17 years, 17 questions with Jim Morris

The Miami Hurricane: Going into your 18th season here at Miami talk a little about coaching at UM in a city like Miami. What are the difficulties you have to face, if any? What are the advantages? What sets it apart from your other coaching stops?

Morris: Well, there is no question, being in a large metropolitan area like Miami, as a coach there are good things and there are bad things. Good thing is [that] there are a lot of players here: Strong influence of Latin kids and normally the Latin players’ number one sport is baseball, particularly the Cuban-American kids, which is why probably half our team is Latin, most of them being Cuban. It is a big advantage [that] baseball down here is very good. The good news is there are a lot of things to do. The bad news is there are lots of things to do. So you always have to just be concerned about trying to talk to your guys about doing things that are right and wrong, whether going to the Grove, the beach or wherever it may be. But overall I think it is a great place to live for me and for our players; to be here, to have a great school to go to and a great school for me to coach at. So I don’t think there is a better place.

TMH: What made you go into coaching? At what point did you know that this was what you wanted to do for a living?

Morris: I kind of thought that my junior year in college. When I first went to school I wanted to be an architect, I loved drawing. And then I decided that it just took too much time, I couldn’t do that. So then I just thought of going into business and my junior year I decided that you know at that point, I probably wanted to be a coach. I changed my major to education and thinking that’s what I wanted to do – you never know. Then I played professional baseball for a couple of years and probably after the first year I decided that I was probably more cut out to be a coach than a player at that level.

TMH: Are you satisfied with that decision?

Morris: Yeah of course! It has been a great decision. I have had a career that I mean I can’t imagine doing anything else. I always kind of joke: “I hope I never have to get a real job.” If you go outside every day on the playing field and play and be with young guys then young guys keep you young. And I think that’s good. They always keep me on my toes. And it’s like any job, you’re going to have some bad days when you lose, but the bottom line is we have a lot more good days than bad days.

TMH: What would you do if you couldn’t be a baseball coach?

Morris: I’d be involved in real estate some way, in drawing or something like that, somewhere involved in real estate. I love real estate. I love looking at houses. My hobby is looking at houses; [the] only problem is when I look at them I am really likely to end up buying them. I’ve owned 35 houses in the last 35 years. So, currently I own three. I’ve always bought and sold houses. It has kind of been a hobby.

TMH: You have certainly contributed to Miami’s rich tradition of success when it comes to baseball. Do you ever feel the pressure of the high expectations and standards? If so how do you deal with it?

Morris: I mean, well first of all I knew … I had two head coaching jobs before this, [and] the day I left they were both ranked number one in the country, before I came to Miami. So I’ve always had high expectations for myself as a coach and I probably put more pressure on myself than anybody else could put on me. So I always had those high expectations. And Miami is a little bit different because the press and the alumni and the fans add a little bit to that pressure, particularly in baseball and football. In those two sports it seems to be more pressure than in any other sport and I’ve been coaching a long time before I came here. So, you know, I accepted that responsibility that I knew that I had expectations to follow what I think is the most influential coach in the history of college baseball and that is Ron Fraser. So the level of excellence on and off the field had already been set by Coach Fraser. I had to try to live up to that. Thank goodness he was one of the two guys who recruited me to come here. I have been an assistant coach for him. So I told him that if I took the job that he was going to be there and help me and he has always been [there]. I think that is definitely something that has helped, from the pressure standpoint, is talking to him and him being at practice some and him being in the dugout some. And whatever it takes maybe to being a friend too.

TMH: When you came here was there a point where you felt like his shoes were too big to fill or where you ever scared of following up Mr. Fraser?

Morris: No, not particularly. The reason I wasn’t, [is] because I guess at the point I took the job here I was about 40 years old so I had been a coach a long time before […] and so I felt like that the jobs that I had, prepared me to come to a place like Miami. I never felt like this is over my head, but I’ve always, at the same time, felt like that I am always willing to learn. And so I am always asking questions and I still ask questions today. And no question, we can be better and I can be better. So I am still out there learning, trying to find new ways to win and new things to do so I can help us be better. I always accept that and I always listen.

