f

For Fans Who Should Know Better

Mudville Crew            Contact Us

Mudville: July 5, 2022 10:47 am PDT
EnglishJapaneseSpanish

Me & Mr. Jones

Ruppert Jones could be angry, but he isn’t, at least not anymore.

He could have a mountain of regrets, but he doesn’t. He could have enough bitterness to blanket an entire state and no one would blame him. There isn’t, however, a hint of resentment in Jones’ voice.

Rather, Jones, who only got to truly enjoy just about half of what was a 17-season professional baseball career, is pleasant, thoughtful and insightful, displaying the growth and determination that could serve as a blueprint for many of today’s professional athletes, not just those who excel on the diamond.

Jones, who turned 67 on March 12, was the top pick in the 1976 MLB expansion draft by Seattle. He immediately established himself as a fan favorite in The Emerald City, earning an All-Star berth during the Mariners’ inaugural season. Injuries and unexpected medical issues began to take a toll, though, causing his star to dim.

Then, one August evening in 1980, Jones slammed into the centerfield wall while attempting to make a catch in The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. He separated his shoulder and suffered what turned out to be a devastating and undiagnosed brain injury, one that would send his career into a spiral while nearly destroying his life away from the field.

It took decades for Jones to learn about and come to a complete understanding of what actually happened to him that night. In the interim, he lost his baseball career, his health deteriorated, his personality changed and he battled addiction, all of which pushed him to the brink mentally and physically.

Jones, however, never gave up fighting for answers. He ultimately received the medical treatment that would help put his life back in order. That, combined with the support of his wife and some very dear friends, allowed Jones to experience a return to normalcy or what might best be called his new normal.

He would go on carve out a successful career in the benefits business in addition to becoming an avid and accomplished amateur golfer. Jones also wrote a best-selling biography, #NeverGiveUp A Memoir of Baseball & Traumatic Brain Injury, which was published in 2021. It’s a story that details in gritty detail how that afternoon in Oakland changed his life forever.

“I’ve done a lot of hard work and I am better off than I was in the past,” Jones said. “Can you imagine running in the dark and not knowing what’s going on? You are going to make mistakes, but you’re not equipped to deal with those mistakes.

“When I found out the issue that I had and what I was dealing with, it relieved me of the regret I felt for so many years about why I couldn’t be better. I was relieved to know that I actually played six or seven years and I wasn’t even close to doing what I was capable of doing but I still played those six or seven years. I could function sometimes, but I couldn’t function a lot of times. The game is tough enough with being able to function. My destiny was what it was.”

Jones’ story starts in a small Texas town, moves to northern California and then takes him across the country and around the world, ultimately searching for answers that were a long time coming.

“We can’t say that [what if?] about my baseball career,. Maybe if I had access to treatment. At that particular time, we are not where we are now. You can’t go by where we are now.”

GO WEST YOUNG MAN

Jones spent the first part of his childhood in Tyler, Texas, which is about 100 miles southeast of Dallas. He moved to northern California, though, when he was 12, living in Berkeley, which proved to be a completely different world than the one he left in Texas. Still, as would prove to be the case throughout his life, he pushed, very often on his own, making friends and establishing himself as a budding young sports star, excelling in baseball, basketball and football.

“I played basketball and football and I enjoyed both,” he said. “I was a wide receiver and a defensive back. I used to go see the 49ers play but I was a Cowboys fan since 1960. The first game I ever saw in 1963 I saw Jim Brown play. He is a timeless athlete and would be great in any era.

“But I felt my best chance in life was baseball. I didn’t want to take the punishment in football and in basketball I was not big enough and didn’t think I had the talent to play. But I was a great athlete and knew I could develop into a pretty good baseball player.”

Jones was also a San Francisco Giants fan before he moved to California, primarily because of Willie Mays. Though Mays was nearing the end of his historic career, Jones couldn’t help but marvel at what the center fielder was still able to do in addition to what he had already done.

“I moved to California when I was 12 years old and I liked Willie Mays,” said Jones, who never got to meet Mays in person. “Now I would get the chance to see Willie Mays play. Candlestick Park was the first park that I ever went to. I was a 13-year-old kid and I caught a bus from Berkeley. Two or three buses later, I got to Candlestick and saw Willie Mays.

“Seeing Willie was a dream come true. In Texas, you could dream about it but you were so remote. We watched and heard of Willie Mays. But when I got to California, I got to see him play and it was a great experience. He was bigger than life.”

