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Friday, March 29, 2002

'Old man' from Brownwood featured in Disney flick

By Celinda Emison
Reporter-News correspondent

BROWNWOOD - When Brownwood native Jim Morris played football at Angelo State University, teammates called him "old man" because he was 26.

Little did they know he hadn't begun to hit his athletic prime. Nine years later as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, he became major league baseball's oldest rookie in 40 years.

Today, his story is being told in Disney's new movie The Rookie, which opens nationwide, including in Abilene and Brownwood-Early.
Morris' mother, Olline "Ollie" Hale of Abilene, has already seen the movie. Hale, who attended the premier at the Astor Plaza Theatre in New York City earlier this week, could not be reached Thursday.

The Rookie is based on the book The Oldest Rookie: Big League Dreams from a Small Town Guy. Co-written by Morris and Joel Engel, it hit stores a year ago.

Morris' story begins as a young military brat who loved baseball. His family moved often before landing in Brownwood. Here, he played football for the Brownwood Lions, coached by Gordon Wood, because the high school didn't have a baseball team.

"He was a real good football player," Wood said. "He was an all-state punter and an all-state extra-point kicker and an All-American. He was a fairly good blocker and a good receiver. The kid is a just a good kid."

He was a member of the 1981 state championship team, but his dream was to play baseball.

The dream came true when, after two semesters at Ranger Junior College, the Milwaukee Brewers offered Morris a contract.

"He was the No. 2 draft pick in the nation during the winter," said his father, Jim Morris Sr., who still lives in Brownwood. "Jim asked our permission to go and be out of school and get his $35,000 bonus. We didn't see any reason why he shouldn't try to grab the brass ring. And he did."

An elbow injury sidelined his career with the Brewers' organization. Following surgery, he tried out with the Chicago White Sox. This time a shoulder injury took him out of the game, and he quit baseball in 1989.

Morris enrolled at Howard Payne University. After marrying, he enrolled at Angelo State in San Angelo, where Morris played football and won honors as a punter.

"At the time, they called him 'old man' there because he was 26 years old and all the other kids were 19," his father said.

After graduation Morris got a job teaching and coaching in Haskell. The next year, Morris moved to Reagan County High School in Big Lake, where he taught physics and coached the Owls baseball team.

His return to baseball came as a result of a bet in 1999. If his team made the playoffs, he would try out for a major-league baseball team again. The Owls won the district title, so Morris found himself at Howard Payne pitching for a Devil Rays scout.

The scout clocked Morris' first pitch at 97 mph and his second at 98. He was asked to return for a second tryout.

"We went back on Monday at Howard Payne at the field near Bowman's Lumber," Morris Sr. said. "He was out there pitching and the guy had the gun on him. They could not believe what they were seeing."

Even pouring rain didn't slow down Morris' ball much; he was clocked at 96 mph.

Within the year, Morris went from high school coach to the major leagues. The pride of a father at home in Brownwood could not be matched.
"It was such a story to have made it that far from teaching to Triple-A baseball," he said, referring to the minor league level just below the major leagues.

When Morris called his father to tell him he would be in Arlington with the Devil Rays to play the Texas Rangers, Morris Sr. said, "I cried like a baby for 15 minutes. Everything flashed in front of me. I remembered coaching him from the time he was 8 years old until he was 16.

"Even as a youngster he had a great left arm. At the age of 10 he told me in New London, Conn., he was going to play major league ball."
Morris first appearance in the majors was against the Rangers.

"In his first game he struck Royce Clayton out on four pitches," he said. "We were there for that one. We were sitting up with the scouts from the organization. It was an experience that every parent should have."

The following season was cut short by elbow surgery, and Morris retired in 2001. His major league record was 0-0 with a 4.80 earned-run average and 13 strikeouts in 15 innings.

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