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Mudville: January 15, 2021 9:23 am PDT
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Rooftop Ruppert: Ruppert Jones

"It's a vanilla game."

Baseball fans over the age of 40 will surely remember Ruppert Jones well.

The thing about the 12-year Major League Baseball veteran though, is that you can gather a dozen fans in a room to talk some Ruppert Jones and they’ll all probably have different memories of him.

Ruppert Jones joins us for this week’s Spitballin’ to share his incredible stories and make his opinions quite clear on the way the game is played today.

Some fans will remember Jones as the first ever Seattle Mariner, plucked off the Royals roster with the first pick of the 1976 Expansion Draft. Others may remember that Mariners boosters became so enamored with their first superstar that the fans behind him in the outfield were dubbed “Roop’s Troops.”

Maybe you remember him being a key power piece on the great Detroit Tigers World Series team of 1984, a role he played so well that he garnered the nickname “Rooftop Ruppert” for his propensity to crack shots over the roof at Tiger Stadium.

Those who followed Bay Area high school sports in the 1970s will know Jones as perhaps the best athlete to come out of Berkeley High School. When fellow alums include Billy Martin, Claudell Washington, Augie Galan and Hall of Famer Chick Hafey, that title carries a ton of weight.

Jones was a third-round pick in the 1973 draft, six picks ahead of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray and made his debut with the great 1976 Royals team three years later. He landed with the Mariners the next year and when they traded him to the Yankees after the 1979 season, the All-Star outfielder seemed to be on the precipice of breaking through as a superstar.

However, Jones lost time to a serious medical incident off the field in May. Nearly three months to the day of that, he crashed head-first into the unpadded wall at the Oakland Coliseum in one of the more horrific crashes into an outfield wall you’ll see. Jones readily admits that both of those incidents were near-death experiences and had an effect on his life outside of baseball as well.

Despite being plagued by injuries, at the end of his 12-year career Jones was a two-time All-Star, a World Series champion and was a fan favorite no matter where he went.

Let’s go Spitballin’ with Ruppert Jones, and for one day at least, we can all be one of Roop’s Troops.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Mr. Jones. I always enjoyed watching you play in the 80’s and I’m sure I still have a ton of your baseball cards up in the attic. Let’s start at the beginning. Growing up, who were your favorite players to root for?

The San Francisco Giants were my favorite team growing up in Texas. Willie Mays was my favorite player, so consequently, I adopted his team. They had some great players at the time too. Guys like Willie McCovey, Jim Ray Hart, Gaylord Perry and Juan Marichal. The Alou brothers. So many great players.

Your career at Berkeley High School in California is the stuff of legend. You were the basketball Player of the Year and the first player to ever make the All-Tournament of Champions team three times. You had multiple Division I football scholarship offers and were a highly regarded pro prospect in baseball. What led you to choose baseball as your path?

I wasn’t big enough for basketball at that particular time. I wasn’t very good at basketball, I would say that was my third best sport. I really didn’t love football, but I loved baseball. It was the first sport I played as a kid. I was a well-rounded athlete, so consequently that meant I could do a lot of things on the baseball field.

I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood, so I was playing with guys three and four years older than me. So, baseball was the natural choice and when the Royals drafted me in the third round, I was gonna get some money and I could start my career.

Did I read right that you were high school teammates with eventual Major Leaguers Claudell Washington and Glenn Burke?

Actually, we never played together in high school. Burke was a couple years older and Claudell was one year older. Glenn and I were on a Connie Mack team together. Claudell and I were competitors against each other. We played all the time. I tell people that Claudell Washington was probably the best baseball player I have ever seen.

ruppert jones yankees

CHICAGO - UNDATED 1980: Ruppert Jones of the New York Yankees bats during a MLB game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Jones played for the New York Yankees in 1980. (Photo by Ron Vesely/Getty Images)

“You think the Dodgers weren’t happy as hell? You can take them analytics and shove ‘em.

Wow, that’s a great compliment.

Here’s the thing. Claudell and I played baseball against each other when we were 13 or 14 then he stopped. Claudell did not play baseball from when he was 14 until he was 17. We had a Connie Mack team and were short of players, so we went to Claudell’s house and said we needed a guy. Claudell spent one month on that team before the A’s signed him as a free agent. He was hitting like .600.

He goes to Coos Bay for the rest of the summer, then Burlington the next year. Then he was in AA and the A’s called him up the next year. He didn’t play baseball from the ages of 14 to 17 and then by the time he was 19, he was in the World Series. That’s how good he was.

That is a pretty incredible story. You got up to the Majors pretty quick too. You were just 21 when you got called up onto that great 1976 Royals team. What was that like?

I was having a real good year in Omaha. I was on track to be considered as the MVP, but the Royals called me up in August. My first at bat I got a single against Gaylord Perry, one of my favorite players as a child. I didn’t play for about a week and then my next start came against the White Sox and Goose Gossage was the starter. I got two hits.

