University of Miami

UM’s Jim Morris wants one more NCAA tournament berth in final season

Miami head coach Jim Morris in the dug out as the University of Miami hosts Virginia Tech at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field on Sat., May 20, 2017.
Miami head coach Jim Morris in the dug out as the University of Miami hosts Virginia Tech at Alex Rodriguez Park at Mark Light Field on Sat., May 20, 2017.

Banners hang under the bleachers at Mark Light field to commemorate its distinguished history: Forty-four consecutive years of making the NCAA tournament. Twenty-five trips to Omaha for the College World Series. Four national titles. It’s a sort of shrine to a Miami baseball program rich with tradition and built on destiny.

Then there’s coach Jim Morris, the living history who walks among it.

Until Monday, his 24-year tenure featured few stories of failure. It was brimming with wins, celebrations and memories. But at 67, Morris has already announced that next season will be his last. And that means he will enter his final season with the Hurricanes coming off his worst.

On Monday, he spoke to reporters with glazed eyes about the downfall of Miami’s 44-year streak of making the NCAA tournament, which ended when UM wasn’t selected as one of the 64 teams in this season’s field. However, he added that despite the disappointment, he’s confident UM will be better during his farewell season. He already met with assistant coaches on Tuesday to address the future.

“Just gotta regroup as a team,” he said, “and get ready to start fighting again next year.”

For Morris, “next year” will mark the end of a journey that started when he was 8 and played for the Jaycees little league of Lexington, North Carolina. It was his first time playing baseball or playing on a team of any kind.

“Since I was 8 years old,” he said, “I’ve never gone a single year without having a baseball uniform on.”

Why? Because he loves being part of a team. He loves working as a group. And he loved playing.

But he also loves winning.

“Part of having fun is winning,” he said. “If you don’t win, you don’t have a lot of fun.”

And during his years in Coral Gables, he has had plenty of fun in his 1,062 wins. But for Morris, the Miami standard — the tradition that its success is measured and based on — isn’t wins. It’s Omaha.

“It’s a pretty defined goal,” Morris said, “right there in one word.”

Coach Jim Morris reflects on his Hurricanes not making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1972.

That’s why each Miami baseball player has the sacred word written below his name on his locker. Why veterans tell stories of the fireworks and the fanfare.

It’s the standard — and often the destiny — of UM: Get to Omaha for the College World Series.

So how can Miami reach Omaha again in Morris’ final year? Well, Morris said it will start with staying healthy. This year, the Hurricanes lost catcher Michael Amditis, who was hitting .357 in six games, for the season to a broken leg. Starters Johnny Ruiz, Carl Chester and Christopher Barr also missed time in 2017.

It also depends on the June 12th MLB Draft, when some Miami players could be selected along with some of UM’s 22 signees. The Hurricanes currently have the third-ranked class in the NCAA, according to the scouting service Perfect Game.

But regardless, the answer isn’t simple, and the question results in cliches. Just ask sophomore pitcher Andrew Cabezas, who went to Omaha in 2016 and will be back for Morris’ final season.

“No matter what type of team,” he said, “we have to do what we have to do to be successful.”

Freshman Gregory Veliz, whose only Miami experience was this season’s downer, said something similar.

“Hopefully, just set an example for the new guys that last year, that’s not us,” he said. “That’s not Miami.”

Even Morris said the answer is as simple as winning, adding that he wants to go out on a better tone.

“I definitely want to finish stronger,” he said. “No question.”

And then there’s Ruiz, a senior, lifelong Miami fan and Coral Gables native. He will be gone next season, but his brother, Alex, is part of Miami’s recruiting class.

“He knows how disappointed I am,” Ruiz said of his brother. “And I’m gonna talk to him to make sure he knows that can’t happen again.”