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MMO Exclusive: Jim Morris, “The Rookie,” Discusses His Latest Book

In 2002, Disney released the American sports drama The Rookie, into theaters. Audiences were captivated by the real life story that took place in 1999 of Jim Morris, a then 35-year-old high school science teacher and baseball coach who was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers as a left-handed pitcher more than fifteen years prior.

Morris’ dream of pitching in the major leagues was halted by a myriad of injuries and surgeries, and after pitching 270 minor league innings Morris retired in 1989.

Disney’s depiction of Morris’ journey (which was inspired by the memoir “The Oldest Rookie,” written by Morris and Joel Engel) from a high school teacher in Texas to a Major League pitcher with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was an inspirational, heartfelt tale of never giving up on one’s dreams.

The film brings audiences along as Morris works his way up the minor league rungs to eventually make his major league debut on September 18, 1999 vs. the Texas Rangers in his home state.

Morris, portrayed by two-time Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid in the film, jogged to the mound in the bottom of the eighth with a runner on first and two outs in front of hundreds of his family and friends. The hard-throwing lefty struck out All-Star shortstop Royce Clayton on four pitches, putting an exclamation point on an improbable story.

For many viewers, questions remained about what ensued for Morris once the credits ran.

What happened to someone with such an inspirational story?

Morris hopes to answer all of those queries in his newest book “Dream Makers: Surround Yourself with the Best to Be Your Best,” co-written with Mark Stuertz.

Morris, 56, picks up where The Rookie left off and goes into intimate detail about topics ranging from his abusive military father, the vital role his grandparents played in his upbringing, the grueling surgeries he underwent and eventual stint in rehab.

The title of the book, “Dream Makers,” is a central theme throughout the memoir, as Morris intertwines specific people in his life that were both dream makers and dream killers, and how they each impacted him into the man he is today.

The book, due to release on June 23rd, reveals additional insight and context into what was a turbulent upbringing for Morris, yet didn’t deter the spiritual left-hander from continuing to pursue his passions, and ultimately make good on a promise to a bunch of high school teenagers.

I had the privilege of speaking with Morris in early June where we discussed his new book in great length.

MMO: What prompted you to write this book and what was the process like?

Morris: What drew us to write it was the question I’ve been asked over and over. Everyone loves the baseball story. They love the movie, they loved Dennis Quaid playing me, but they wanted to know what happened since then. And since then, it’s been a journey: over 50 surgeries, Parkinson’s and chronic illnesses.

With over 50 surgeries in twenty years, you’re constantly on opioids. And you take the opioids because that’s what the doctors tell you, and that doesn’t work so you throw in the vodka and here we go, now we’re going to rehab.

I think for twenty years we were looking for an ending and didn’t really have one and then we got two: chapter nine and chapter ten, which was rehab and the faith chapter.

It’s been an amazing journey and it’s been incredible. If I hadn’t gone through it myself and saw how low I could get, I wouldn’t realize how high I am now. It’s been amazing, I don’t have Parkinson’s anymore.

MMO: The book is titled “Dream Makers,” which is a central theme throughout your memoir. Can you talk a bit about the importance of dream makers in your life, and why it’s so important to surround yourself with those kind of people?

Morris: One of the things I found out speaking for the last twenty years was that everyone has a story, and I was amazed at how similar some of their stories were wound around my story growing up.

I had a physically and heavily abusive father who was in the military, so we moved constantly. Those are the dream killers; those are the people you don’t want around. You want the dream makers on your side.

My first dream maker came into my life at 15 when my parents moved me from Miami, Florida, to Brownwood, Texas. My grandparents are the first true dream makers that I had and the ones who pulled me back on the rails, and I could’ve easily gone off it at 15.

I say surround yourself with the best people possible to be the best you that you can possibly be.

My grandparents taught me about faith, love and about stories because they were great storytellers. It was fun to sit around and watch them tell stories with all their friends that they had known. That kind of rolled up my alley. Their laughter and just the lessons that my grandfather taught me helped me move on later when I got my second group of dream makers: my high school baseball kids.