TMH: You have won two College World Series with Miami, a 6-5 victory over archrival Florida State in 1999 and a 12-1 blowout against Stanford in 2001, if you could only have one which one would it be and why?

Morris: I mean, first one, of course. First one is always best, everything you do in life, I guess. That’s your biggest thing. And not only that it was against Florida State, [but also that] it was the first time. […] We had gone to World Series six years in a row, so I felt like that we’ve been second, we’ve been in the top five six times; it’s time to win! So I took the pressure off from that standpoint and have a ring on.

TMH: Your team was on the brink of reaching yet another postseason last year, but a sweep by the Gators and some untimely errors in Game 2 prevented you from doing so. What did you tell your team after that heartbreaking loss?

Morris: (sighs) Well, you know, I am a guy that tries to turn the page too. I’ll be honest with you: We played awful. I was very disappointed as a coach that we went to Gainesville and played so bad. We had a chance to win those games and we didn’t. And that we had to come back the next year and understand that we have to go back to Omaha. We were one team away from Omaha again. […] We’ve gone to Omaha more than anybody in the country since I’ve been here; those expectations are there. Yesterday was our first meeting as a team to talk about practice, and, of course, I talked about Omaha, because that’s where it’s at and anything less is not acceptable. We come back this year and learn from last year, learn from our mistakes to make sure we’re ready to get back there. […] Any team that gets there has a chance at winning. So it just depends on who gets hot out there.

TMH: Did you talk to Perez?

Morris: I had the individual meetings with every player the next day, when we got back. I didn’t dwell on that point. He is a shortstop, he couldn’t get a grip on the ball and he tried to throw it anyway. If he throws a strike the game is over; we win. He knows that and I know that. But as a shortstop I would like that as much as any position because that is my position. He just couldn’t get the ball out of his glove to get a grip. So it is a very simple thing, but a bad thing.

TMH: How does that loss to Florida last year shape your mindset for this year?

Morris: You know to me it’s:  I don’t think that much about it as a loss to Florida; we didn’t go to Omaha. The fact is that we got to do what we got to do this year to get ready to go back to Omaha. So that’s what I am trying to do: Get ready for that. We’ll practice today; we’ll do everything we can. […] We’ll have a long 4-hour practice and work as hard as we can to try to prepare our guys to execute. As I’ve told them yesterday: “Everybody does things the same way, the question is whether you can execute what you practice.”

TMH: It seemed like team pitching and defense was a particular strength of last year’s team when you sported the 10th best ERA and 8th best K/9 rate in the country. What are some strengths of this year’s team?

Morris: Well, we started four, five freshmen. So there are four, five that are going to be a very important part of this team. Plus we got a couple of older guys with Harold Martinez and Nate Melendres, two of our better players, along with Pelaez and some of the older guys along with the sophomores. So that’s going to be a strength of our team. You know, question marks are “who is going to catch”, to follow up the best catcher, probably in the country, in Yasmani and “who is your best starting pitching” because we lost some starters. So Whaley, right now, is returning probably to be the top pitcher, with Miranda in the pen. And we could bring Miranda out of the pen if we find another closer.

TMH: And weaknesses?

Morris: Pitching. Pitching. I don’t want to say it’s our weakness, it’s some of our question marks, in my opinion, because we don’t have a lot of guys that have a lot of experience, in particular starting pitching. Hopefully it’s not our weakness. You can’t win without pitching.

TMH: Are there any areas you will be especially focusing on this upcoming fall practice?

Morris: Just fundamentals, fundamentals of the game. I think the game is going to change. Something that you’ll see, if you are covering us, [will be that] we are not going to get as many home runs this year. Nobody in the country is going to hit as many home runs because the bats have changed dramatically. It’s a huge thing. Therefore I think we are going back more to running and bunting and I think you got to. It’s going to be more pitching and defense.

TMH: Would you prefer the old ones? Does it matter to you at all?

Morris: I just want the bats to be equal. I think some manufactures are making better bats than others that are not equal.

TMH You coached some truly great teams in your 17 year tenure, how does the current one stack up compared to those teams?

