Every New York Mets fan seems to be asking “Why?” Why did the Mets flounder this year? Why didn’t Pete Alonso hit 50 home runs? Why didn’t Jeff McNeil hit .300? Why did Michael Conforto struggle mightily in his “walk” year? Why…why…why? You want to know why? Because…“If it were easy, everyone would do it.”
If you are a baseball fan, a baseball movie fan…then you are familiar with that line uttered by Tom Hanks in the movie A League of Their Own.
One-time New York Mets player Ross Jones was a talented player who realized the difficulties of the game
The truth is…it AIN’T easy. Just ask one-time New York Met Ross Jones – a man with a world of talent who faced the reality that so many of us wannabe Major League Baseball players come to realize.
I loved playing baseball. LOVED it. I would play practically from dawn to dusk when I was a kid…and I was pretty good. But you quickly learn there is always someone bigger and better and stronger and faster. I learned that once I got to the University of Miami. Once there, I came to the quick realization that I was out of my league…way out of my league.
Although I did get to be a part of things with the team. I caught batting practice, warmed up pitchers in the bullpen, shagged flies during batting practice, and the wondrous job of doing “buckets.” When you did buckets, you were collecting balls hit during batting practice and replacing the empty bucket at the mound with a full one.
I was shagging fly balls one day and it was approaching twilight. It was always tough to see a fly ball at that hour once it went above the level of the stands at Mark Light Stadium (now Mark Light Field at Alex Rodriguez Park) behind home plate. And especially with aluminum bats, you could very easily make out the “crack” or “ding” of the bat hitting the ball.
Standing out in right centerfield I saw the batter swing and I heard the bat hit the ball and I saw the ball go up in the air. I heard someone yell, “Alan…Alan…” I stood there…turned my head to the right and coming over from left centerfield was Ross Jones, and I simply asked, “What?” He stopped…placed his glove in front of my face, and saved thousands of dollars in orthodontic work. My parents would be forever grateful to him.
Ross Jones came to the University of Miami as a highly-recruited local talent from the Miami suburb of Hialeah. I always thought he was a special person because of what I knew of him off the field. But it was clear to the coaching staff, the fans, and especially professional scouts that he was special on the field.
Jones was selected as the nation’s American Legion Player of the Year in 1978. While playing in the famous Cape Cod Baseball League, he hit .413 for the Hyannis Mets and was named the League’s outstanding pro prospect.
Jones began his UM career as the team’s centerfielder before settling in as the shortstop. Two important positions and he was quite adept at both. It was a joy to watch him play, and I marveled at his work ethic. He was good. He knew he was good. And, yet, he kept wanting to be better.
Jones helped the Hurricanes make two consecutive trips to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska and made enough of an impression that the Los Angeles Dodgers made him their first round draft pick in the 1980 MLB amateur draft, the ninth pick overall, eight selections after the Mets made Darryl Strawberry the first pick.
New York Mets acquire Ross Jones along with Sid Fernandez from the Dodgers
Jones moved quickly up through the Dodgers farm system. But after four seasons, the Dodgers sought, and acquired, veteran utility man Bob Bailor and lefty bullpen specialist Carlos Diaz from the Mets prior to the 1984 season. The Mets wanted high level minor leaguer – Jones – who was liked by new Mets manager Davey Johnson and was the kind of player that they Mets were looking to stockpile, a professional hitter who could play multiple positions. Jones fit that bill perfectly. Oh…there was a throw-in in the deal too…some lefty from Hawaii named Sid Fernandez.
Fernandez wouldn’t impress immediately and wouldn’t make the team out of spring training. But in what would be a surprise to some, Jones did make the team. “They took my picture but they never printed the card,” Jones recently told me when I mentioned to him that my son, Eddie, only had his card as a Kansas City Royal but not as a Met. “They never expected me to make the team. But I showed that I could play multiple positions. And Davey Johnson was very big on hitters who were versatile. So I made it to the Bigs with the Mets.”
Jones credits his approach and a lot of his success to the tutelage of people like Coach Skip Bertman at the University of Miami (before he became the legend he is at Louisiana State University); Del Crandall, his AAA manager at Albuquerque (Dodgers farm team); and Bob Schaefer, his manager at Tidewater (Mets AAA farm team) and the Cape Cod League’s Hyannis Mets.
“I can’t say enough about Skip Bertman,” Jones told me recently. “He was, and is, an incredible baseball mind and just a super person. And I learned a lot from guys like Del Crandall and Bob Schaefer. I wanted to be an extension of the coach on the field and communicate with teammates to coordinate defense. I was taught the nuances of the game, and to be aware of all of the small details and anticipate every possible scenario. I loved trying to decipher what the opposing team was going to do before they did it.”
Jones saw limited action during the 1984 season as the Mets had two shortstops ahead of him on the depth chart – Jose Oquendo and Ron Gardenhire.
He was in the minor leagues for the 1985 season and was released by the Mets, along with two other popular players – Clint Hurdle and Rusty Staub – prior to the 1986 World Championship season. But he was around long enough to see what it was like, what the atmosphere was during an extremely crazy time for New York Mets baseball.
“The Dodgers were my parent organization that drafted me and I think that most players have an affinity for their first organization,” said Jones. “The Dodgers were always special, family-owned, and family-oriented, and always had their former greats coming back to teach the young players. Not many teams did that back then.
Ross Jones was with the New York Mets during an exciting time
“The Mets were in an exciting place when I got traded to the team before the ’84 season. Davey Johnson was just named manager and a new era was taking off. It was great to be there when the turnaround of the franchise was happening. So many great young players coming along blended with some special veterans. The team was becoming good after many years of not being relevant. It was a great time to be a Met.”
