'The Rookie' in reel life
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

As you probably know, the new baseball movie "The Rookie" is "based on a true story." As the star, Dennis Quaid, has said, "What makes this (movie) great is that all of it really happened."

Jim Morris, Dennis Quaid
Actor Dennis Quaid, right, is a bit older and smaller than the real-life Jim Morris.
And indeed, the movie gets a lot of the important stuff right. But in some places, as Bret Bloomquist wrote recently in Morris' hometown San Angelo Standard-Times, the movie "plays loose and easy with the truth."

How loose? How easy?

Read on:

In reel life: Disney's version of life in the minors is rated "G."
In real life: Life in the minors is rated "R."

In reel life: Morris is played by the 47-year-old Quaid.
In real life: Morris was 35 when most of the events depicted in the movie happened. Believing Quaid is 35 is a stretch -- you've got to really suspend belief when you look at his face, which is as rumpled as Mick Jagger's. But Quaid gives a superb performance and is quite convincing on the mound, despite having no experience as a pitcher.

In reel life: Quaid is thin and clean-shaven.
In real life: Morris, circa 1999, was big and husky -- 6-foot-2, 225 pounds or so -- and wore a mustache flecked with gray.

Dennis Quaid
Quaid does a fair impression of Morris' performance on the mound.
In reel life: Morris teaches and coaches at Big Lake High School.
In real life: Morris taught at Reagan County High School, which is in Big Lake. There is no "Big Lake High School" in Texas. Filmmakers probably liked the sound of "Big Lake," and might have wanted to avoid the political connotations of the name Reagan.

In reel life: Oil is so omnipresent in Big Lake that there's an oil pump out in front of the high school.
In real life: Morris' school does indeed have an oil pump in front.

In reel life: Much is made of the almost mythic importance of oil in Big Lake, with talk of the Santa Rita oil well.
In real life: Big Lake is, indeed, a town whose economy is based on oil. On May 28, 1923, a "gusher" at Santa Rita No. 1 started a boom -- more than 140 million barrels of oil came from the Big Lake oil field. Santa Rita No. 1, named the "Oil Well of the Century" by Texas Monthly, was productive until 1990. The University of Texas owned the land on which the oil was discovered, and the well has helped make the state university one of the country's richest.

In reel life: The 1-year-old in the movie is played by triplets.
In real life: The Morrises have three children, including a 1-year-old.

In reel life: The Big Lake Owls baseball team has only 10 players.
In real life: Morris writes in "The Rookie" that in 1999 Big Lake had 55 players try out for the team, "of whom 15 were legitimate varsity baseball players."

Dennis Quaid
In the movie, Quaid's high school team had won just one game in each of its previous three seasons. In real life, they were coming off a 9-13 season.
In reel life: The story hinges on a promise -- if the hapless Owls "win district" and go to the state playoffs, Morris will go to a major-league tryout. Morris "reminds" his team they had only one win in each of the last three seasons.
In real life: Reagan dropped down to a division for smaller schools in 1999, and was coming off a 9-13 season, with the core of that team returning. The team won the District 1-2A championship, making the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

In reel life: Morris pulls his pickup off the side of the road near a speed display board. He throws a pitch past the board in order to measure its speed.
In real life: "That didn't happen," Quaid says. "But it could have happened." No, it couldn't have, a salesman at Stalker Radar, which sells roadside speed display signs, told me last week. A speed display board can measure anything that goes by in a straight line. However, a roadside board wouldn't pick up a baseball, unless its sensors were adjusted to pick up something that small.

In reel life: Morris has some difficulty deciding whether to leave Big Lake, where he lives and has lived since he was a boy, for a better, more lucrative job in Fort Worth. His wife, Lorri, also works at Big Lake as a counselor, although we only see her at the school in an early scene.
In real life: Because he didn't have a teaching certificate, Morris could no longer teach at Reagan County after 1999. He had to leave the job. And Morris never lived in Big Lake -- his home was 70 miles away, in the town where Lorri worked (and still works) in admissions at Angelo State University.

In reel life: Grass won't grow on the Owls' home field because deer are eating the seed that has been spread on the dry, dusty surface. In order to get the grass to grow, sympathetic locals drive the deer away by spreading human hair, collected from the local barbershop, all around the field, to scare away the deer, who presumably would be frightened by the scent. It works, and the grass grows.
In real life: There was grass on the field when Morris arrived in Big Lake, according to Roy Levario, the father of one of the real Owls. "Hey, we've got one of the nicest fields in West Texas," he recently told the Dallas Morning News.

Jim Morris
Jim Morris was 0-0 with a 4.80 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 21 major-league games.
In his book, Morris does write of spending much time nurturing the field, saying it "looked like an abandoned tract gone to seed." He doesn't mention a problem with deer, but director John Lee Hancock told the USC Daily Trojan that the human hair scene really happened.

But could that have been why the field, within a few weeks, went from a desert-like surface to a lush, green one? "There's certainly no scientific data, or any anecdotal information, that it works," Janet Marinelli of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden told Entertainment Weekly.

In reel life: The Devil Rays hold an open tryout in San Angelo -- which, it appears from a road sign in the movie, is 97 miles from Big Lake.
In real life: San Angelo is 70 miles from Big Lake. But the tryout Morris attended was in Brownwood -- which is 97 miles from San Angelo.

