Minor League Miracle
Jim Morris is the most improbable story to hit the Durham Bulls since Nuke Laloosh. Less than three months ago Morris was a 35-year-old physics and chemistry teacher at Reagan County High in Brownwood, Texas. Today he's a few good innings from making the Show. "I didn't set out to have anything like this happen, and honestly I didn't think it would work out," Morris says. "It's hard for me to believe."
Morris, who was also the base-ball coach at Reagan County High, began his journey at the outset of the 1999 high school season when his players made him promise to attend a major league tryout camp if they reached the state playoffs. Both sides kept the bargain. A first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers in '83 who threw only 203 pro innings, had four arm operations and never advanced above Class A before retiring in '89, the lefthanded Morris drew chuckles from Devil Rays scouts before his audition on June 19 in Brownwood. Then he threw a 98-mph fastball. Four days later he was at extended spring training in St. Petersburg.
After a brief layover with the Double A Orlando Rays, he arrived at Triple A Durham on July 21. "Somebody told me we were getting a 35-year-old left-handed science teacher who throws 98, and my first reaction was, 'Is this a real guy?' " says Bulls pitching coach Pete Filson. "Jim topped out at 90 ten years ago, and now he's back throwing in the mid-90s consistently and blowing hitters away. That just doesn't happen."
Even the physics teacher has a hard time explaining how he could add 10 years and 10 mph. What is clear is that the 6'3", 215-pound Morris had used a variety of fastballs and a hard slider to allow just 13 hits and strike out 12 in 14? innings of relief with Durham through Sunday.
There's much sentiment in the Tampa Bay front office, given the Devil Rays' lost season, to promote Morris to the big club when rosters expand in September. "There's no question he has the stuff to pitch in the majors, but he needs to improve his command and show us he can perform in front of 20,000 people," says Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar, who scouted Morris last week. "You can't help but pull for a guy like Jim, but we want him to justify putting the final piece in this great story."
Morris, who's known as Old Man River in the Bulls' clubhouse, is making huge sacrifices to chase his dream. He hasn't seen his wife, Lorri, or their three kids in nine weeks; he has taken a 50% pay cut from the job he quit as a teacher; and his future is uncertain. He's driven in part by the realization that this dream isn't just his own. Morris's former players phone his wife regularly to check his progress, and last week he received a letter from a stranger in Florida who wrote that he'd never attended a Devil Rays game but was so moved by Morris's quest that if Morris got called up, he would go to the ballpark. "I try not to dwell on getting to the big leagues because it's overwhelming," Morris says. "But as far as I've come in the last two months, I won't say anything is impossible anymore."
Barry's Backer Gets Buried
Commend Eric Levin for his perpetual search for life's bright side, which these days can be exhausting. "I still have my health," says Levin with a sigh, "and today, well...I had a good breakfast." For a man whose company, Pro Access Inc., was blindsided by Barry Sanders's retirement in July, no victory is too small.
While the Lions' star's sudden decision shocked the football world, Levin's small Miami Beach sports-marketing firm was thrown for a giant loss. In June 1998 Pro Access and Sanders created a licensing and sponsorship campaign called Run for the Record, designed to capitalize on the hype surrounding Sanders's pursuit of Walter Payton's NFL career rushing mark. By last month, Levin says, he had tentative deals with several large companies to produce Run for the Record merchandise. The NFL had agreed to split the campaign's projected multimillion-dollar royalties with Sanders (Pro Access would have taken a percentage of Sanders's cut) and planned a seasonlong promotional push devoted to the pursuit of the mark. One final piece—a 1,458-yard season by Sanders, pedestrian by his standards—and the profitable puzzle would have been complete.