Success change of pace for Jones

April 10, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The carburetor on his '71 Camaro busted in the middle of the California desert and the mechanic wouldn't take a check and the minor-league pitcher didn't have any money.

The pitcher wasn't sure, either, if he had any future in baseball. This was March of 1985. He was 27 years old, without a single day in the big leagues, and he had been let go by the Milwaukee organization the prior fall -- a year after his shoulder began to hurt.

No, he thought, maybe this was just a waste of time. He was en route to spring training in the Cleveland Indians' minor-league camp, even though no one promised him a job. He would have to live with friends, pay his own way. No guarantees.

The whole venture seemed fruitless. But the minor-league pitcher gave the mechanic $40 and promised he'd send the other $75 as soon as he got the money. The mechanic agreed -- he didn't have much choice -- and the pitcher, who needed to be in the Indians' Arizona camp by 9 a.m., got back on the road at 3 a.m. and forged ahead.

Ten years later, Doug Jones has 217 lifetime saves, and a new job as the Orioles' closer; he signed a contract with a $1 million base salary on Saturday.

What happened between the California desert and now seems incredible, even to Jones. "Absolutely," he said.

What happened was that Jones discovered the changeup, which he has depended on for the last decade. He discovered it purely by accident, later in that summer of 1985.

Pitching for Waterbury, the Indians' Triple-A affiliate, Jones was given a start against New Britain and threw nothing but fastballs in the first inning.

He came out for the second inning absolutely exhausted. To buy himself some recovery time, Jones threw almost all changeups -- and struck out five of the next six hitters. Something clicked inside of him. The changeup.

Jones rejuvenated his career, made it to the big leagues at the end of the 1986 season. He thought about quitting again the next spring, after he was sent down on April 28. Jones passed through waivers and was dropped off Cleveland's 40-man roster. Any club could've claimed him for $20,000.

In some ways, this was much worse than having your car break down in the middle of the desert; Jones was sure he had blown his one big shot at the big leagues.

"I was ready to cash it in," he said. "I realized that I was just pitching timid."

After a couple of weeks of soul searching, he decided to stay and just try to enjoy the game.

Throwing much more aggressively, he got back to the majors on June 28. He saved eight games for the Indians by the end of that year, 37 in 1988; Jones was on his way.

He is a five-time All-Star, the last time last year, when he saved 27 games for Philadelphia. All because of the changeup, which he has learned to throw from numerous angles, at a variety of speeds.

Most short relievers throw hard. Jones has a below-average fastball, in the mid-80s. But his changeup is between 60 and 70 mph, and he throws his fastball and changeup with identical arm speed. When he throws a fastball, he snaps his wrist, the ball getting that extra snap and zip. With a changeup, he keeps his wrist stiff, the ball basically rolling out of his hand.

The deception -- hitters can't tell from his arm speed whether he's throwing fast or slow stuff -- is what confounds opponents. Jones has made hitters look so bad, swinging wildly long before the ball reaches the plate, that he has, on occasion, needed to walk behind the mound and face the center-field seats, stifling a laugh within.

"Sometimes the [infielders] will say something to me," he said. "When I was in Cleveland and that happened [somebody flailing with embarrassment], Brook Jacoby would look over at me and make eye contact."

Jones mimics Jacoby, his eyebrows raised as if to personify Jacoby's thoughts: Boy, did that guy look awful.

He studies the hitters' reactions to his specialty, feeling that they give away their strategy at the plate with their body language. Jones recalled facing Cal Ripken back in 1987. He threw a fastball to Ripken right over the plate, and Ripken never moved.

"From that," he said, "I knew that somebody told him to look for changeups against me, and he was going to sit on it."

Jones threw another fastball, on the inner half of the plate. Ripken, still waiting for the change, took strike two. What the heck, Jones thought, and then threw another fastball right down the middle. Strike three. Ripken walked back to the bench, thinking about that changeup he was supposed to see.

For these reasons, he can be frustrating to face, almost angering hitters. Jones' stuff is not respected by opponents, nor by his managers. Every year with the Indians, and then after he joined the Houston Astros and Phillies, his managers talked about replacing him. But, ultimately, he winds up closing games.

"They said that I didn't have the stuff to close games," he recalled. "I don't know exactly what that means."

He's made it this far -- all the way from the California desert to a 10-year career in the big leagues -- without deciphering the answer.

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