WARNER ROBINS, Ga. — Don’t let the 46-year-old man standing in the third-base coaching box fool you.
Randy Morris and the 12-year-old Northern Little League All-Star baseball players he manages share a bond as simple as a kid’s game.
“He is a kid at heart,” said Leslie Morris, his wife of 25 years. “He can be the adult, but he can also get down to their level instantly.”
Richard Carter spent a magical summer with Morris in 2006 when they coached Northern to the Little League World Series championship. For two months, Carter saw what made Morris special.
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“He is a big kid, and the kids know that,” Carter said.
The big kid is back at it again.
Morris, who owns a Little Debbie snack cake franchise, has Northern Little League in the Southeastern Regional this week in Warner Robins. They are undefeated and a return trip to Williamsport, Pa., and the Little League World Series is within reach. Northern plays North Carolina at 7 p.m. today. The semifinals are Wednesday and the final is on Friday. The games Wednesday and Friday will be televised on ESPN2.
Morris admits he’s a overgrown kid. But the former junior college catcher can also put what he is doing into words that any kid can understand.
“It’s just a Little League baseball game,” Morris said. “As they get older — especially in high school and college — it is more of a job. There should be no pressure where they are now. It’s all about having fun.”
Passion for the game
To understand Randy Morris’ approach to Little League baseball, you need to go back to the 1970s when he played for his father, Harold, at American Little League.
Young Randy was passionate about the game back then, too.
“If a practice was rained out, I would tear the house down,” Morris said. “If a game was rained out, my dad would have to take me out somewhere. That is how much I loved the game.”
As a kid, Morris played for the Dodgers. As an adult, the team he coaches is the Dodgers, who finished second in Northern’s “A-ball” regular season this year.
The Dodgers name is a little nod of respect for his dad because Harold Morris laid the groundwork that has made the son successful.
“He taught me to respect my elders, play hard and play with a good attitude,” Morris said.
Respect is what Morris is all about.
He was a catcher for B.R. Johnson at Chattahoochee Valley Community College in the early 1980s. Johnson, known as a hard-nosed coach, demanded respect for the game. Morris has that same respect for baseball.
“The best way to respect the game is to play it — and play it the right way,” Johnson said. “That is what he does.”
That is what Morris tries to do.
Morris stresses fundamentals.
Last week in the state championship win over Toccoa, Morris gave one of his hitters the bunt sign with runners on first and second and less than two outs.
The player couldn’t get the bunt down in three tries. Morris reacted with a tinge of disgust as the batter walked back to the dugout. The coach then caught himself.
Later Morris explained.
“We talk about what sacrifice means,” Morris said. “It means you are willing to give yourself for the betterment of the team. You get on a kid and get him to understand he didn’t do what he was asked to do, but then you immediately start to pump that kid back up.”
Donnie Coulter is an assistant on this year’s Northern all-star team and he has coached with Morris for six or seven years.
“The biggest thing is he has a lot of respect from the kids, but he has earned it by being honest with them,” Coulter said. “When they do good, he tells them. When they are not doing right, he will tell them that, too.”
An ‘elite coach’
The way Morris handles his business has earned the respect of his former junior college coach.
“When I think of Randy Morris, I think of an elite coach,” Johnson said. “Only a handful of people have ever done what he has done — win a world championship.”
One of the things Morris does well is handle talent, Johnson said.
“None of us coach donkeys well,” Johnson said. “He knows baseball. All of the teams at this level have talent and he knows how to put them in the right spot in the batting order.”
But Morris knows how to handle pitching, Johnson said.
“He knows when to leave them in, when to start them,” Johnson said. “All of that is instinctive. I was reading an article recently about coaches who have ‘it.’ He has ‘it.’ And part of the reason for that is he has seen enough, done enough and coached enough.”
Columbus High baseball coach Bobby Howard, who has won 10 state championships and coached players who came off Morris’ Little League teams, has great respect for him.
“His players are sound in all aspects,” Howard said. “They know how to bunt with runners on base. They back up bases. They are just fundamentally sound.”
But that is only part of the reason Morris is successful, Howard said.
“He knows how to handle people,” Howard said.
When all of the hard work and preparation is done, Morris turns to fate, like any good baseball man.
And this time of year it is all about rituals and good-luck charms. During the state tournament which was played in Columbus, Morris came home and left his dirty coaching bag on the kitchen counter.
“I picked it up and moved it,” Leslie Morris said.
It didn’t take long for her husband to notice.
“He looked at me and said if they lost the next game, it was on me because I moved that bag,” she said.
Though he has many pairs of shorts, Morris has been wearing the same ones since the district tournament.
“I have them washed, ironed and ready for the next day,” Leslie Morris said. “He said you just don’t want to jinx yourself.”
And those superstitions travel.
“If they find a restaurant on the road, they will eat there every day as long as they are winning,” Leslie said.
And the coach is not above making menu suggestions.
“I remember a few years ago they found a Piccadilly,” Leslie said. “They had these cupcakes. The next day Randy was back there talking to the manager making sure they had these same cupcakes every day.”
Morris has been a volunteer Little League baseball coach for 13 years, first at American then at Northern the last seven years.
Morris and his wife will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. They have two daughters, Blaire, 21, and Natalie, 15.
“I could not do this without them,” Morris said. “They know what this means to me.”
And the fact that he has no sons is an advantage when he is coaching against fathers coaching their sons.
“He can be hard on every kid,” said Richard Carter, whose son, Kyle, was a star on the 2006 Northern championship team. “I don’t think you will find anyone who ever said Randy showed favoritism.”
And there is another advantage.
“He doesn’t have to worry about going home to a mama,” Carter said.
“I have coached 30 years and I have seen dads treat their kids better than other kids and I have seen dads treat their kids worse than the other kids,” Coulter said. “I have never seen anybody who can treat their kid the same as everybody else.”
Morris said the fact that he does not have a son on his teams is an advantage.
“It doesn’t matter to me who plays where,” Morris said. “I am going to put the best nine out there that will help Northern win. I think that has a lot to do with why we have been successful. I am going to do what I think is the right thing.”
At Northern, the All-Star manager is selected by the league president and not by which teams wins the title. Morris is in his seventh year as Northern’s all-star manager.
The snack-food franchise owner starts around 4 a.m. and he is done in the early afternoon.
“That leaves plenty of time for baseball,” Morris said.
And baseball is important, Leslie Morris said.
“He doesn’t hunt. He doesn’t play golf. He doesn’t fish,” Leslie said. “Coaching baseball is what he does.”
That comes with an advantage for his wife.
“I always know where to find him,” she said. “He is either at work, here or at the baseball field.”
Chuck Williams, 706-320-4485