wenty-one years ago, Jim Morris made a bet with his young baseball team that would change his life forever. Morris was 35 at the time and working as a high school science teacher in Texas. The baseball team he coached at the school had only won three games in three years but Morris promised them that, if they could clinch the district championship, he would try out for a Major League Baseball team. Improbably, his team pulled it off and he ended up swapping his teacher’s lab coat for a Major League Baseball uniform. “I got my shot because of a bunch of kids,” he says.
Morris had been drafted by the New York Yankees straight out of high school but he turned down that opportunity to help care for his beloved grandfather in Texas. He eventually went on to sign for the Milwaukee Brewers but retired from the sport at the age of 24 after a series of injuries. “I woke up with my arm at a 90-degree angle and my arm was purple,” he says. “My roommate was trying to straighten out my arm on the nightstand.”
“I had numerous surgeries and never recovered the way I should have done. I knew it was time for me to grow up and walk away from baseball. They cut 85% of my deltoid out of my shoulder and told me I could never pitch again. I still wanted to be involved with helping kids play the game, so I went home, went to college and got my degree. I never thought about going back.”
Morris’s failure to play in Major League Baseball was tempered by his love for his new career. He taught chemistry, biology and PE, building a strong bond with pupils as he showed them the game he loved. As his dreams of Major League Baseball receded into the past, he focused on inspiring a group of teenagers to pursue their own passions, whether in education, or sport.
“I had a lot of fun teaching and coaching. I got to Reagan County High School and had a team who had one win each year for the three years before I came. I had eight kids for the first practice session and had to persuade two others to come. We had batting practice and I liked to pitch from the mound so I could see what they were doing. One day the catcher, Joel, said to me: ‘You’re hurting my hand, man.’ I didn’t think I was pitching hard at all. Even when I was in the minors I threw a max of 88mph.
“We lost our first two games. I talked to them about hopes, dreams and goals. I said: ‘It’s more than baseball. You all need to go out and live life.’ The kids were smiling. Joel said: ‘What about your dream, coach?’ I said: ‘My dream is to see you succeed in the classroom and on the field.’ He said: ‘We think you still want to play,’ so I told him: ‘I don’t have 85% of muscle in my shoulder and I’m 260 pounds because your mums keep feeding me tortillas.’
“They saw the joy I had on the mound when I threw. Joel asked: ‘Why are you telling us to chase our dreams when you’re not even chasing your own? If we win the district championship, you go for the tryout.’ So, I did what any parent who wants to see kids succeed would do, and said yes.”
His team kept their end of the bargain, securing an improbable district championship. While celebrating in the changing room, the pupils told Morris he had to keep his side of the deal. In his own words, Morris was “old, fat and had no muscle left in my arm”. He knew he would be humiliated, but felt he could manage a few minutes on the mound.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays were holding a tryout so Morris went along, more out of duty than expectation. “I drove up to the tryout with my kids, who were eight, four and one. I go to the sign-up table and am asked: ‘How many kids to try out?’ I said: ‘Just me. I made a promise to a bunch of kids. If I promise something, I need to do it. It will be embarrassing – you’ll have a great laugh.’ He said: ‘I’ll let you throw, but you’ll go last.’
Morris was hardly confident as he threw his first pitch. “Over the catcher’s head, the scout is shaking his radar gun and I’m thinking: ‘I can’t even throw fast enough for the speed to register.’ They make me throw 60 pitches and I’m thinking: ‘They’re making fun of the old fat dude.’ The scout came out and said: ‘You threw your first pitch 94mph and it went up to 98mph.’ My first thought was: ‘I’ve been throwing 98mph at high school kids – I’m going to get sued.’”
After performing well in the minor leagues for three months, Morris made his Major League debut for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in Arlington, Texas. The pupils from his high school baseball team were in the stands cheering wildly. Morris did not expect to pitch in the game. He was just happy to be part of the team and watching from the bench.
“For eight innings, I am chatting and taking in the game. I know they won’t put me in. I was relaxing, having a good time. On the eighth innings, they say ‘warm-up’ and I think: ‘That’s nice. I can do that in front of 40,000 people. Then, before I know it, I’m in the game.
“I open the bull-pen door and all the smells of baseball – leather, beer, popcorn – hit me. All the colours. It’s loud, I’m processing every step of my life and then I think: ‘I’m here because of a bunch of kids who everyone had counted out.’ At the mound, I don’t hear anyone in the stands. I put my spike on the dirt in Arlington and thought: ‘I wouldn’t change one part of my journey.’ I had to work, fight, give it up and it was brought back by a bunch of kids.”
Morris spent two seasons in Major League Baseball and in that time no one could explain how an overweight 35-year-old science teacher could throw the ball 10mph faster than he did as a toned, young man. Morris believes it was faith. He is still fighting today, now against Parkinson’s, which he has lived with for 15 years. In spite of the condition, he has recently managed to run again, surprising even the most optimistic of his doctors.
Morris’s story was told in the biopic The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid, and he has written about his life eloquently in his new book Dream Makers. Morris still loves to teach and encourage people to follow their dreams. He no longer does it in the classroom, but instead shares his story in the boardrooms of companies and charities throughout the US.
As the world struggles to deal with a pandemic, Morris hopes his underdog tale will give some inspiration. “I hope people find hope in my story and know to never give up. People are stronger than they think they are. I’ve never seen the world stop like this. People are tired and asking when this is going to stop. They must believe that anything is possible in this life and that things will get better. I’m living proof of that.”