I wasn’t really playing, but I would pinch hit here and there, but I never started. Then I started a game in Cleveland and got a hit off Dennis Eckersley. Then the same thing, I pinch hit and got in here or there, but wasn’t starting. Then the next time I start, we face Bert Blyleven. I was in the Majors for four weeks and faced those four Hall of Famers. These guys are great pitchers.

It doesn’t get much tougher than that! Even though you were a good prospect with the Royals, they lost you in the expansion draft to the Mariners. What was it like going from that great Royals team to a team that had never played a game before?

I was so ecstatic to see the Mariners picked me up because I knew with the Royals, the chances of me starting was not going to be as good as in Seattle. I knew right then that I was going to be a starter in the Big Leagues and at 21 years old, that was just what I wanted.

What do you think about your legacy of technically being the first Seattle Mariner?

I enjoyed Seattle. As a matter of fact, when I go back there it really instills joy and brings back great memories. It’s always fascinating. My last year in Seattle was 41 years ago, but people still remember me and say they saw me play. That makes me feel good.

Jones with the Seattle Mariners, the first pick by Seattle in the expansion draft.

You played on some great teams after you left the Mariners and probably the best one was that 1984 World Series Tigers team. Can you talk about your experience on the Tigers?

You know, we had our 35th anniversary and most of the guys were there. Our first night in town we had a dinner and we met in this quaint area of this hotel we were staying at and the synergy was still there. We had something as a team that even 35 years later, it was still there. We talked about it that night. It was the first time we really talked about it.

My wife, she wasn’t with me in ’84, so she got to see all this for the first time. One of my ex-teammates turned to my wife and said, “You know, your husband was a great ballplayer. He came to play every night and played hard. He was a great player.” That made me feel so good to have somebody tell my wife that. Another guy said, “Ruppert was the guy we needed. He helped us get over the hump.” Again, that made me feel so good.

That’s really great to be appreciated like that, especially considering the guys on that team. There were so many great stars. The fans in Detroit loved you too, which leads to my next question. In Detroit, they called you Rooftop Ruppert because you hit balls onto the roof at Tiger Stadium. When you were in Seattle, you had Roop’s Troops in the outfield. What did you enjoy more? Rooftop Ruppert or Roop’s Troops?

I liked Rooftop Ruppert because when people asked me how I got the nickname Rooftop, I enjoyed telling them why.

Before Detroit you were with the Yankees for a short time. You had one of the worst collisions with an outfield wall in Oakland that most people had ever seen. You suffered a serious concussion and shoulder injury, and it ended your season in August. How did that effect the rest of your career and your life too?

Back then we didn’t think about head injuries like we do now. It definitely changed my life. I wrote a book and am looking for a publisher but it’s my life’s story and I talked a lot about that in there. People who have injuries like that feel those effects for a lifetime. It’s almost like having PTSD in the military, it really has an effect on you. And in the 70s and 80s, you didn’t talk about it. People thought you’re crazy if you did. Now the subject is more embraced.

safe

1986 ALCS ANAHEIM - OCTOBER 12: Home Plate Umpire Rocky Roe (center) calls Ruppert Jones #13 (left) of the California Angels safe after an attempted tag by catcher Rich Gedman #10 (right) of the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS played on October 12, 1986 at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

This is the first interview I’ve done since Dick Allen passed away. As a matter of fact, BallNine senior baseball writer Kevin Kernan published a great article today talking about Mr. Allen as a Hall of Famer. What are some of your thoughts about Dick Allen?

He should be in the Hall of Fame. When I was a rookie in 1977, he looked at me and said, “Young man, you have good talent, but people are going to try to change you. You gotta learn these three things. The first time they say something to you, you say ‘Uh huh,’ the next time, you say, ‘OK,’ then the next time you say, ‘I’ll try it.’ Then you go out and do it the way you want to do it.”

He told me that in ’77 and then in 1982 I was sitting in the dugout with a young teammate who wasn’t hitting the ball so good. It was a young Tony Gwynn. Some coach had told Tony to try to pull the ball more, so he did. He wasn’t playing well and one day he came over and said he wanted to talk to me. He said they were trying to get him to do something he’s not comfortable with and I told him the same advice that Dick Allen gave me. He went out and hit the ball like he can hit it and they never messed with him again.

Isn’t that great how advice like that can be passed down through the generations of baseball players? I love stories like that. That brings up a good question. You played with so many Hall of Famers. Some of your teammates were George Brett, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Reggie and I am sure I’m missing some. Who do you think your best teammate was?

Wow, man that’s a difficult question! And how about Alan Trammell? He was as solid a baseball player as you ever were gonna see. He fielded shortstop like nobody else. Ozzie Smith was great and there were other people, but if you hit the ball to Trammell, you were out. He was a clutch hitter too.