Jones was a known commodity by his senior season, earning headlines in The Oakland Tribune during football and basketball season. The Oct. 14, 1972, edition detailed about how he returned a kick 78 yards for a touchdown and then scored on a 58-yard pass in a victory over DeAnza. The paper then celebrated his accomplishments during basketball season when he was named to the All-Eastbay team. Jones averaged 17.9 points per game while shooting 56 percent from the floor and was named to the State Tournament of Champions All-Tournament team for the third consecutive season.

He then hit .364 with seven home runs, making the All-Eastbay Team. He was also named to the All-Northern California team and was ultimately named as The Oakland Tribune 1973 Athlete of the Year. The Royals took notice and made Jones a third-round pick in that June’s draft, joining fellow northern California star, right-hander Lew Olsen, whom Kansas City selected in the first round [ninth overall].

“At that time, a lot of good players got drafted out of high school and at a young age,” Jones said. “Then you guy to the minor leagues and work on your skills for three or four years. I was very fortunate to get hooked up with a great organization like the Royals. From Day One I learned.”

The Royals were just beginning a run that would see them be one of the dominant teams in the American League over the next 15 seasons so it seemed as if Jones couldn’t have landed in a better spot. He was sent to Billings of the Rookie-Level Pioneer League and would help the Mustangs to a first-place finish. He hit .301 with four homers and 31 RBIs while finishing fifth in the league in both steals [13] and triples [four] in a league that featured players such as Jack Clark, Johnnie LeMaster, Pete Falcone and Bob McClure.

“That was the first time I was away,” Jones said. “I graduated high school on a Friday and on Sunday I was in Billings. It was a real culture shock for me but it was a necessary step to get where I wanted to go. Being away from home was the number one thing. Number two was trying to find a place to live, get utilities and a phone turned on, all the necessary things to make life functional. You only made $500 a month so it wasn’t going to go that far. So, Rodney Scott, Rondol Moss and I roomed together.

“I started playing against college guys, guys who were 19, 20 years old. Some of them were out of junior college but others were out of universities. It was not intimidating, though. I had competed against older kids all my life. I was the youngest kid in my neighborhood competing against guys who were two or three years older than me since I was 8,9 and 10. I was playing against 13 and 14-year-olds and they were bigger and stronger.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER QUICKLY AND HEADING TO SEATTLE

Things began to move quickly for Jones in 1974. He began the season at Waterloo [Iowa] of the Single-A Midwest League and tore up the league through 68 games before getting bumped up to San Jose of the Class-A California League in early July. Jones was leading the Midwest League in hitting [.353] at the time of his promotion. He connected for a two-run homer in his Midwest League swansong in a July 9 victory at Appleton [WI].

Jones also had 13 homers, 43 RBIs and 18 steals despite missing time because of a pair of broken fingers. He also earned a Topps Minor League Player of the Month Award.

He finished strong in the Cal League, hitting .278 with eight homers and 45 RBIs. He combined to .321 with 21 homers and 88 RBIs.

“I wanted to go to San Jose [at the outset],” Jones said. “But they sent me to Waterloo and I played pretty well the first month and then I broke two fingers sliding into second base. I was supposed to be out two to three weeks but I only missed four or five games because the weather was so bad and games got postponed. When I came back, I played with broken fingers but I continued to be successful.

“I went to San Jose and I was close to home but it’s not like I was close to home. My friends from high school never came down to see me play. So, when I moved, I just transferred to a little better league.”

Jones’ effort prompted the Royals to jump him over Double-A and send him right to Omaha of the Triple-A American Association in 1975. It was a big step and Jones was having a decent season when he hurt his back that summer, a situation that would become a recurring theme during the remainder of his career.

The Royals and Omaha manager Billy Gardner weren’t entirely certain that Jones’ back was indeed hurting and that, along with the back, may have contributed to his not playing for much of the final month of the season. Jones, as a 20-year-old, finished his first Triple-A season by hitting .243 with 13 homers and 54 RBIs in 119 games.

“Omaha was a big step up … again,” Jones said. “I was used to playing so it was just another place I had to go to in order to get where I wanted to go. I had a tough first year in Omaha. I hurt my back and I was in bad shape. I don’t know how. I just tweaked it and it didn’t get any better. I tried to play with and couldn’t and one day the manager told me I couldn’t play anymore.”

