Not a rookie, at faith

Jim Morris came of age in a West Texas town, which means the locals didn't need to use street addresses to tell where they lived.

All he had to say was that his house was one block from Wood Creek Baptist Church and a vacant lot away from the Camp Bowie Sports Complex. That would cover the essentials, out where nobody talks much about the separation of church and sports.

"The first thing you need to understand about West Texas is that even local video stores have announcement boards out front with messages like, 'Keep Christ in Christmas,' " said Morris, in the first line of "The Rookie," the book about his middle-aged ascent into major-league baseball. "The second thing to understand is that, if Jesus Christ himself were to show up on a Friday night in the fall, he'd have to wangle a seat in the high school stadium and wait until the football game ended before declaring his arrival."

Naturally, a whole lot of praying and Bible reading vanished when Walt Disney Pictures got a hold of this story. But the good news for fans of old-fashioned movies is that God wasn't totally written out of the plot when the "The Rookie" moved to the big screen. It's hard to drain the faith out of a West Texas tale full of baseball, babies, wedding rings, tears, tough love and nuns appealing to the patron saint of impossible dreams.

Morris was natural athlete who almost reached the big show as a youngster, before his body broke down. So he got married, settled down, started teaching school and coaching a little baseball.

Then the kids on his ragged high school team make him promise to give baseball one more shot, if they won the district championship. The team won district. Morris went to a free-agent tryout and discovered that his blown-out shoulder was serving up 98 mile-per-hour fastballs -- light years past what he threw in his prime. With the stunned blessing of his wife and three kids, Morris headed to the minor leagues and then, at age 35, to the big leagues.

Roll out the clich? No Hollywood ink slinger would dare concoct such a story.

"It was God," said Morris, who is busy as a motivational speaker in both religious and secular settings. "What other explanation could there be for what happened?"

"The Rookie" has already passed $70 million in ticket sales, which means Disney succeeded in creating a feel-good hit for baseball season. But the movie also raised eyebrows with its G rating, which is often box-office death with adults.

The key is that "The Rookie" is basically an updated version of one of old Hollywood's most popular products - the inspiring story of a good man who beats the odds and wins big. Moviemakers used to tell this kind of story all the time and they almost always included a healthy dose of faith and family.

As it turns out, this formula still works - if the story is good enough.

"Quite frankly, faith played a big role in my life, so it would have been impossible to have left that out of the movie," said Morris. But the producers of the movie "didn't draw much attention to the religious side of the story."

They didn't have to. It was shocking enough to watch Hollywood tell a simple story about grown-ups and kids chasing their dreams, while keeping their vows and saying a prayer or two. But those who read the book will wonder, in particular, what happened to its major theme -- which is the pitcher's ongoing efforts to fathom "God's mysterious ways" of working through both the agony and the triumph of his life.

Nevertheless, God remains in the details, soaked into the images of family and commitment. Morris said his story makes "no sense whatsoever" without faith.

"They just sort of hit it, then back away a little," he said. "I thought that was appropriate, to tell you the truth. They didn't try to jam anything down anybody's throat. You didn't want people sitting in theaters saying, 'What are you trying to do here?' ... This is a movie. You really can't preach at people."