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Movie gives Rays publicity

Nationally, the Rays might have something of an image problem. But they're feeling pretty good about their role in Disney's latest feel-good baseball production, The Rookie.

The movie tells the story of Jim Morris' journey from high school coach and teacher to major-league relief pitcher at age 35.

While most of the film focuses on Morris' life and personal issues, the Rays are featured prominently in the final half-hour, from the time Morris attends a tryout camp to his stints with their Orlando and Durham farm clubs to his major-league debut at Texas.

"I think it's terrific," Rays managing general partner Vince Naimoli said. "I think the movie will do a wonderful job enhancing our national image."

Rays officials say there are several benefits to being featured in the feature-length film: national exposure of their name, uniform and merchandise, the association with a family-oriented Disney production and the attention their scouting and player development department deserves for signing Morris and getting him to the big leagues.

While Major League Baseball received a rights fee (which is distributed like other such revenues among the 30 clubs), the Rays didn't receive any direct payment or royalties for their role outside of a small sponsorship deal for advertising the movie.

Neither did the players or staff featured in some brief actual game footage.

In the scenes in which the players are portrayed by actors, all of the names except for Morris' were changed. The manager, for example, is named Stever rather than Rothschild. (There were, however, jerseys hanging in lockers with the names Canseco, McGriff and Boggs.)

But there still could be some tangible and nontangible benefits of being in the film, which is being heavily marketed and promoted nationally in advance of its Friday release.

"Larry King went on for an hour about the movie, and he showed Jim Morris in our uniform," Naimoli said. "How could you ever buy any time on Larry King? It's priceless."

There also is some value, he said, in having their caps and jerseys displayed in the movie as well as some of the accompanying commercials, theater trailers and preview articles.

"Our merchandise will be out around the country," Naimoli said. "And kids will see it, and they'll want to get it."

The moviemakers used the Rays' green-schemed uniforms, which were introduced last year, rather than the purple-toned outfits that were used when Morris made his September 1999 debut.

"They wanted people to have a connection with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and they felt using the uniforms the team is wearing now would more easily convey that," said John Higgins, Rays senior vice president-administration and general counsel.

The Rays previewed and approved the script.

Naimoli hasn't seen the movie, preferring to wait for the world premiere Tuesday in New York. But he has heard good comments from people who attended area screenings.

"People have told me they walked out of the movie feeling good not only about what Morris did in accomplishing his dream," Naimoli said, "but just that it was a typical Disney G-rated movie that they can take their kids to it and watch it with them and enjoy it with them."

Higgins said the story also reflects positively on the Rays' approach to consider all avenues of procuring players.

"I think it's kind of a tribute to the foundation of our organization, which is scouting and player development," Higgins said. "One of our scouts held a tryout camp, which we do on a regular basis to find players. And it turns out we found a very unusual player in Jim Morris, given his background and the length of time that had passed since he played ball before.

"I think that's probably the best aspect to the story. It's a true story that gives Jim Morris an opportunity to realize his dream of pitching at the major-league level, and he did that because of our scouting and player development department."

Reviews have been okay. Naimoli said he expects nothing but a thumbs up.

"I think the portrayal of Morris and his role with us and the showing of the uniform will have a very nice impact on us from a national standpoint," he said.