They realized it didn’t matter how young or old you were, we can all be a dream makers, we can all be mentors and we can all help somebody along. And right now, in this environment, we need to be nice and we need to be kind. A smile goes so far and we’re just not doing that.

And so, this book has all of that and more. It’s got the great stories about faith and if you want to read about jumping jacks in a really different way, read chapter nine. (Laughs)

It was done with Mark Stuertz who helped me write it. It was a long process and I told him I wanted it to be in my voice. I want people who know me to hear me resonating through this and know that I can be on stage telling this story right now. That’s how I wanted the book and he did it.

I’m very happy with it, I’m excited and it comes out in a few weeks and people are already buying it and it’s just been a lot of fun.

MMO: So you wrote this book in a similar way to your motivational speeches?

Morris: Absolutely. Now it’s on paper and now it’s got the added story of everything that happened afterwards. So, we can add a little more humor, you know what I’m talking about and your readers will once they read it. It has something to do with calisthenics and you’ll never feel the same way about them again.

MMO: You get very personal and share some intimate accounts from your life in this book. Was it difficult to relive some of these events from your life, or did you find it to be therapeutic at all?

Morris: I’ve been telling so many different stories about growing up and the mistakes I’ve made as an adult and everything else that I’ve encountered. I’ve been telling those stories on stage for so long that getting most of those down were easy, it’s the ones that are very personal [that were tough].

I couldn’t control drinking and the pain was so bad. I talked about this in the book that people get migraine headaches and they lay down for a little bit, they take their medicine and get up a few hours later and feel great. But my headaches actually were scarring on my brain and they would usually last for six or seven months, and then I would get a two- or three-day reprieve and think I’m in heaven, and then they’d start over again. The doctors said you need to take this, you have scarring, you’re going to keep getting these headaches.

I just kept taking the medicine and that wasn’t enough, so I started using alcohol. Then that wasn’t enough and then you go to rehab and find out you’re going about the process the whole wrong way. If you feel pain, that means you’re alive.

I’m alive and I’m happy.

MMO: Your grandparents were prominent figures in your life and you call them the “most formative influences in your life.” Can you talk a bit about their role in your upbringing and helping to shape the man you became?

Morris: For the first fifteen years of my life with my parents, I watched them throw, hit, curse, a lot of times it was towards me. At fifteen they did me the biggest favor they ever could do: moved me into my grandparent’s house.

They taught me a lot of great lessons like if you make a mistake own it, live up to it and move on. Number two, if you always tell the truth you don’t have to remember what you said because the truth is the truth and it’ll never change, and that goes back to number one. They instilled faith in me and I saw grace and compassion back in the late ‘70s early ‘80s when I lived with them.

I was watching my grandparents make Thanksgiving dinners for families that couldn’t afford it, buy Christmas presents for families with kids that couldn’t afford it out of their own account, even though they were not rich. They’d pay a bill for someone so they could continue to make their dream go along a little bit longer. I watched the grace, compassion and humility of my grandparents and then watched how they lived life every single day.

My grandmother was our church’s secretary and my grandfather owned a menswear store in Brownwood, Texas. But this man knew everybody. Gene Autry came in one day, and for those who are too young to remember who he is, go walk down the sidewalks near Disneyland and his name is plastered all over the concrete.

He just taught me how to behave and how to react and not react, and asked what I was going to do when I couldn’t throw a ball hard enough anymore. You never think about that when you’re young, you think you’re going to throw the ball hard for as long as you want. And then you can’t throw the ball hard anymore.

The biggest thing was learning to think outside the box. For me, sports were always a way for me to escape. And so, when I lived with my parents, I needed that escape because I needed to be away. And in between those white lines I could be the kid I was supposed to be.

But with my grandparents, they didn’t care about that. They wanted me to be a better man and a better human being than anything else. They instilled those values in me.

