

But he knows what Jim Bouton, the former pitcher and author of the classic baseball book "Ball Four," meant when he wrote, "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around."

Morris says, "I guess I never figured out what I did wrong the first time.

And yet all my friends who I had grown up with in the minor leagues, they were playing in the big leagues and I was on my way back to college. I kind of did everything backwards.

"I thought the dream had died the first time I retired. I knew I wanted to coach or be a part of it and try to help kids -- teach them by not emulating me in how to do things. That's when the bet came about, and I realized maybe baseball wasn't dead."

Morris was a consultant on the movie, which means Quaid had to impersonate him while Morris was watching.

"I feel a responsibility to try to get the person right at least in spirit," the actor says. "I know how I would feel if someone were making a movie of my life story. I looked upon him as an asset. Jim was on the set, and I went up to him several times when I was stuck on a piece of dialogue or something or if it was something to do with coaching. I had never coached before. He was a big help to me.

"He's left-handed. I am, too. I already understood a lot about how Texas affects you as a person growing up. The director's also from Texas. So there was a lot of shorthand going on.

"The landscape is a character in the movie. The people should look like they belong to that landscape. There have been a lot of really great Texas movies that have great texture to them. The personality, the people and the culture of that particular area. 'The Last Picture Show' and 'Tender Mercies.' We wanted to use that."

The kids on Morris' high school team have mostly gone on to college, but not to play baseball, which was not really the point of what Morris was trying to teach them. "It was to look beyond the parameters of a small town," he says.

And that's why he wanted baseball not to be the focal point of "The Rookie."

"If people can pull inspiration out of this, which is what we want them to do -- look at their lives and take second chances for what they are, a second chance -- if you can do that and walk through that door and take the opportunity, then you go for it. You don't want to sit there when you're older and go, 'What if this?' 'What if that?' "

Quaid puts the capper on it: "Whether you should succeed or fail at it, you should try. Otherwise, you'll never know."

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