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Out of a dare, career is reborn

Jim Morris has faced many challenges in his life, but this one seemed too tough.

He was quite content as a biology and chemistry teacher and baseball coach at Reagan County High School in Brownwood, Texas, a tiny town about 100 miles west of Waco. But as his team kept winning, it became apparent Morris would have to attempt something he never thought he'd do again.

He told his team before the 1999 season that if it reached the state playoffs, something the school had never done, he would attend an open tryout held by the Devil Rays later in the year. Considering Morris' previous injury-plagued career that stalled in the minors, that was going out on a limb.

"Before each season I talk to the team about goals and objectives and how we can reach them," Morris said. "I talk to them about how important it is to have dreams. As I'm saying that, some of the kids said to me, "Hey, you're sitting here coaching when you should still be pitching.' I made a deal with them. If they made the playoffs, then I'd go to an open camp and try out."

Sure enough, Reagan County made the playoffs. Morris was off to Howard Payne University in Brownwood to attempt what seemed like an impossible task.

After 10 years out of baseball, Morris, 35, was giving it one last try.

"I figured, what have I got to lose," he said. "I'd pitched pretty well in batting practice, but the kids were still hitting me. I went up there to fulfill a promise."

Before Morris could even think about returning to competitive baseball, he had to forget the past.

A left-handed pitcher, he was selected in the first round of the 1983 draft by Milwaukee after one season at Ranger Junior College in Texas. In 1984 he played for the Beloit Snappers of the Class A Midwest League.

In 1985 he was with Beloit and Class A Stockton and appeared to be on the way up. Then came the pain in his shoulder that wouldn't go away.

Morris sat out the 1986 season with bone spurs in his left shoulder. In 1987 he pitched four games in relief for Stockton, but the 1988 season was a washout, and Milwaukee traded him to the White Sox in 1989.

After two unimpressive starts for Class A Sarasota, Morris succumbed to the pain in his shoulder and retired. He earned a teaching certificate and went back to his hometown.

He was sure his career was over, until he made that bet.

So Morris climbed back on the mound. He topped out at 98 mph and consistently threw in the 90s.

He impressed Devil Rays scouts enough to earn a trip to St. Petersburg to work out at the spring training facility. Morris was signed as a free agent June 23 and made his second professional debut for Double-A Orlando a few days later.

A promotion to Triple-A Durham followed. He has pitched five games in relief and has a 2.70 ERA, seven strikeouts and one walk in 6 innings.

"He's certainly an inspirational story," Bulls manager Bill Evers said. "I've never seen anyone out of baseball for 10 years and then come back like he has. It's really kind of remarkable. But he's getting it up around 92-95 miles an hour. He has a hard slider. If he can continue to throw well, who knows, maybe he can make it."

Morris is signed through the end of the season. If he remains on the Triple-A roster throughout the season, he said he will not go back to teaching.

"As long as I move forward, I don't have any reason to go back," he said. "I'm going to do this as long as I can. I didn't come into this with any expectations. I'm living a dream. I'm enjoying some success, so I'm just going to ride it as far as I can."