Outfielder Ruppert Jones, of the New York Yankees, at bat during a game in August, 1980 against the California Angels at Anaheim Stadium in Anaheim, California. (Photo by: Diamond Images/Getty Images)<br />

Jones needed to prove himself, though, in 1976 and he did just that, putting together a marvelous season in Omaha, one that landed him in Kansas City and set the stage for his move to Seattle. He was hitting .262 with 19 homers, 73 RBIs and 16 steals through the end of July. When Kansas City’s John Wathan broke a bone in his hand and landed on the disabled list on July 31, Jones got his chance and found himself headed to the Major Leagues.

It didn’t take long for him to see action, either. He was in the starting lineup the following day against Texas, facing Hall-of-Fame spitballer Gaylord Perry. Jones singled off Perry in his first at-bat and finished going 1-for-4 with a walk, an RBI and a run scored.

Jones followed that up in his second start on Aug. 6 against the White Sox by getting a pair of hits and a pair of RBIs off Goose Gossage. He began his career by going 4-for-12 with five RBIs before spending the next week serving primarily as a pinch-hitter. He picked up a hit off Cleveland’s Dennis Eckersley on Aug. 18, added another off Boston’s Rick Wise on Aug. 29, ultimately ending his 28-game run with Kansas City by hitting .216 with a homer and seven RBIs before a September bout with tonsilitis effectively ended his season.

“I was somewhat prepared emotionally because I felt I could play in the Major Leagues,” Jones said. “I never felt that I couldn’t perform in the Majors.”

Winter ball in Venezuela followed but early in that season Jones would see his career change in a way he could have never expected – Seattle selected him with the top pick in the 1976 American League Expansion Draft on Nov. 5. The Mariners general manager Lou Gorman had been Kansas City’s director of player development for the previous seven seasons so when the Royals left Jones unprotected, Gorman knew what he was going to do with the pick.

“Someone told me that I was the first pick in the expansion draft and I wasn’t even aware that they had an expansion draft,” Jones said. “Then I found out the person responsible for drafting me was Lou Gorman. I looked at it as an opportunity to play. When I was in the big leagues with the Royals I didn’t play much and consequently when I was picked up by the Mariners I felt like I would get an opportunity to play.

“I didn’t know anything about Seattle just that they wanted me to play baseball and that was fine with me. I enjoyed Seattle and I had three good years of my life there. The Royals had Willie Wilson and a lot of other good players so they let me go. I really can’t blame them.”

THE MAIN MARINER

Jones finally had a chance to play every day and responded with a brilliant season, becoming a fan favorite for his defense as well as his offense. He made the All-Star team – he went 0-for-1 in the game at Yankee Stadium – and finished the season by hitting .263 with 24 homers and 76 RBIs. He stole 13 bases, scored 85 runs and established himself as one of the game’s brightest young stars.

“We were a bunch of guys that had chips on our shoulders because we were let go or made available by our respective teams,” Jones said. “We lost 100 games but we played hard every day. That’s the one thing you can say about that team the first year, we played hard every day.”

Jones played so hard that he continued to play even after he had torn the meniscus in his left knee in early August at Yankee Stadium. He finished out the season, unaware of the severity of the injury. While that impacted his overall performance it couldn’t diminish what he had accomplished that season.

He tried resting the knee after the season and then slowly began working out again but it was apparent that something was still wrong so he ultimately had surgery to repair the damage. Jones still wasn’t 100 percent when Spring Training rolled around or when the season started. It took about a month for him to get untracked and when he finally did, he had to undergo an emergency appendectomy, which cost another month and a half.

“I was out 44 days and I should have stayed out longer,” Jones said. “In hindsight, I should have taken more time. I thought I was Superman, though, and that I could just come back. That whole year was a disaster.

“I worked my ass off in the winter of ’78 and ’79 to get back into baseball shape. I put in the work. I played basketball, got into karate, worked out in the gym and I was ready.”

The hard work paid off. Jones had a brilliant season in 1979, appearing in all 162 games. He had career highs in plate appearances [716], at-bats [622], runs [109], hits [166], triples [nine], RBIs [78], walks [85] and stolen bases [33].

Seattle, however, rewarded Jones for his big season by trading him to the Yankees on Nov. 1. While the deal caught Jones off guard, he was now essentially headed from one of the worst teams in baseball to one of the best, providing him what should have been the opportunity of a lifetime. It turned out, however, to be a life-altering move, one that would cost Jones dearly over the next three decades.

HOW COULD THINGS GET THIS BAD?

Jones’ season in New York got off to a slow start but by the end of May he was starting to produce. Though his batting average was hovering around .220 he had driven in 28 runs and scored 19 runs through May 26 when his season took its first bad turn. Jones began experience stomach pain on Memorial Day weekend, a pain that that continued to worsen, landing him in the hospital.