Jones was a part of the Mets and a part of baseball during an era when the analytics was just beginning to take hold. Davey Johnson was known for taking a look at his computer every so often.
“I understand the use of advanced analytics in the game,” said Jones, “but I don’t think you can apply the same parameters to all players. Some players need to keep the ball out of the air…get on base…move runners along…and score runs. At certain positions, defense needs to be a priority and the overall goal for some players should be not to make outs on offense – they need to get on base somehow whether it be via hits, walks, or even by error…putting the ball in play and forcing the defense to make a tough play.”
During his time, Jones was lucky enough to encounter and be surrounded by some of the great players and great minds in baseball. He said his view on managers and coaches depended greatly on their approach.
“I played for some managers who hardly spoke to young players and others who were very open,” he said. “I always liked the communication…with both managers and coaches. Some were really into teaching but many expected that you knew how to play by the time you got to the Big Leagues. Much more instruction happened in the Minors. One exception, for me, was Bobby Valentine when he was on Davey’s staff with the Mets. I wish I was able to be around him longer as he was always sharing insights into the game for me. I must say that I learned so much from the older players too – Dusty Baker, Bill Russell, Steve Garvey, and Rick Monday with the Dodgers; Keith Hernandez and Rusty Staub with the Mets; and Frank White and George Brett with the Royals. You could learn just by watching those guys.”
As it would turn out, Jones would be teammates with four guys who would be very successful Major League managers – Ron Gardenhire, Clint Hurdle, and John Gibbons with the Mets, and Dusty Baker with the Dodgers.
Jones went on to play for the Seattle Mariners in 1986 and Kansas City Royals in 1987, toiled in the minor leagues for the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees in 1988 but ultimately made a decision to retire after 67 games and 158 plate appearances in the Major Leagues.
“Playing in the Major Leagues was a dream come true,” said Jones. “It was all I ever wanted to do for as long as I could remember. The baseball part was intoxicating and it is hard to explain to others what it feels like to experience that energy of a large crowd especially when a big moment happened.
“That being said, the business of baseball sucked…if you weren’t a player who ascended quickly to the Show and stuck around for the majority of the time. If you bounced around from organization to organization and from the minor leagues to the big leagues, it was very challenging. If you had a family, it was brutal. Try moving multiple times in a season with young children and a pregnant wife…when you are told to leave (to the next city) immediately and your wife is left behind to manage and follow you on her own.
“At 28, I had enough and wanted to get on with the rest of my life. I don’t think I could have left if I had never reached the Big Leagues. I go to play with three teams and it seemed like the chances of getting back up and staying were getting less and less.”
Jones pointed to the fact that when he was drafted…in the first round…as the No. 9 pick overall…his signing bonus was a mere pittance…a fraction of the minimum salary of today’s player. On the other hand, the ninth pick in the 2021 MLB draft, Sam Bachman, a pitcher out of the other Miami university, the one in Ohio, was signed for $3,847,500.
“The money wasn’t huge back then,” he said, “When I first made it to the Mets as a rookie in ’84, the minimum salary was $40,000. We weren’t wealthy by any means, especially at that salary in New York. I remember it cost me $4,000 to move into a three-bedroom apartment in Bayside (Queens) back then. When I got sent to AAA Tidewater, I actually lived a whole lot better on my AAA salary.”
I asked Jones what he thinks regarding the culture of today’s game.
“It hard to say how much the culture has actually changed since I am so many years removed,” he told me. “If I had to guess…it must be different given a couple of huge factors. The money is so much larger across the board. I don’t know how you manage young men making that much money. It HAS to change the dynamic between players and management to a great degree. I would guess that it is important for the best players to create the culture because players react better to that atmosphere.
“The other factor is social media. I never played with that dynamic. We thought it was tough in New York given the size of the local media. I can’t imagine how social media would have affected the ’84 and ’85 Mets…and even that ’86 team…but it definitely wouldn’t be pretty.”
Although Jones was a teammate of Jeff Wilpon’s (for a very short time) at the University of Miami, and Fred Wilpon was already an owner by the time he got to the Mets, he didn’t have many thoughts with regard to the Wilpons.
“I was considered a low level player and so I didn’t have much interaction, if any at all, with upper management,” he said. “And I barely remember Jeff at UM but I do remember having a few conversations about baseball with him.”
It’s clear that the game has changed greatly since Jones was drafted more than 40 years ago, and perhaps he was in the game a generation too soon.
“I really think my baseball experience would be so different if I came up in this era,” said Jones. “Offense seems to be the guiding force in today’s game…especially getting the ball in the air. No wonder there are so many strikeouts and lower batting averages.
“I do think I was there at the very beginning of the new trend of ‘offense first.’ Davey Johnson was the first manager I came across who seemed to be putting as many bats in the lineup even if defense might suffer a bit. Second base and shortstop were considered ‘defense first’ positions until then but managers like Davey (Johnson) and Tony LaRussa were trying to put as many offensive weapons on the field as possible.
“I struggled to put on weight and gain muscle during that time but I couldn’t hold more weight, not until I was just getting ready to leave the game. I would hope that I could still resist the urge to try illegal substances – to attain that muscle mass – that was just starting to show up in Baseball circles when I was on my way out.”
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At least Ross Jones can say that he was on his “way out” because he actually had the opportunity to be there…even if it was for a short time. Because regardless of how talented you are, it still ain’t easy.