I took my grandmother on lunch dates once a week the entire time I was in high school so I would know how to treat women, how to keep them inside and away from traffic, how to open car and restaurant doors for them. And they would grade me on how I did, and they would kind of laugh and giggle and they were half serious, but they wanted me to do things right.

My grandfather, my biggest dream maker, I watched this lady walk into his store one day and nobody would wait on her. He saw that from his office and walked up and treated her like she should be treated. He made eye contact with this woman who had on overalls in a fine menswear store with boots that smelled like she was on a pig farm and a straw hat. He was the only one that would lay eyes on her. She ended up buying fifteen suits from my grandfather, paid in cash and she came back for the rest of her life.

The funny thing is, a couple of years later they found a little thing they like to call natural gas underneath her pig farm, and she was worth a whole lot of money. She kept coming back because of him.

MMO: When reading your book, it appears you dealt with some intense and tough coaches growing up, not to mention how hard your father was on you. But you were not that way with your high schoolers. Where did you get your coaching mindset/mentality from?

Morris: From one simple lesson: My grandfather always told me to treat other people like you would want your grandmother treated. I’ve been yelled at, screamed at, cursed, pushed, pulled, hit and everything else growing up by my father and coaches that I thought if I ever get to work with kids I’m going to talk to them like they’re actually there and not talk at them, not scream at them and not curse at them.

If we’re going to be a team, we need to be all in, that includes me, my assistant coach, our scorekeeper, our athletic trainer, everybody on the field, everybody on the bench and everybody in the school. We are all on the same team, let’s get this stuff together and do it right. And you can do that when you talk to people like they’re human beings.

It was an amazing thing and being able to coach at several different schools and watch the way the kids reacted when you talked to them and not at them. And they would’ve broke their backs for me, and they did; when I pushed them, they pushed me back.

That’s why they’re my second group of dream makers because without them I don’t go back and play baseball. Dennis Quaid doesn’t play me in a movie. It doesn’t happen. We made each other better.

MMO: Prior to your first tryout with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Howard Payne University, what was going through your head as you’re driving to this open tryout to make good on a promise you made with your high schoolers?

Morris: What’s going through my head is the kids I made a bet with at that time in 1999, who couldn’t hit me, were then killing me all over the field. I couldn’t get high school kids out by the end of the season, and now I’ve got to go to a tryout!

I’ve had nine surgeries, one in which a doctor said you’ll never, ever pitch again. I weighed 260 pounds and in the movie they had Dennis in jeans and a nice tucked in shirt, because he doesn’t have a gut. I had on elastic softball pants with my gut hanging over it, which is a nice picture.

I showed up to the tryout and no one even wanted to play catch. So what was going through my mind was this is embarrassing, humiliating. I’ll get it done, go home, and the only people that need to know are my three kids who won’t remember this and my high school kids. And they’ll know that when I gave my word, I’m going to live up to it.

I just didn’t know how far I’d be living it.

MMO: At what point during that tryout did you start to think that perhaps you were throwing better and harder than you thought you were?

Morris: I thought I was throwing pretty good after a while because they had me throw a lot more pitches than the other guys. But the thing that caught my attention was everybody else had already tried out and they made me go last. Everybody had put their stuff back in their cars except for the catcher.

One radar gun turned into two, two turned into three and then the parents started getting out of their cars and they came back behind the backstop. Then the kids mosey on over because teenagers want to act uninterested.

So finally, the scout goes, “Hey kid, go get a bat and get in there.” This kid turned around and he’s probably like six foot four and looked like he hauled hay on top of his shoulders, and goes, “You want me to get in there against that?!”

Then it kind of hit me that maybe I’m not doing as bad as I thought I would do. But up until that point I had no idea. Even when he told me I hit 98 – I only threw like 88, sometimes 90 when I was young – and I was supposed to be talented then. Now I’m old, fat and decrepit and told I was never going to throw again and I’m throwing 98?

