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|Thursday, March 28
Updated: April 17, 5:57 PM ET
Morris' story made for the big screen
By Jayson Stark
I've never pretended to be Jeffrey Lyons. But I know a great movie when I see one.
So trust me when I tell you "The Rookie" is one of the best baseball movies ever made. How could it not be?
Jim Morris' story was a movie waiting to happen. It was a fairy tale that turned into somebody's actual life.
It was a story so good, so exhilarating, so moving, the challenge for the people who brought it to Hollywood was how they could possibly make a movie that was as good as this man's real-life saga.
"I didn't have to change anything in this movie," said Mark Ciardi, the former Brewers pitcher who produced it. "It wrote itself."
And it practically did.
I still remember hanging up the phone one day in the summer of 1999 after interviewing a Triple-A pitcher for the Durham Bulls -- a Triple-A pitcher who happened to be 35 years old.
He was a 35-year-old Triple-A pitcher who had been teaching science in a dusty town in West Texas three months earlier. A 35-year-old pitcher who hadn't thrown a professional pitch in 12 years, since four surgeries "ended" his career before he'd made it out of the California League. A 35-year-old pitcher who somehow, magically, could now throw a baseball 98 miles per hour.
"You won't believe this one," I told my wife. "This is the story of the year."
Turned out, Jim Morris was the story of any year. I wrote it that August for ESPN The Magazine. The same week, Jim Morris was discovered by Sports Illustrated, too.
A few days later, Ciardi was sitting in his doctor's office, leafing through SI. He came across an article that would change his life.
"If this guy makes it to the big leagues," Ciardi said, "it's the greatest story I ever heard."
Then he looked at the photo of Jim Morris. He said, "Oh, my God. I played with this guy." Indeed, the two were teammates in the minor leagues, back in the '80s.
Before that afternoon was over, Ciardi had phoned the clubhouse in Durham. He had talked to Morris' agent, Steve Canter. He already had a Disney movie in his head, and he didn't even know the best part of this movie hadn't even happened yet.
Morris was still firing away in Durham when Disney told Ciardi it was interested, if Morris would grant him the rights. Little did either of them know that as that meeting was taking place, a 35-year-old miracle man from Texas was hours away from reaching the big leagues -- in the same state where this whole improbable saga began.
The next night, Jim Morris jogged out of the bullpen in The Ballpark at Arlington, as 40,000 people roared. As grown men in his own bullpen wiped away tears. As his family watched from the seats of a real major-league park. As half the population of Big Lake, Texas wondered what that arctic chill was doing rippling through their spines.
Of course, Jim Morris struck out the first hitter he faced, Royce Clayton. How could he have done anything else? This was destined to be a story too great to make up. So this was the only plot twist allowed by fate.
Within days, Morris' agent had gotten 250 calls from people wanting to tell his story. But as Morris contemplated those offers, he thought: What were the odds of having one of those people be an ex-teammate?
"It's weird how everything with this worked out," Morris said. "I hadn't talked to Mark for a long time. Now he comes back from Europe and gets into making movies. I come back from teaching and get back into baseball. And he winds up making a movie about my story. It's like there's this big snowball effect, and it just keeps going."
Meanwhile, that same summer, actor Dennis Quaid was sitting in front of his TV, channel-surfing. A story appeared on ABC's evening news that made him stop clicking. It was the story of a 35-year-old minor-league pitcher.
"I thought, 'Boy, that would make a great movie,'" Quaid said. "I didn't think at the time I'd be playing it."
But a couple of years later, he would. He was left-handed, just like Morris. He had a lifelong fondness for sports movies "that transcend sports and are really what life is all about" -- movies like "Field of Dreams" and "The Natural" and "Hoosiers." And his roles in movies like "Frequency" and "Breaking Away" and "Everyone's All-American" reflected that passion.
So while he couldn't throw a baseball 98 miles per hour, Dennis Quaid had an innate feel for the true meaning of Jim Morris' story.
