THEY CALL TODD JONES "THE ROLLER COASTER."
The American Leagues most valuable closer is strolling down Sunset Boulevard at Orlandos Disney-MGM Studios. All hell is definitely not breaking loose. Not one head turns. Not one tyke points. Not one of the approximately 14 billion people cramming the park is even remotely tempted to blow off Goofy to get the autograph of a real All-Star. O Of course, maybe thats because the American Leagues most valuable closer isnt Mariano Rivera, Kazuhiro Sasaki or Troy Percival. Hes only a regular guy, No. 59 in your Detroit Tigers program. And his motto is: I am not a star. O This is a man who got so charged up when his boyhood idol, Dale Murphy, made eye contact with him in the middle of last Julys All-Star Game that he heaved his next pitch to the screen. This is a man who says his idea of the perfect player is uh, Rex Hudler? This is a man whose proudest article of baseball memorabilia is a collage of baseball cardsof guys hes played against. This is a man who hates the whole concept of stardom, because if you think like that, you dont do the things you have to do to maintain your edge.
And besides, says Todd Jones, if I was a star, I wouldnt be called the Roller Coaster.
The Roller Coaster, huh? No one knows exactly when the greatest closer nickname out there was born. All we know is that some night a few years back, Jones was sweating through another adventure-packed save. Up in the booth, a lightbulb went on in the mind of longtime Tigers announcer Ernie Harwell. I said, This guys the human roller coaster, Harwell recalls. Next thing Jones knew, thats what he wasthe Roller Coaster.
Certain baseball egomaniacs might have taken offense. But not Jones, 33. What the heck, he says of the handle. I earned it.
So not only does he cheerfully allow the fans of Detroit to call him the Roller Coaster, but on this night, a free night in spring training, hes trekked from Lakeland to Disney World to make a video for the Comerica Park scoreboard. A video of him ridingyou guessed ita roller coaster.
Its just before 7. Jones is wandering around outside MGMs Rock n Roller Coaster, trying to explain to the man from Disney that, yeah, its really him. He might look like an athlete at 6'3", 230. But his face is too gentle, his Alabama drawl too soft, for him to pass as one of those famous whacko closers.
Whats your name again? the Disney man asks.
Todd Jones, says our hero.
Todd who? the Disney man asks.
Our hero turns and winks, overwhelmed once more by the widespread nature of his fame. What, they dont follow the Rolaids standings?
The Disney man investigates, then directs Jones toward the back lot, where he changes into his Tigers home uniform for the video. Twenty minutes after the park has closed, hes strapped into the coasters front car, a camera mounted inches in front of him. All the while, hes apologizing to Rock n Roller Coaster employees for making them work OT . (You have to understand, says Tigers pitching coach Dan Warthen. Jonesys probably the nicest person youll ever meet in your life.)
For the next two minutes, Aerosmith pounds through the loudspeakers as the coaster flies, veers, twists, inverts and levitates through the darkness. Finally, back in right-side-up mode, it screeches to a halt. Now, laughs Jones, I know how my pitching coach feels.
For the record, Warthen says thats not how he feels: People before me felt like that. They didnt know what they were going to get from Jonesy. But since Ive been here, hes been great.
How great? Oh, merely great enough last year to save 42 of the Tigers 79 wins, the highest percentage (53.2%) of any closer in the American League. (Roller coaster that.) In one stretch, from May 2 to July 29, Jones was scored on precisely once: 32 appearances, 29 IP, 24 saves in 24 chances. (Roller coaster that.)
When the Tigers got the lead late, they won, because Jones wouldnt let them lose. Theres no better feeling in baseball, says Warthen, as a player, as a coach, as a manager, than to have that feeling you got when he came into the game.
Warthen became pitching coach midway through the 1999 season, when Jones coaster act was in almost constant operation. Of his 30 saves that year, only four went 1-2-3 in the ninth. But one day, the new pitching coach was in the bullpen before a game as Jones unleashed a pitch hed learned that wintersort ofat a banquet, of all places, from his friend, Phillies reliever Jeff Brantley.
Whats that? Warthen asked.
Slider, said Jones, trying to sound nonchalant.
You have a slider?
Sure, he said, lying through his goatee.
Thus committed, he added a slider to his existing repertoire: two-seam fastball, curve and changeup. Over the next season and a half, he had 68 save opportunities and converted 62a better mark than Riveras in the same period. (Roller coaster that.) But if life were as simple as adding a slider, what would be the challenge? Jones knows the real challenge lies deep inside, a long, long way from the slider grip: If youre really good, you dont need people to tell you all the time. It took me a long time to get to where I didnt need people to say, Youre good.
Baseball people once doubted Jones would ever reach this level. After all, hes not crazy enough, not mean enough, not cocky enough to be a closer. He may be from the Deep South, but hes nowhere near John Rocker.