It stunned me. It stunned me to my core.

MMO: One of the things I learned from reading your book was that your former roommate in the minor leagues, Mark Ciardi, called you years later and told you that Disney wanted to make a movie about your life. Can you talk a bit about the process it took to green light The Rookie?

Morris: When I was in Triple-A (for the Rays) the phone calls started. People were like, if you sign with me, I can guarantee you’ll play golf with Tiger Woods. I’m like, he would beat me with his club if he tried to play golf with me because we would be there all day! I finally found a good agent, Steve Canter, and he was like, “What do you want me to do?” I told him to make the phone calls stop.

Mark got through one day because he knew our manager and still knew a lot of people in baseball. I got on and it was Mark and I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ He went, “I work out with (Michael) Eisner and we just saw you on a show. Is this real?”

I told him yes, it’s real. Then he said, “We want to make a movie about it.” And I’m like, dude, you are not making a comedy about me. I got him off the phone and he called back and finally I told Steve,  ‘Just make it stop. This is getting ridiculous. I’m a 35-year-old man getting a second shot at being a kid for a summer. When I’m done this summer, I’m going to go back and coach high school football until baseball season and I’m going to teach. That’s my job, that’s what I do, and we’re going to move on.’

But Mark kept calling back. My second day in the big leagues, Bill Plaschke for the L.A. Times wrote this huge article about me. That night they had to change my name at the hotel because there were so many calls just wanting me to do books and speaking and documentaries and movies.

And so, for that three-day stand with the Angels, Steve and I drove around to all the studios. People were saying they could do this, they could do that. As I was walking across the grounds at Disney, Steve looked at me and went, “What do you want?”

I said, ‘I want a movie about kids who people count out who overcome the odds. And I also want a movie about people like me who get a second chance seemingly out of nowhere and they take that chance and are willing to take it and it works out. That’s what I want.’

When I walked in to the meeting, I heard them talking about the same thing. Mark is saying the same things and I’m like, they have microphones in the parking lot, I forgot how good Disney is! I thought they had heard everything because they basically said what I said and I thought this is it, this is what I want the movie to be.

Fortunately, Mark pulled for it and Eisner signed off on it and we got to do it. John Lee Hancock was the director, he was awesome. Mike Rich wrote it and Dennis Quaid played me and we’re still friends till this day.

MMO: Walk me through the moment when you got the call from the bullpen that you were going in to make your major league debut in the bottom of the eighth against the Texas Rangers on September 18, 1999.

Morris: For the first eight innings I’m sitting there thinking I have thrown three days in a row in the Triple-A playoffs, there is no way they’re putting me in. And in the eighth inning they told me to get up. I thought they just wanted me to warm up in front of 40,000 Texas Rangers’ fans, that’s awesome.

Then I’m told I’m going in and I’m like, are you sure? I opened the door from the bullpen and as I’m jogging in I just saw and smelt everything that had to do with baseball. You had the colors, the home team colors, you had noise and joy and there’s beer and hot dogs and popcorn and pretzels and grass and dirt; it’s baseball. It’s what it’s always been, it’s what it’s always going to be, it’s baseball.

As I’m running in all that kind of narrows down and I don’t hear anything and I don’t see any colors and by the time I step my spikes on the dirt on the mound at The Ballpark in Arlington I came to one conclusion: If I would’ve gotten that dream when I was 19, I would’ve taken it for granted and nothing ever would’ve come from it. At 35 and having realized everything I’ve been through and the kids I raised and the kids I coached, this is your moment. It’s a little bigger than a 30-person classroom but this is what you’ve wanted to do.

Even as I threw the first pitch I was like, is this the same distance? And that it is, it’s just a little bigger environment. And when the All-Star steps in, Royce Clayton, and here goes the first guy, honestly, Mathew, the first pitch he could’ve drilled a 500-foot home run it wouldn’t have meant any more to me than the strikeout did because I was there.