What doctors discovered was that Jones had adhesions in his stomach, which were likely the result of his appendectomy two years earlier. He required emergency surgery to correct the problem but, just like the appendectomy, he was on the shelf for a month and a half. And just like with his appendectomy, Jones returned to action too soon.

Jones predictably struggled upon his return to the lineup and would have an inconsistent month and a half before the Yankees headed to Oakland for a two-game series at the end of August. The opener was August 25, and it would turn out to be the day that Jones’ life changed forever.

The Yankees were in first place and were headed to an American League East crown. They would lose to Kansas City in the ALCS, but that was still more than a month away when Jones crashed into the centerfield wall in the second inning while trying to run down what would turn out to be a Tony Armas triple.

Jones doesn’t remember what happened nor has he ever seen a replay of the crash. He lost consciousness and didn’t wake up until the following morning at the hospital. Jones later said he felt as if he had died on the field.

That he didn’t return to the Yankees that season and was traded to San Diego the following spring almost seems like a footnote because what Jones would endure in the coming years would cost him his career, his reputation, his home, his marriage and very nearly his life. His condition would go undiagnosed for decades as Jones went through changes in mood and personality and suffered blackouts when he began to abuse alcohol and drugs, all of which nearly left him homeless.

“We can’t say that [what if?] about my baseball career,” Jones said. “Maybe if I had access to treatment. At that particular time, we are not where we are now. You can’t go by where we are now. Unbeknownst to the individual, they don’t realize they are going through personality changes. We’re not aware of it.

“Still, for years and now when you try to tell people what you went through they say you didn’t experience that, you’re just making excuses. Like with anything, this doesn’t get better with time.”

The strike-shortened season of 1981 was non-descript for Jones in terms of his play on the field as he hit .249 with four homers and 39 RBIs. His drinking and blackouts were becoming more commonplace, though. He details once incident in his book in which he was enjoying a few drinks in a hotel bar with two women before blacking out and waking up the next morning alone in a hotel room.

Jones was determined to make changes before the 1982 season and, after a strenuous winter of working out [his shoulder was now completely healed], he put together a strong season. He hit .283 with 12 homers and 63 RBIs, earning a spot on his second All-Star team. The personality changes and non-stop partying, however, were taking a toll on every aspect of his life with family and teammates noticing the changes.

He had pedestrian season in 1983 and admits that he remembers little of it. Perhaps that’s why the Padres opted not to re-sign him when he chose free agency following the season. Jones signed with the Tigers after Pittsburgh cut him in spring training and spent part of the season with Evansville of the American Association. The Tigers recalled him and he was a solid contributor off the bench, hitting .284 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs as Detroit went on to win the World Series. Jones, however, went hitless with a walk in eight post-season at-bats.

Jones wound up with the Angels in 1985 and would spend three seasons in southern California. He writes in great detail in his book that he tried to not drink or use drugs but those were the only things that could quiet the noise and distractions in his head that he had experienced since the crash.

He said by 1987 he had lost all interest and desire to play baseball though he split 1988-89 between playing for Texas’ American Association affiliate in Oklahoma City and spending time playing for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan.

Health, financial and familial problems plagued Jones for the better part of the next decade. There were some positives, though. He met Sterling Boon, who would become a dear and close friend. Boon played golf with Jones, encouraged him and ultimately hired him to sell employee benefits to government contractors for his company the Boon Group. Jones spent 28 years working with Boon.

Jones also met his current wife, Betty, in 1997 and through all the ups and downs that marked the early part of their relationship the couple remains happy with Jones saying that she changed his life.

His brain injury was also diagnosed and treated through a series of neurological tests and medication. While he still doesn’t have the motor function he once did, his life is more stable. He learned how to meditate and practice mindfulness, tools that have provided him with immeasurable relief.

“I had some tough times and those times helped me be who I am today,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t have tough times. I made it through some dark days.”

Covered a Mets-Astros doubleheader in 1987 and never looked back. Spent eight years at MLB.com, more than half of that as the Mets beat writer. Had one beat writer from another newspaper threaten to kill him in an elevator at the winter meetings. The other half was as MiLB.com’s staff historian. Worked three years in Philly at Comcast covering the Phillies’ minor leagues and doing weekly TV spots. Author of the popular blog The Bobblist, which covers everything A to Z in the world of bobbleheads. Really.

You don't have permission to register