Life and sports continue to inspire

Moonlight Graham, Crash Davis and Jim Morris all have one trait in common. It’s not just that they played baseball, but they were real people who had heartwarming stories worth telling. Moviegoers everywhere have agreed.

Morris, the 35-year-old high school coach whose team forced him out of retirement and started him toward the major leagues, is the latest sporting subject in a theater near you. If you’re up for a wholesome — and of course, schmaltzy — Cinderella story, you can’t beat Walt Disney Pictures’ “The Rookie.”

Having had the privilege of seeing a portion of the real-life events as they unfolded, one thing struck me as I watched the movie. This is just the kind of story, when set to film, that doesn’t even need embellishing.

Here’s the truth, as Morris told it in 1999 when he was playing for the Triple-A Durham Bulls:

A 1983 first-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers, Morris was forced to retire from the Chicago White Sox organization in 1989 because of arm injuries. Once he was out of baseball, the pain in his shoulder was so great that he had more work done on his arm (a surgery he said the White Sox wouldn’t provide). Years later, he was coaching Reagan County High School’s baseball team and teaching high-school science.

In batting practices with his players, Morris was throwing harder than anyone the kids had ever seen. During a talk to his team on following through in life — on following one’s dreams — the team called his bluff. If they made the postseason, he would have to try out with a major league organization.

The team did its part, so he wound up working out for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in an open tryout full of players barely half his age. He astonished even himself that day by throwing 98 miles per hour. As unusual as it is to sign a 35-year-old “prospect,” Tampa Bay did just that. After all, how many left-handers can throw 98, no matter how old they are?

Morris turned his back on a teaching and coaching opportunity in Fort Worth, Texas, so he could re-live his dream. He returned to a bus league as he pitched in three games for Double-A Orlando in the Southern League. Then came a promotion to Durham, where he pitched in 18 games before getting a call to the majors. A Triple-A player’s salary is more than $600 a month (as reported in the movie) and the Bulls were a team loaded with 30-something castoffs (not youngsters who would make wisecracks about Morris’ age). The movie portrayed his Durham tenure more like the low minors of “Bull Durham,” even giving him a fictional teammate to take with him to the majors.

Once in the big leagues, Morris began his long-awaited major league career by striking out the Texas Rangers’ Royce Clayton on four pitches — three in the movie, of course. Between 1999 and the next year, Morris pitched in 21 major league games. He struck out 13 in 15 innings and posted a 4.80 earned-run average.

As Prince William County’s Mike Colangelo and Mike Matthews would no doubt agree, it took a village to make a major leaguer. We see that in the movie, as Morris’ family, friends and team pushed him in the right direction.

Certain liberties were taken in the film, as in every movie based on a true story. Reagan County, located in Big Lake, Texas, became the Big Lake High School Owls. Even tiny Milan High School was called Hickory in “Hoosiers,” so Reagan County shouldn’t feel bad about losing its name. It’s a wonder T.C. Williams got to be T.C. Williams in “Remember the Titans.”

Fortunately, only one baseball scene from “The Rookie” was entirely fictional. In the movie, actor Dennis Quaid stops next to a state-highway sign that was warning motorists of their speed. He gets out and sees just how hard he can throw a baseball.

Morris never pulled off the highway to see how hard he could throw, but so much of the rest of the movie is dead-on. His major league debut, aside from the number of pitches, was faithful to the real story. He entered a seemingly meaningless late-season game between the Devil Rays and Rangers. Many of the shots were filmed during a real Rays-Rangers game, and the actor playing Clayton imitated the shortstop’s timing mechanisms and stance to perfection.

That moment — just another batter in another baseball game under the red-hot Texas sun — was something Morris strived for all of his life, or essentially all of two separate lives. He never made the majors as a kid, but he made it as a man who was fully aware of his good fortune. No we all get to see the story.

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