Early Spring, 1999 – Big Lake, Texas: Coach Jim Morris’ baseball team wasn’t very good. The Reagan County Owls had won one game in each of the past three seasons. They expected to lose. Morris urged them to chase a dream – to win the district championship – something the high school had never done.
During a pep talk after practice, a player stopped Morris mid-sentence. “What about you coach? Why are you telling us to chase our dreams, if you are not willing to do it yourself?” The 35-year-old coach had once dreamed of pitching in the big leagues. He pitched in the minors for four seasons before injuries ended his career. Morris made a promise to his players. If the team won the district, he would try out.
Jim Morris was born in Brownswood, Texas, in January 1964. A great baseball and football player, Morris was a first-round draft choice of the New York Yankees in 1982. He turned them down. He wanted to get a college education first. Morris accepted a baseball scholarship to Angelo State University, 100 miles from home.
Two years later, Morris was drafted again. This time by the Milwaukee Brewers and this time he signed a contract. He pitched four seasons in their Class A minor league system but was plagued with injuries. After his fourth arm surgery, Morris called it quits, completed his degree at Angelo State and became a high school baseball coach.
Morris assumed his bet with his players was safe. He was confident his dream was dead because he was not confident about a district championship. However, the team made the play-offs. In the district championship game, they scored four runs in the last inning to win. As Morris drove the excited team bus back to their school, his players reminded him of their deal.
A month after the championship, in June 1999, Morris kept his promise. He expected to embarrass himself by trying out, but he drove two hours to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays tryout out camp. His wife had to work that day, and unbeknownst to her, Morris took their three young children with him. The scouts laughed when he arrived pushing the youngest child in a stroller.
Morris waited three hours in 100-degree heat and was the last player to try out. Tired of jokes about his age, he almost left, but didn’t because of the promise he had made to his team. When Morris threw the first pitch, he noticed a scout shake his radar gun. Morris wondered to himself, did he not even throw hard enough to register a velocity? It got quiet when the big lefty threw 10 straight pitches at 98 miles per hour.
That day when he got home, Morris had an interesting conversation with his wife, Lorri, about the kids and his day, and he got several calls from scouts that night. Would he come back in two days and pitch again? They wanted to verify his velocity. He would, he did, and later that week, Morris signed a contract with Tampa Bay.
Three months later, and 11 years after his last minor league game, on September 18, 1999, in front of his family and his high school team, Jim Morris made his major league debut on the mound for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. He struck out the first batter he faced. Lorri cried.
Jim Morris became the oldest player in 30 years to make the major leagues, a 35-year-old chemistry teacher with an old dream and a 98-mile-hour fastball. He was a relief pitcher for two seasons with Tampa Bay and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Although he only pitched in 21 games, Jim Morris fulfilled a promise and a dream.
“Never let the odds keep you from pursuing what you know in your heart you were meant to do.” Leroy “Satchel” Page