In reel life: At the Devil Rays tryout, Morris shows up wearing blue jeans and pitches wearing blue jeans -- which is pretty much all he wears throughout the film, although he does don an Owls uni during games.
In real life: Morris, who'd been playing competitive softball for years, wore his softball pants while trying out. And, writes Kevin Sherrington in the Dallas Morning News, "Morris (usually) wore a coach's requisite windsuit, cap and Oakleys, hardly ever dressing like Dwight Yoakam."

In reel life: Morris, the last pitcher to take the mound at the tryout, throws 98 mph, and later he tells Lorri that the scouts thought something was wrong with their radar guns.
In real life: At the tryout, Morris did throw 12 straight at 98 mph, and the scouts did, indeed, double-check their radar guns.

In reel life: Morris returns home from the tryout the same day and there are already messages from the Devil Rays, saying they want another look.
In real life: The Devil Rays did leave many messages on Morris' answering machine that day.

In reel life: Morris pitches for the scouts again two days after his first tryout, this time in a downpour. He's on the mound, getting soaking wet, and still throws accurate heat.
In real life: It was raining hard on that day, but the Devil Rays had someone out on the mound with Morris, holding an umbrella over his head, and handing him dry balls to throw.

Dennis Quaid
The movie didn't need to "speed up" Morris' actual journey to the majors. It really happened that fast.
In reel life: Morris goes from coaching high school baseball to Double-A ball to Triple-A ball to the majors all within the course of a few months.
In real life: This is one of the rare cases where a movie's "telescoped" time actually corresponds roughly to reality. Morris signed his contract in June 1999, went to "extended spring training" for two weeks to get in shape, played for Double-A Orlando for a week, joined the Bulls in late July, and was in the majors Sept. 19.

In reel life: When Morris arrives in Arlington after being called up, he enters the empty ballpark early with "Brooks," a teammate who'd been called up at the same time. This gives them time to register awe at The Ballpark at Arlington's towering arches and then enter the locker room and gaze in awe at jerseys reading "Canseco" and "Boggs" and "McGriff" on the back.
In real life: Morris, who was called up with Steve Cox, met the team at their hotel, and they all knew of his story and greeted him with enthusiasm. Both Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff hugged him when they met him, and Jose Canseco shook his hand. Morris took the team bus to the stadium.

In reel life: The team Morris coached -- and seemingly the entire town -- turns out for his debut at Arlington on Sept. 19, 1999. Team members post signs telling everyone to meet at 2 p.m., presumably to form a caravan going to Arlington.
In real life: In his book, Morris mentions a quiet celebration with his family after the game -- nothing about the Owls, or the whole town, greeting him. Making this scene even more unlikely is that Big Lake is 334 miles from Arlington and home games start at 7:05. So they would have had to drive real fast, had no trouble parking and found their seats awful quick to make it in time. But they didn't have to, because they were watching their former coach on TV. "My kids all knew about it," Morris told NPR's Weekend Edition recently. "They were all around the TV that night, and everybody was calling my cell phone and talking to me."

In reel life: Morris strikes out Royce Clayton, the only batter he faces in his debut, on three pitches.
In real life: Morris struck out Clayton on four pitches -- in his book, he writes that one was 96 mph and the other three were 98 mph. "Yeah, I know. It was four pitches in real life. It was three in the movie. But that was only because it would have been another minute," former Brewers pitcher Mark Ciardi, who produced the film, told ESPN's Jayson Stark. Hancock told the Daily Trojan that the problem was a practical one -- Clayton fouled off one of Morris' pitches in real life. "You could sit there all day long trying to get that," Hancock said.

In reel life: In an emotional scene after his debut in Arlington, Morris gives his dad the "game ball."
In real life: That's Hollywood. "I've still got the ball," Morris told Joe Henderson of the Tampa Bay Tribune.

In reel life: The film ends after Morris' first big-league appearance. After the fade to black, this sentence appears: "Jim Morris pitched in the major leagues for two seasons."
In real life: That's a bit of a stretch. Morris played a few weeks at the end of 1999 and made his last major-league appearance, against the Yankees, on May 9, 2000. He was invited to the Dodgers 2001 spring training camp but retired in late February, citing his continuing problems with tendinitis.

Morris played in the major leagues for seven or eight weeks, total.

Some, including Morris himself, question whether he would have made the majors if not for the "novelty" factor. As Morris progressed through the minors, there was already considerable national media coverage and talk of a Hollywood version of his story. In his book, Morris writes that he thought many others were more deserving to be added to the Devil Rays' expanded September roster, but his agent, Steve Canter, told him to hang tight. "The Devil Rays, Steve explained, were fast losing fans who'd lost interest in the losing team, and they needed a good story to tell," writes Morris.

To its credit, the movie raises the idea that Morris' promotion might have been a publicity stunt. But Devil Rays manager Larry Rothschild said it wasn't: "We didn't bring him up here because he's a good story. We brought him up because he's a left-hander with a good arm." While the good arm part was true, Morris had only pitched 23 innings for the Bulls, striking out 16 while piling up a 5.48 ERA.

So how did he do in the big leagues? He pitched 15 innings in 21 appearances, striking out 13 and walking nine. His major-league ERA was 4.80.

"Closer Look" will be a regular Page 2 feature, exploring a hot sports topic in greater detail.



Jeff Merron Archive

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Ten Burning Questions with Jim Morris

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