In 2002, the movie “The Rookie” captivated baseball fans’ hearts as it told the inspirational story of a 35 year-old high school science teacher and baseball coach turned major league pitcher. But, Devil Rays fans were already familiar with the story of Jim Morris, the second-oldest rookie in the history of Major League Baseball.
The Milwaukee Brewers selected Morris as the fourth pick in the first round of the 1983 amateur draft, but Morris remained at the minor league Single-A level for four years due to elbow injuries. The Brewers released Morris in 1987, signed with the Chicago White Sox the following year, who released him in 1989. But, Morris gave his major league dreams one more chance as he tried out for the Devil Rays in 1999, after promising his high school baseball team he would if they won their District Championship. On September 18, 1999, Jim Morris stepped on the mound in Arlington, Texas, to make his major league debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Texas got off to a quick start in the bottom of the first inning after D-Rays starting pitcher Bobby Witt walked Rafael Palmeiro, who eventually scored off of Juan Gonzalez’s double to center field. Todd Zeile batted in Gonzalez with a single to second base, then Zeile scored off of Lee Stevens’ double to left field.
But Texas’ offensive continued to stay hot in the second inning as Tom Goodwin doubled to center field. With Mark McLemore at bat, Goodwin stole third base and eventually stole home off of a throwing error. Witt went on to strikeout McLemore. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s offense was struggling, as Sele recorded his third strikeout against the D-Rays when he struck out Bob Smith in the top of the third inning.
Palmeiro leadoff the action in the bottom of the third inning as he drew a walk from Witt, followed by Zeile’s single to right field. Witt was able to redeem himself by striking out Texas’ next two batters to end the inning.
Tampa Bay’s offense finally came alive as John Flaherty hit a leadoff homerun to center field in the top of the fifth inning. Bubba Trammell single to left field, but no more runs were scored by the D-Rays during the inning. The bottom of the sixth inning looked promising for Witt, as he recorded his fifth strikeout against Texas’ first batter, Zeile. But, the Rangers’ offense became deadly again as Stevens hit a single and Kelly doubled to right field. However, Stevens was eventually thrown out at home plate. That did not stop Texas from scoring, as Kelly and Clayton scored off of Goodwin’s single to shortstop.
Tampa Bay tried to produce more runs in the top of the seventh inning, when Jose Canseco leadoff with a single to left field. Flaherty continued the trend with another single to left field, but Sele was able to record the inning’s final strikeout against Terrell Lowry. Reliever Jeff Sparks was effective for the D-Rays as he recorded three strikeouts against the Rangers in the seventh and eighth innings.
With one out left in the bottom of the eighth inning, Tampa Bay sent Jim Morris to the mound to finish the job. Morris struck out Royce Clayton with only four pitches, giving the D-Rays’ pitching staff their ninth strikeout of the night.
The Rangers beat the D-Rays 6-1, but that night will always be remembered as the night Tampa Bay gave the lefty another chance at his big league dreams. Unfortunately, Jim Morris’ career did not last long, as he pitched his final game for the D-Rays on May 9, 2000, due to the agitation of his old elbow injuries. During his two-year career in Tampa Bay, Morris pitched in 21 games and recorded 13 strikeouts. He finished with a career ERA of 4.80.
Morris went on to write about his experience in the big leagues, when he published his autobiography, “The Oldest Rookie,” in 2001. Actor Dennis Quaid played Morris in “The Rookie,” and Morris was involved in the movie’s creative process.