"There's a drama in sports that's sort of compressed life," Quaid said. "Here you have a guy who's at an age when he should be in the prime of life, and he's told he can't play anymore. And he's faced with that question of what do you do when you can't do what you love, when you can't fulfill your dreams. Then he gets that second chance. ...
"In sports, you've got all this drama: The drama of survival. The drama of winning and losing. Of how you win and lose. And how you stand up to adversity. And you do it all in front of a crowd. The great thing about sports, with the exception of ice skating, is that, unlike so much of life, it's something you can measure."
Now Morris' story will be measured in box-office dollars and the number of stars attached to the reviews. But stacked up against life's big picture, that's no way to measure one of the most rewarding real-life sports stories of our lifetimes.
"I've said this many times," Quaid said. "But when I was reading the script, I said to myself, if this was fiction, I would never do it. It's too unbelievable. But what makes this great is that all of it really happened.
"It transcends baseball. It's about life. It's about family. But mostly, it's about second chances. And I think that's where it hits a universal chord, because all of us have something in our life that we wished we had done or wished we could do. And here's this guy who got a shot at that and went all the way with it."
It was a tale so beautiful and so perfect that only a handful of scenes in the film had to be fictionalized or even changed.
Quaid, in fact, utters lines I remember Morris himself saying three years ago in Durham.
And a Devil Rays scout in the movie tells Morris exactly what real-life scout Doug Gassaway told him in 1999: if he called his bosses about a 35-year-old pitcher, he'd get laughed at -- but if he didn't tell them about a pitcher who threw 98 mph, he'd get fired.
OK, so they did make up one scene, in which Morris parks his car in front of a roadside radar screen in Texas, then throws a few pitches just to find out for himself how hard he's throwing.
"That didn't happen," Quaid said. "But it could have happened."
And in real life, unlike in the movie, Morris didn't strike out Royce Clayton on three pitches.
"Yeah, I know," says Ciardi, who started three games (winning one) for the '87 Brewers. "It was four pitches in real life. It was three in the movie. But that was only because it would have been another minute."
In fact, though, the climactic scene in which Quaid bursts through the bullpen gates in Arlington couldn't have been more real -- because it was filmed in the middle of an actual Rangers-Devil Rays game.
"It was the first time in major-league history they let a film crew on the field during a game," Ciardi said. "They gave us 45 seconds. Dennis was really out there in the bullpen. And a lot of people in the stands really wanted to see Dennis because we had advanced the hell out of it.
"So between innings, those gates opened, and Dennis came out. We filmed it with a handheld camera, and people went crazy. Then we did it again, the game started, and we finished the scene after the game. And 20,000 people stayed there. The whole bottom deck was filled."
But in the movie, this scene is more than simply technically perfect. Every nuance, every look on every face, every slice of baseball life is captured in a manner so dead-on and so moving, even the real Jim Morris cried when he saw it.
And he knew how it turned out.
"I saw it a few weeks ago in a theater in Nashville," Morris said. "The audience didn't know I was there. I looked around, and they were crying, and I was crying. I was trying not to look too obvious, in case anybody knew who I was. I never expected to cry. But it was so close in time to when it actually happened, and it was still so powerful."
As one of the first to write the tale of Jim Morris, I've always felt a personal connection to his story. So it seemed ironic that, just by accident, I was in Dodgertown last year in spring training when Morris walked into the office of his new manager Jim Tracy.
He'd been released by the Devil Rays and hooked on with a club overstocked with left-handed relievers. His arm had started to ache again. Jim Morris told Tracy, "It's time to go home and be with my kids." Tracy hugged him and wished him luck.
Now Morris spends his days as a motivational speaker, telling people exactly what this movie tells the folks lucky enough to watch it.
"I don't know if I want anybody to walk away from the movie thinking about me specifically," he said. "I do want them to walk away asking themselves, 'Well, if I get a second opportunity at something, I should walk through that door.'"
Jim Morris walked through that door. And the only time he's looked back is when he watched his own story unfolding on that big screen, where it literally becomes larger than life.
"After I came out of that movie," said Morris, "I called my mom -- and said, 'Bring Kleenex.'"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.