Morris: I don’t know. You know, first of all I don’t compare teams, just because, people ask me who is the best team, and the best team is the one who won national championships. This team right here has got a lot of question marks, still we’re young: There is sophomores, there is four sophomores now starting and we are going to have some freshmen in there and our pitching is going to be young. So we got a lot of youth mixed in. […] This team is not comparable right now to our great teams, because it is far from … from those teams. We got as much work to do this year [than ever]. We get killed in the pro draft; we lost a lot of guys. So it’s just a lot of question marks right now, [that] we got to answer.

TMH: What is your take on the Frank Ratcliff situation?

Morris: First of all it is a very sad situation. Frankie was a guy that had come in and done everything you expect a guy to do. He started as a freshman, maybe our best freshman last year, hit second in the order, never late for a practice, didn’t have any class issues, never any complaints from classes. I mean I was totally in shock. We do drug testing here, in the athletics. He was tested four times, had no signs of any issues. The furthest thing […] I’d be thinking was that. That said, I have been very disappointed. I think that Frankie has put a bad exclamation point besides his name. He is no longer on our team. He is no longer at school. He may be going to jail. This is something that’s going to affect him for the rest of his life. With that said, now we got to make sure that it’s a learning experience for our players […] and that that never happens again and that they understand the ramifications when you do something that’s wrong. No question: It was wrong. It’s not acceptable and they got to understand that you can’t do things like that. It’s just not acceptable for anybody.

TMH: Considering that he was one of your integral parts of last year’s team, will it affect preparation for the upcoming season in any way?

Morris: It opens the position. He would have been starting at second this year since he did last year as a freshman. [It] puts us in a position where Michael Broad has been moving to second or Zeke DeVoss from the outfield has been working at second. Zeke was drafted as an infielder out of high school. So we just got to make adjustments and that’s something you have to do as the coach. […] That’s what we’re doing right now.

TMH: In light of this, when you go out to recruit, how big of a role does character and chemistry play compared to raw talent?

Morris: We always ask questions and if a guy has a questionable background we try to stay away from him. We try to make sure that things like that don’t happen, but that’s his, Frankie’s, first deal. It’s not like he had been in trouble all his life or anything like that. We called the police here. We talked to the police in Key West. There were no issues with him. So we are trying to defend against that happening. [It] makes you more conscience, you better make sure, but, again, I think we did everything we could possible do to guard against that, when you ask questions and you do the testing and stuff that we do.

TMH: Are there ever instances where you sacrifice some of that character issue, because the player just has better abilities than others?

Morris: I try not [to]. If a guy has got bad reputation, got question marks, then we don’t recruit him. Sometimes you don’t know things about guys. So if they’re from different places, I mean … from Miami I know guys: Broward, Dade. I know who the majority of our team is. But sometimes you have some guys from outside that maybe you don’t know things as much as you do here.

TMH: Sabermetrics have become instrumental for evaluating players on the major league level, to what degree do you use them when recruiting or making personnel decisions?

Morris: Well, you know, I am old school. We go to the same system when evaluating players and try to go with that system. To be honest with you, I think things have worked pretty well and I don’t believe in trying to fix something that’s not broke. So from day one that I came in here, some of the things that coach Frazer did, when I was an assistant in 1978, I came here in 1994 and they were doing the same things, so I didn’t change them. And today we’re still doing some of the things exactly the same way. So, we’re trying to evaluate players, which is the hardest thing to do in baseball, by the way, because they say that the pro guys should be the best at evaluating players and 95% of the guys that sign pro contracts do not make it to the major leagues which in essence means the pro scout is wrong 95% of the time. [It’s] very, very tough to evaluate baseball players and even harder to evaluate what’s inside a guy; whether he’s got the heart or how tough he is mentally until you get him and put him in situations.

TMH: Why do you think that is so much harder in baseball than in maybe other sports?

Morris: Baseball is the hardest thing, because we’re looking at a .300 hitter, who fails 70% of the time, going to the Hall of Fame and how he can handle that. You hit a round ball with a round bat which is the hardest thing to do in any sport. So it’s just tough to evaluate those guys.

