Jim Morris won't win any rookie of the year awards, but he has become baseball's most intriguing first-year player. The left-hander trotted to the mound last night for his major league debut with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

He's 35 years old.

"I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my chest," Morris said. "It was an unbelievable experience. It made me feel young. I recommend it for anybody."

Morris became the oldest rookie in the majors in 29 years when he relieved with two outs in the eighth inning and struck out Royce Clayton on four fastballs in the mid-nineties in the 6-1 loss to Texas.

Until a few months ago, he was a high school baseball coach in the tiny West Texas town of Big Lake. On a dare from his players, he attended a June tryout camp in Brownwood, Tex., showed off a 98-mph fastball and was offered a contract.

That day the Devil Rays looked at about 70 players, and as scout Doug Gassaway later said: "None of them could play."

And then he watched Jim Morris throw.

"He reeled off 12 98-mph fastballs in a row," Gassaway told the Dallas Morning News, "and I'm bum-fuzzled."

Gassaway eventually would recall he'd seen the same guy at a tryout camp 17 years earlier. Morris was Milwaukee's first-round pick in the 1983 winter draft, but after operations on his shoulder and elbow, he missed the 1986 and 1987 seasons and retired in 1989, having never pitched higher than Class A. He returned to school, earned his degree and became a coach and teacher.

Then came the tryout camp, which he agreed to attend if his high school team made the playoffs last spring. The Devil Rays signed him, quickly promoted him all the way to Class AAA Durham. He was called up earlier in the day.

O's Verify Talks With Leyland

The Baltimore Orioles finally are confirming what most of baseball already knew: They offered their managerial job to Jim Leyland last fall.

When word of the discussions with Leyland first surfaced last fall, the Orioles vehemently denied the stories, insisting they were committed to Ray Miller for another season. However, sources in Colorado said they were in the room when Leyland telephoned the Orioles to tell them he'd decided to manage the Rockies instead of the Orioles.

This week a source with knowledge of the decision-making process said the Orioles did indeed have serious conversations with Leyland, and that Miller knew of them.

Under the scenario that was discussed, Leyland would have taken over as manager, with Miller once again becoming the club's pitching coach. At the time, the Orioles were searching for a general manager, and Leyland told team officials he would consider the job only if Frank Wren, who worked with Leyland in Florida, was hired.

In the end, the talks ended when Leyland accepted the job with the Rockies. He announced his retirement from managing earlier this month, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.

A's Make Ends Meet

The Oakland A's are being held up as a shining example by many of the people who believe that baseball's economics don't need a radical overhaul. They point to the fact that while the Orioles and Dodgers are losing with $80 million payrolls, the A's are winning with a $22 million payroll. Why then if the A's can do it, can't the Twins, Royals and Expos?

Here's the problem with that argument: It's ridiculous.

"Don't get me started on that," an A's team executive said. "We're doing it this season. We have no chance of doing it every year. Every guy we have is either 22 or 42. We haven't been able to keep our own players once they are eligible for salary arbitration, and nothing in the world is going to change that unless the system is changed."

With the A's fighting for a playoff spot with a wonderful mix of talented kids and low-salaried veterans, team officials say there are bad days ahead. Outfielder John Jaha, a $400,000 bargain when he signed last winter, will get a big raise. Pitcher Kevin Appier has a $5 million contract option. And a long list of young players such as Ben Grieve will be getting raises.

In other words, unless the A's find a way to spend more money--and they say there's no way in the current system--they will be in a constant rebuilding mold.

Because General Manager Billy Beane's player development system is so good, the A's are going to be interesting for a while. Grieve, third baseman Eric Chavez and shortstop Miguel Tejada are going to be stars. Dazzling young pitcher Tim Hudson (10-2) could be joined in the rotation next season by two other hot prospects--Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.

But that doesn't change the fact that baseball is still divided by economics. This season, the teams with seven of the nine highest payrolls appeared headed for the playoffs. On the other end, teams with 10 of the 12 lowest payrolls are having losing seasons. Only the A's and Cincinnati Reds are the exceptions, and both are winning because their general managers, Beane and Jim Bowden, have done extraordinary jobs doing a lot with a little.

Thomas Ends on Sour Note

The White Sox are saying that first baseman Frank Thomas went home to have season-ending surgery. What they didn't say is that he went home after declining to pinch-hit in a game, getting cursed out by the normally unflappable manager, Jerry Manuel, and essentially being ordered off the team.

Once one of baseball's most feared players, Thomas is now a puzzle to both his teammates and opponents who wonder if he has been consumed by his own ego or was simply overrated.

It seems unlikely that he and Manuel can coexist next season, but the White Sox may have trouble moving him because he's scheduled to make around $67 million the next seven years. With his production--15 home runs and 77 RBI after 29 home runs and 109 RBI last season--down so dramatically and now his attitude in question, he's a gamble.

Resting Randy

The Diamondbacks are taking no chances with Randy Johnson. With a comfortable lead in the division, Johnson was skipped in the rotation last week so he could rest his aching shoulder. He already has pitched a career-high 255 2/3 innings, topping his 255 1/3 innings in 1993. Before throwing 106 pitches in six innings yesterday, his 3,859 pitches were 430 more than any other pitcher in the majors this year, which amounts to around four starts. Until yesterday he had pitched at least seven innings in 16 consecutive starts and leads the majors in innings, complete games and strikeouts.

Casey in the Hard Hat

The California League is building a new stadium on the site where Ernest Thayer is believed to have written, "Casey at the Bat." And not missing on a chance to sell more T-shirts and hats, the Stockton Ports are being renamed the Mudville Nine. Souvenirs are already available.