In 1995, his second full year in the majors, Jones became a closer by default when, right before the All-Star break, erstwhile Astros relief ace John Hudek got hurt. Jones ERA was sub-2.00 at the time, so it seemed like a good ideaat least until his ERA ballooned to 6.20 over six summer weeks. They gave me the job, and I couldnt handle it, Jones says. I didnt understand what it was all about. Then, he says, chuckling, some mushballing lefthander came along, and they didnt need me anymore. That would be Billy Wagner.
Next destination: Detroit. There Tigers manager Buddy Bell anointed Jones the closer heading into the 1997 season. But in April, Jones blew three of his six save opportunities, bottoming out in one gruesome outing when he walked all three hitters he faced. Not surprisingly, Bell called Jones into his office for a little chat: Buddy said, Youve got great stuff, and Ive got a guy who can help you with the rest of it.
The guy was Cleveland Indians team psychologist Charlie Maher, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University who has worked with several MLB, NFL and NBA teams. Says Jones, I had the tools in my hand, but I didnt know what to do with them. Charlie told me, Your mind can be in only one of three placesthe past, the present or the future. To be effective, it has to be in the present. You need to be thinking: What do I have to do right now to make this pitch in this situation?
Once Jones internalized that message, he says, All the other stuff was out of the equation: Am I in Yankee Stadium? Whos up? Have I thrown four days in a row? That was out. Charlie helped me reduce everything to the lowest common denominator. Suddenly, all that Greek turned to English. Since then, Jones is 126-for-141 in save opportunities (through April 10), and closing is the coolest job going. Would you rather play Tiger Woods for a million bucks for one hole or 18 holes? he says. Gotta be one hole, because you might hit the shot of your life. Closings the same way. By the time they realize I have nothing, Im out of the inning.
Its a soggy August night in Detroit. The rain is pounding. About 77 people remain in the stands. And Todd Jones is trying to cheer them up. Hes just emerged from the clubhouse, where hes scooped up gum, candy and sunflower seeds from the players lounge. Now hes firing them into the seats. When those run out, he starts launching baseballs.
You think of Todd Jones as just the guy next door, says Doug Brocail, Jones longtime buddy and bullpen partner. Hes not a big name, because he wont let himself be a big name. The guys just different. He doesnt have an evil bone in his body.
As a kid, I just wanted to play in the majors and get a baseball card, Jones says. Beyond that, I dont need a thing. It comes down to the kind of person you are, the kind of father, the kind of husband. And to not taking yourself too seriously. When you take yourself too seriously, you hang onto what you are instead of who you are.
So who is Todd Jones? Father of Alex, 6, and Abigail, 3. Husband of Michelle, who met him at high-powered Jacksonville (Ala.) State, when I was driving a Gremlinwith no air. He still wears a mop-up mans number, 59, because, he says, it was the first big league number I ever got. And he still makes his home in exotic Pell City, Ala. (pop. 9,565), up the road from his alma mater.
Pell Citys the kind of place that keeps you humble, Jones says. If you dont play football at Alabama or Auburn, they dont care who you are.
Jones still writes a weekly column for The Birmingham News, for the exorbitant fee of nothing. (I just do it for my kids so theyll have a log of how I did.) After his first All-Star Game last July, he was asked what hed write about the experience. I pitched in the All-Star Game, Jones replied, and I didnt have a heart attack.
He uses words like awe to describe how he felt, hanging out in the same locker room as Jeter and A-Rod, Nomar and Ripken, Pedro and Pudge. Hes more like the guy sitting in Section 146 of Comerica Park, just beyond the foul pole, than the guy who nails down Tiger victories. His friends say its no act. Brocail: Hes real. Hell usually go talk to the littlest kid in the park, or the oldest man.
He might be too nice, says Warthen. He wants to be too many peoples friend. Not when he takes the mound. But before he gets there, he wants to say How ya doing? to fans, players, everybody.
Jones is living proof that baseball players can be genuine, levelheaded human beings. He stewed uncomfortably this spring when Gary Sheffield and Frank Thomas were sending messages that ballplayers look at $9 million a year as insulting. What Ive learned, Jones says, is that guys who play the game for money, they dont last.
Jones is in the middle of his own contract story. He has one year left on his deal. Spring training came and went, and an extension Tigers owner Mike Ilitch promised still wasnt done. But Jones never complained about making $3.975 million a year: If Ive got one more dollar a month than I need, Im fine. If Ive got $4 million in the bank or $40 million, whats the difference?
The Rock n Roller Coaster lurches to a stop for the fourth time in 20 minutes. Jones finally climbs out, his eyeballs spinning, but his head still very much screwed on straight. He poses for one more photo, standing at the base of a 40-foot guitar. Over the sound system, Simon and Garfunkel want to know, Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Finally, the Rock n Roller Coaster shuts down for the night. But the Roller Coaster rolls toward the back lot to change into T-shirt and shortshis regular-guy outfitthanking everyone he encounters along the way. todd Jones knows that even after you stop the coaster, you can still enjoy the ride.
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