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Sunday, October 16, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jack Morris Adjusting To Life On Farm - His Farm

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

GREAT FALLS, Mont. - At times, the arm still itches to throw a baseball.

And why wouldn't it? The game has been his life for most of his 39 years, and for many of them, October was his personal month, his time when the world cast its spotlight on him and he showed what he was made of.

No more. Not now, anyway. Not this October. He was released two months ago, and the regular season that should have ended this month ended in August because of a strike. For the first time in 90 years there will be no World Series.

So this October, Jack Morris ignores the itch and tends to the new life he is carving in his farm's rich soil. This October, he wonders not whether he will be allowed to pitch a 10th inning, but whether he'll ever get his winter wheat planted. Wonders whether the needed rain will fall. Whether he'll be able to turn this farm into a success.

This October, Morris' field is not in Minnesota, nor Toronto, but in Montana. This October, he is pursuing a dream on 10,000 acres of land that Lewis and Clark once explored.

It is suggested to Morris that he bears some similarities to Wilson Call, the aging, stubborn Texas Ranger who pursued his dream in Montana by leading a cattle drive in Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Lonesome Dove."

"I can see that," Morris says with a smile. "Both of us are on a mission. We just don't know where we're going."

Morris says that when he began looking around to buy a farm a

couple of years ago, everyone asked why he would want to do such a damn fool thing. Which is a good question. Just what is he doing here? Baseball players are supposed to grow up on farms then go play ball in the big city, not the other way around. Jack grew up in Highland Park. The only soil he worked was 10 inches high with a rubber slab imbedded in it.

Nonetheless, he says farming was a lifelong dream. It was his other lifelong dream, pitching the Twins to a World Series, that enabled him to obtain this one. After signing a huge contract with the Blue Jays in the winter of 1991, he plopped down a good share of the money to buy 7,000 acres of rolling wheat fields just south of Great Falls, then leased an additional 3,000 acres nearby. The Highwood Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet just a few miles east of the farm, while an Air Force base and missile silos are to the west.

Morris raises wheat and barley on his farm. He calls it feeding the world.

This is a major operation. There are storage bins for 750,000 bushels of grain, plus three combines, several tractors, cultivators, a bulldozer, a complete automobile repair shop. He employs six people full-time and has had to fire several others. At the request of the former owner, Jack retained the farm's name, Prairie Nest Ranch, but named the whole operation 47 Farms Inc., after the number he wore on his back for 18 seasons.

Asked what he paid for the farm, Morris says only "too much," but a local Realtor says farmland goes for about $400 an acre. Use that figure, add in the equipment and you're probably well over $3 million. Morris, who is on a 10-year lease, occasionally brings up the mortgage as a problem.

"There's a romance to farming," he says. "In all honesty, this isn't the best business decision I could make, but it's a way of life."

Yes, but did it have to be 10,000 acres?

"I could have bought 500 acres and farmed that, but that would have seemed like a hobby to me," he says. "I wanted to really challenge myself."

Farmers who support their families on less than 500 acres might take exception to that. But that's Jack. The man thrives on challenges. Don't settle for a mere farm when you can feed the world. The same spirit that took him to the mound for the 10th inning in 1991 led him here.

When Morris bought the farm, the previous owner's son, Tom Hayes, stayed on for a year to run things. Hayes says he planned most of the operations during that time. He says Morris was a reasonable employer and did his homework before buying the farm. "He picked up things pretty quickly."

Hayes left last year, but Morris still relies on the experience and help of his workers, upon whom he lavishes praise. Even his father, Arvid, came out of retirement to help and lives on the farm. While Jack occasionally works in the field, he says he spends most of his time overseeing the operations.

His biggest concern is the weather. It has barely rained this summer.

Look at that soil, he says, pointing to some hard, dry chunks of dirt.

"There's no moisture in there. We can't seed in that until we get some rain."

David Justice may have been an intimidating opponent at the plate, but Mother Nature, now that's an opponent even Morris has trouble facing.

The last 12 months have been a trying time for Morris. He was on the bench during the final third of the 1993 season because of injury, and the Blue Jays bought out his contract during the winter. There was little interest elsewhere. He even called the Twins and was politely told they weren't interested in him.

He eventually signed with the Cleveland Indians, and after a slow start, came on to win 10 games, including a complete game against the Twins in early July.