My kids, my high school kids and kids I coached against were there, and coaches rented school buses and drove nine hours to come to that game. Johnny Oates, God rest his soul, let 150 people into the game that had ties to me.

I’m in my home state, in my favorite ballpark, living out my dream that I’ve had since I was five-years-old and called everybody that I know and loved, that’s pretty cool.

MMO: Roberto Hernandez, the two-time All-Star pitcher, is someone you reference quite a bit in your book. What made Hernandez such a close ally in the majors?

Morris: I think he just saw somebody in need, he probably saw the deer in the headlights look from me. It was like you’re old but you’re a rookie, so this stuff is still going to be new to you. They made me do rookie stuff and then they apologized for it, like, we know you’re older but you’re still a rookie, and we’re still going to do it to you. The dress and thong on the way from Anaheim to New York City, that was awesome. I have no idea how I wore one of those!

He just took me under his wing on and off the field. After the games we’d sit in front of our lockers and then the second year with Ozzie Guillen, he’d be involved too, and we’d just sit there and talk about everything.

It’s something I wish this country had more of right now, just sitting around and being able to talk and not judge anybody and go this is real, this is stuff I’ve gone through, what are we going to do about this? And then you have someone reciprocating back; that was what the locker room was like and that was what Bert and Ozzie were to me and it meant the world to me.

Why did he take me under his wing? I have no idea but I’m glad he did because he’s my best friend in the big leagues. He’s the one that had me laughing and he and a couple of the other guys took us rookies down to the suit store at six o’clock in the morning as we were going to breakfast and they bought us suits, shirts, ties, shoes and belts. And all of that stuff was in our hotel room closet when we got back from the games.

Those guys do a lot of stuff that nobody ever hears about and it’s good stuff. All they hear about is the bad because we feed on the negative. But there were great stories in the game and stuff like sitting in the outfield in Boston, and calling my kids after a Sunday afternoon game. Then having guy-by-guy come out after they got ready and we’re out in the outfield walking around and talking to our kids back home. You’re looking at a picture of 23 out of 25 guys that were talking to their wives and their kids because it’s a long season and they want to talk to their families. Those are things you don’t hear about; those are the things you don’t see pictures of because we’ve got to be negative.

MMO: Was there anything that took you by surprise when you finally made it the major leagues?

Morris: When I signed my contract outside the locker room before they let me into Arlington, they gave me ten days of meal money, which was more money than I made in two months teaching and coaching. And I thought, I could get used to this!

I think the real things that I took away from it was dreams come true and I lived up to my word with my kids. As far as baseball, you’re going to all these cities, and this was before 9/11, so we’re walking onto the back of airplanes and we’re getting on and not carrying bags, the fact is you’d get fined if you carried a bag.

I went from a high school classroom, where by the end of the month teachers are eating peanut butter and milk for lunch because they don’t have any more money and they want to feed their kids, to having an abundance.

The biggest difference I saw was that once you get to the majors everybody wants to give you everything. But when you’re in the minors, nobody wants to give you anything, and that’s when you need it, because you don’t have any money! We need to put some stock into our youngsters, who are trying to get there. The big leaguers who can afford it are getting everything footed for them, that was the biggest discrepancy I saw. And so, a lot of us would try to give stuff back to the minor leaguers. I gave gloves away because I had a lot of those. These guys don’t have very much money, so that was a huge discrepancy for me.

Coming out of a situation where I’m in a school where kid’s families don’t make much money because oil is down at the time, to baseball and watching the abundance of everything you have in the majors and remembering back to the minors and thinking we don’t have anything. I would like to see that change some.

MMO: In our previous interview, you mentioned that The Rookie is 85 percent accurate in your view. I’m curious, is there something you wish would have made the film that didn’t?

Morris: For a long time I wished that my grandfather’s wisdom would’ve carried through the film. I realized because of my faith, and Mathew, you know this, I don’t push it on anybody. But I’ve got it because of my grandparents and it affords me the ability to talk about my grandparents any way I want to. If I wanted to be mean I could. But these were absolutely two of the nicest people I have ever been around in my life and they just wanted the best for everybody.