Reggie Jackson too. We’re talking about a Hall of Famer that hit 563 home runs. Rod Carew was a magician. He’s not a hitter, he’s a magician. How many magicians are there playing the game right now? Name me a guy you see as a magician.

Jim Rice was a phenomenal hitter. He was strong and hit the ball hard and could hit the ball out of the ballpark anywhere you could hit it. And what about Dave Parker? Can you name me a guy in baseball now who is like Dave Parker? Aaron Judge is a big boy, but I can’t put him in Dave Parker’s class as an overall player. He had a great arm, he could run and he always put the ball in play hard. We used to come to the dugout to watch him take infield just to watch him throw.

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You played at that time where there were so many great stars. A ton of Hall of Famers who played the game hard. It must have been great to experience.

How about Dave Winfield too? He could move. He hits a ground ball, you better get rid of it fast because Dave Winfield is getting down the line. We’re talking about guys who would go to the plate 600 times a year and they’re not striking out 200 times. They’d strike out 80 or 90 times and play the game hard every day.

Look at what Mike Schmidt did. Such a great player then all of a sudden in May of 1989, he knew he didn’t have it anymore and he walked away on his terms. But look at what he did. Is there anyone like Mike Schmidt? Is there anyone like George Brett? Nolan Arenado is a great third baseman. Manny Machado too. But do they have that presence like Schmidt or Brett? You know what I mean? Dave Parker had that presence, just walking on the field he had it.

They used to kill second basemen too. I saw Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton four feet off the ground trying to get out of the way of guys sliding into second. Today, they don’t jump, they just throw it right over. Dave Parker would break both of your legs if you didn’t jump. They weren’t dirty, they’re sliding hard. Bill Madlock used to wear hip pads so he could roll into second base and take them out.

It’s definitely a much different game today then it was back then.

It’s a vanilla game. There were different kinds of teams. You had the Cardinals with all that speed. They’d score three runs on two hits and the ball wouldn’t leave the infield. You knew they were gonna put pressure on your team and play defense. That’s another thing too. In 2019 I asked a former teammate who is still a coach about this new idea that RBIs aren’t an important stat. He said, “Ruppert, they look at RBIs now as being lucky.” I said, “If it was all about luck, how come there aren’t so many guys driving in 100 runs? If it’s lucky, how come the same guys are always driving in 100 runs?”

I think I know the answer to this, but what did you think about Blake Snell coming out of the World Series game?

You know, I used to love talking to Bob Gibson. One day he told me, “Ruppert, I was pitching one night, and it was the eighth inning. Leadoff hitter got on base and Red Schoendienst came out to the mound to get me. He said, ‘Red, what the [hell] are you doing out here?’ Red said he was coming to get him. Bob said, ‘Are you bringing in someone better than me?’ Red said, ‘Well, no.’ So, Bob said, ‘Well get your ass back in the dugout.’”

Game 6 in the World Series. Mr. Cash took out Blake Snell. They got that base hit, and they took him out. You think the Dodgers weren’t happy as hell? You can take them analytics and shove ‘em. You look at those hitters and they had no chance against Snell. You want to know what’s going on in a baseball game you watch the hitters, and they’ll tell you.

You played in an era with some great workhorse pitchers. You would know for sure.

Look at 1991. The Braves were playing the Twins in the World Series. Jack Morris against John Smoltz and they were throwing up zeroes. The reason the Twins won was because Smoltz came out and Morris stayed in. I was watching the game with my wife, Betty. They played nine innings and I looked at her and said, “Betty, Jack Morris is gonna pitch the tenth inning.” She said, “How do you know this?”

I said, “I know Jack Morris. Jack Morris is not coming out of this game.” They showed the dugout and Mr. Kelly was talking to him. “I said, there’s no way he talks Jack Morris out of this game.” I played with Jack. He wanted to be out there and wasn’t coming out.” Jack went and threw another goose egg and the Twins win the game in the bottom of the inning.

This has been great, Mr. Jones. Do you have any final reflections about your career that you’d like to leave our readers with?

Looking back on my career, it was injury plagued. I had a lot debilitating injuries and illnesses and it seemed like they always happened during the baseball season. After the head injury, I was really in bad shape from an emotional standpoint because I was not the same player. At the time, I didn’t know this. I wasn’t as good as I was, and I lost my edge. It became more difficult each year to really be able to perform at a certain level on a consistent basis. I could do it periodically, but not consistently.

If anything, it’s the injuries and ailments. I damn near died twice in 1980. I had an emergency operation that took a lot out of me and had the head injury against the wall. Those were two near-death experiences and each one took a big toll out of me. You think you’re young and invincible and you can overcome it. You can, but it still takes a lot out of you. I couldn’t have been a Hall of Fame player, but I can say this, the guys who are in the Hall of Fame, they didn’t get beat up. They were able to go out and perform for a long period of time. You can’t get to the Hall of Fame if you’re hurt!

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book will be out in April 2021.

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