Then everything went to hell again.

Morris' engagement was broken off in July, and players told Cleveland reporters that Jack was so upset about it he cried in the dugout (he hopes for a reconciliation).

Meanwhile, Montana was hit with one of its driest summers on record. Shorthanded with the harvest coming up, Morris would return to Montana between starts to run things on the farm. Not surprisingly, he pitched poorly during that time and was released by the Indians in August. The Indians explained the release by saying they couldn't rely on him during the pennant stretch.

Jack says he was released because he was about to reach a large incentive bonus and because of his farm commitments. He admits he would have been released him, too, if he were in the club's position. Still, he says, if it was such a problem, management shouldn't have given him permission to leave in the first place.

Morris works out daily and is in great shape, but he says he hasn't thrown a baseball since the release. Asked whether his baseball career is over, he says he would rather not answer the question. While he realizes it's possible that he has thrown his last pitch, for now the players are on strike and he has other things to think about.

And he has lots of time to think about them.

Even in the egocentric world of baseball players, few ever came off as self-absorbed as Morris. Even now he talks as much about the pain he has brought on himself as what he might have brought to others.

But if in many ways he is the same old Jack - he even complains about the traffic in Great Falls - he also is clearly a more thoughtful person. The lion has lost some of his roar. He questions what he has done in the past. It's as if he is weighing his life and coming up a bushel light.

He talks about mistakes he made. Talks about how the appalling greed in baseball (ignoring that he is viewed by many as the very symbol of free-agent greed). About how money didn't bring him the happiness he thought it would. How there is little to do in his little house when the day's work is done. How the woman he loves has taught him a better understanding of life. How he misses his two sons, who live in Michigan with their mother. How he wants to slow down. How he desperately would like the chance to be the proper husband and father he failed to be in his first marriage.

He sounds lonely.

"I'm trying to be a little more sensitive toward others," he says. "I think it was important for me to have tunnel vision to accomplish my goals, to accomplish things I thought were important in my profession. But they were all accomplished at a price. The price was other people.

"Whether it was respect I got from other people or lack of respect I gave other people, it happened. I don't think it has to be that way. I wish I could have had the time to be more courteous or compassionate to people, but there were so many people demanding my time that had nothing to do with benefiting my team, my teammates or myself. I'm sorry, I didn't mean them any harm, but I just didn't have the time."

He does now.

Did you hear the one, Morris is asked, about the farmer who won the lottery? They asked him what he was going to do with the money and he replied, "Keep farming until it's all gone."

Morris throws back his head and lets loose with a loud, knowing laugh.

In the past, Morris often said that what he would miss most from baseball is the competition. He needn't have worried. It's still there for him, albeit in a different form.

"It's not a me against you. It's me against the weather, me against conditions, me against the damn things that break down every day," he says."It's a challenge. Every day it's a challenge."

He's working hard but acknowledges that because of a hefty mortgage, he might not be able to make a go of it as a farmer. Even with a bumper crop last year, he says he lost money. He says he'll probably continue to do so until the mortgage is paid off in seven years.

"I think I can (make it go), but I need some help from up above," he says. "If I got lucky I could. If I don't get lucky it won't work, that's the bottom line. It can work for the right person. The person who can afford to buy it, pay for it and expand it.

"There is no finer land in Montana as far as dry-land farming. This is as good as it gets. But it's so expensive to run. So expensive that you have to have so many bushels per acre to make it justifiable, just to keep going. Forget making a profit, that's just breaking even."

He is proud that he is producing food, proud he is doing something good for the world, but says if things get too bad, he'll simply sell and move on with his life.

"I don't know how long this farm thing is going to last," he says. "I don't know how big a picture it will be in my life. In all honesty I want to redirect my energy to kids. Hopefully my own."

He talks about eventually taking his vast baseball experience into a youth athletic league, perhaps in Minnesota. The men who coached him were so crucial to his success, he says, and he would like to carry on that tradition. He talks about one day working with coaches so they can coach others as well as he was taught while growing up in St. Paul.

"I guess the last three weeks of my life I've learned some good lessons about myself because of the pain I went through in my personal relationships that I, too, have to start enjoying every day," he says. "Today is not going to be everything you want, but find the good in every day. Go out, work hard, whatever it is, look around. Slow down, look around. Appreciate what will not always be there."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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