TMH: You are fortunate enough to recruit from a very rich talent pool here in Florida, but often times the most gifted players go to the major leagues straight out of high school. How are you able to compensate for that phenomenon and how does it affect your recruiting strategies?

Morris: Well, first of all, we try to sign every good player down here that we can, even if we think he is going to go pro. I thought Yasmani Grandal was going pro, so you don’t always know whether they are or not. Alex Rodriguez signed with us my first year here, but if Alex would have been in California I wouldn’t have recruited him, because he is the best player I’ve ever seen in high school. You know, I used to joke and say that I had a better chance of being the manager of the New York Yankees the next year than him coming to school. They had won the World Series so I was pretty confident that wasn’t going to happen either way. But you don’t know, we get commitments, we have 9 commitments out of juniors right now. So that means they’re going to play their junior year of high school, their senior year of high school and in the following year, three years later, you’re going to play for us. In three years young guys can change so much. They can go from the outhouse to the penthouse or vice versa.

TMH: Do you have special ways to convince those kids to pass up that big time money and come to UM instead?

Morris: I try to, I mean, I’ve got statistics to show, information, percentages; there are more college guys in the major leagues [than high school guys]. I try to sit down, give them the value of an education and give them percentages. [It] takes a couple hours and some of them do it and some don’t. I mean every kid who makes it to the big leagues made the right decision probably and every kid who didn’t make it made the wrong decision, they should’ve gone to college, which means 95% of them make bad decisions, kids they signed out of high school. You may make decisions sometimes with your heart instead of your head; everybody [who] signs thinks they’re going to make it to the major leagues, even I did. I think everybody thinks that.

TMH: One of those players, we talked about, A-rod, got away. He donated a lot of money a couple years back. Are there any other ways he contributes to the team?

Morris: I just think his presence is something that is influential on our guys because in the off-season he works out here every day. He is here 6:00, if you want to see him, a.m. So he’s here running in the sandpit. He’s lifting weights and he’s taking ground balls. So you can see how hard he works. When Alex is on campus he is another one of the guys. It’s not like “Wow, it’s Alex Rodriguez!” because we see him so much. I think that’s a great influence on our guys because all the time when they come out here at 9:00 in the morning, they walk through our field, [and] Alex is normally out there taking ground balls and he’s already been here for two or three hours.

TMH: On the flipside, you coached some of today’s brightest MLB stars, most notably Ryan Braun. Do you still talk to him every once in a while?

Morris: Sure, I talk to Ryan. I mean, I went up to first see him a month ago. I stay in close contact with him. He’s a great guy […] on and off the field. Narrowed it [down] between us and Stanford, chose Miami. He is going to be… I mean, he is already a wealthy guy, but he’s going to be a very wealthy guy. His last contract he signed for 47 million, but he thinks that he’ll make more money off the field than on the field. He’s already got a clothing line out. He owns two restaurants. He’s got a beautiful home, seven bedrooms, seven and a half baths. [A] House in Malibu overlooking the ocean, [he] lives there by himself which is unbelievable. He bought it last year so I went up to see it, he invited me out, he invited me to come to watch him play.

TMH: What about Gabby Sanchez?

Morris: Gaby is a local guy. Gaby playing here in Florida, you know for the Marlins, I see him. Plus he works out here all the time too. So I see Gabby a lot. His wife’s a sportswriter, she went to UM. She writes for the Herald, so she sees more of our games than he does.

TMH: What are your goals for the upcoming season?

Morris: We always have simple goals: go back to Omaha. We got to figure out how to do that. We have a game plan to do that. For you, if you want to be a writer, then you better have a game plan: What you got to do to get your ultimate job? Our players are the same thing. You better have a game plan. In my opinion, write it down, and we do write it down: They call them goals, I call them game plan. Same thing. But figure out what you got to do to achieve those goals and write it down and make sure you understand and you’re submitted to doing that. If you really want to be the best writer or the best baseball player that you can be, you better understand what you got to do to do that and be committed to get it done.

Patrick Riley may be contacted at priley@themiamihurricane.com