It affords me the ability to talk about my grandfather extensively because I think we’ve lost a lot of those lessons in the last couple of generations, and I think we need to bring those back.

MMO: You write that you would’ve never imagined becoming a public speaker, and considered yourself an introvert. Can you talk about how you initially got started in public speaking?

Morris: My agent Steve at the time signed a contract, he forged my name. He called and told me I had a speech and I’m like, where? He said, “In Dallas. For Major League Soccer’s front office people.” I told him that I didn’t sign anything, and he told me he did. I said, ‘Why thank you. Now what do you want me to do?’

He told me that I was going to talk for 45 minutes. I said, ‘Dude, I don’t even talk to my class for 45 minutes. That’s why I write stuff on the board!’

He wanted me to write stuff down that I wanted to remember and then grind it down. He told me to just put ideas down and so I told him I would.

I didn’t write anything down, never have. My book writer at the time, Joel Engel, is with me, and so I got up on stage and I’m supposed to talk for 45 minutes and I’m panicking. I have never done that! Two hours later I was done and nobody moved, nobody went to get up and go pee, they just sat there hanging on every word I said. I’m ecstatic and my book writer Joel was ecstatic as well and said, “Dude, you did it!”

I called my agent and told him I talked for two hours and he said, “You can never talk for that long!” I’m like, what do you want, man? That was my first engagement and that’s when I realized God stretches us sometimes to see what we’re capable of.

I’ve gotten to tell my story all over the world and I’ve gotten to see beautiful places that honestly as a teacher I would never have been able to afford to go to all the places I’ve been to. It’s been incredible, and to watch my kids grow up and to be able to go to those places and see different things. It’s not just reading a book or looking at something online, it’s seeing it and it’s tangible, it’s right in front of you. Those are the pictures that last forever.

MMO: With Covid-19, are you now giving virtual speeches?

Morris: My wife Shawna and I were talking for a couple of years about doing virtual meetings and maybe we should get into this because then we wouldn’t have to leave the house. I didn’t even know that was a real thing, I just thought it would be cool and I wouldn’t have to travel.

Then the pandemic hit and a couple of speakers called and said, “Can you do online meetings?” And I said, ‘Yes we can!’

So now we’re doing virtual meetings. I’m doing a virtual graduation tomorrow and I talked to a guy in Japan last week. I don’t know what normal is going to look like on the other side of all this and I don’t think it’s ever going to look like what we thought it looked like when we were in it. I think it’s going to be different.

I think it can be bigger and better, but it’s going to depend on a lot of how people react to a lot of things. I’m just hoping for peace and kindness right now, because everybody on the planet is trying to figure out the next move and we just need to give them a little cushion because we don’t know what they’re going through.

MMO: What are you hoping readers take away from this book?

Morris: I hope they see that if they surround themselves with really good people, people who are like-minded and as smart or smarter, then you’re going to have success. I say we serve on a lot of different teams, we have a family team, work team, church team, hobby team; which one are we going to see? If your home is in disarray you’re in trouble, and so you need to have everything consistently.

When you surround yourself with really good people you have those like goals in mind whether it be family, work, church, wherever you go. Those are people you want to hang out with when you have a hobby, if they have something in common with you it makes it a lot easier to talk about. Those are the people I want around me.

I talk about the dream killers in the book and those are the people you want to stay away from. I listed several that had a direct impact on me and in my life. I think all of us have those because we all have a story. In 20 years of speaking, that’s what I’ve learned: Everyone has a story and I’ve heard some incredible stories, and I want to keep hearing them.

MMO: Thanks for your time today, Jim. Best of luck with the book!

Morris: I appreciate that, Mathew. Thank you.

Follow Jim Morris on Twitter, @JimTheRookie

To purchase Jim’s new book, click here.

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