Tuesday September 8th, 2015

WOODINVILLE, Wash.—It’s August, and the Mariners are on TV, which means Evelyn Jones has settled into her favorite chair, remote nearby, the volume cranked way up. The closest wall is lined with bobbleheads, a yellow toy train from a Felix Hernandez promotion and a baseball nestled inside a plastic case.

This is not just any baseball, but an important, historic, official Major League baseball that Jones lobbed exactly once July 11. That day, she donned the team jersey she wore inside her apartment a month later. That’s her name stitched across the back. And there’s a number, three digits: 108.

“You’re from Sports Illustrated?” she asks.

Pause.

“I suppose you’re not here for the swimsuit edition.”

SI was there because Jones had thrown out the first pitch at that Mariners game: from near home plate, on her birthday, in front of thousands who showered her with cheers.  She did so on the 101st anniversary of Babe Ruth’s first major league pitch, and that’s the thing about Jones and her story and a routine toss now viewed almost 60,000 times on YouTube. She was alive when Ruth embarked on his Hall of Fame career.

The number on her jersey? That’s her age. One hundred and eight.

Hers is a story about baseball. And a story about hope.

Jones turned back to the game. Mariners against the Orioles, in yet another lost campaign, the 39th-straight year without a championship, their last postseason appearance 15 seasons ago. Pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma had yet to allow a run through three innings. “She has one rule here when the Mariners are on,” said her caretaker, Donna Jansen. “Don’t interrupt the game. Or she’ll throw you out.”

She made an exception, as she and her daughter, Kay Vea, told the broad strokes of her life story between pitches. Born in Leahy, in central Washington, in 1907. Born before the Titanic and Woodstock and computers and email. Born before the Seattle Mariners came into existence in 1977. She was 70 at that time.

Jones grew up in Almira, population roughly 280, on a wheat and cattle farm of more than 3,000 acres. Her grandparents had emigrated from Wales.

Work started as soon as Jones could walk. She milked eight cows by hand twice daily. She drove the wheat truck and toiled in the fields.

She also played basketball and rode horses, only, because she was a combination of tomboy and daredevil, she would ride the horses while standing on their backs, or turned backward, or standing and turned backward. One time, she decided it would be a good idea to catch hold of a new colt. It kicked her. “She had a big horseshoe on her stomach,” Vea said.

“It’s a wonder it didn’t kill her,” she added.

Jones laughed at the recollection, at cheating death.

That was about a century ago.

Iwakuma continued to roll on the screen in front of her. Four innings, no runs, no hits.

Jones remembers what it’s like to ride in a buggy. She screamed the first time. She had never been in anything that moved that fast.

It went 15 miles an hour.

Another time, rabid coyotes chased Jones on her way home from the ice-skating rink. She slid under a barbed-wire fence to safety.

All of which is to say that no one in Jones’s family expected her to live long enough to become the oldest person to throw out a first pitch in the history of Major League Baseball. “Nobody,” she said. Self included.

She grew up a sports fan. In her family it was practically required. Sometimes, they watched the Spokane Indians play minor-league baseball. At night, they listened to sports radio broadcasts.

Jones met her soul mate in Almira. His name was Stanley, and he asked her to dance one Saturday at the local community hall. After they got hitched, they sashayed almost every Saturday night for the 55 years they were married, even imbibing with an alcoholic beverage or three. “I recuperated on Sundays,” Jones said.

Stanley died in 1983 of cancer. Evelyn never remarried. She never wanted to. “I already had the best,” she said.

Jones traveled after that, visiting Boston and Washington and Hawaii. She went to Wales to learn more about her heritage.

The rest of her time went to baseball and her beloved Mariners. Sometimes, they even won. She treasured the mid-1990s in particular, and all those icons: Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. They came so close.

Jones gardened. She canned fruits. She ate beef and wheat toast and vegetables. She never dieted, but she didn’t consume processed or junk food, either. She baked her own bread until recently and walked three miles a day for most of her life—until age 96.

She did crossword puzzles. She watched Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy and every Mariners game she could find on TV. All that kept her going. Especially baseball. It’s what she looked forward to each night.

Iwakuma finished the sixth inning against the Orioles. He still had not allowed a hit. “Looking good,” Jones said, not wanting to jinx it.

Her mother lived until age 89, her father until 95, an uncle until 104. When Jones turned 105, her family compiled a book about her life and held a party, with steak and scallops on the menu. Jones even danced.

Jones hosts family every Sunday at the assisted living facility where she lives. There’s a rotating cast of her grandchildren (seven), great-grandchildren (nine) and great-great grandchildren (four) in attendance. Every week, she picks up the tab.

She did almost everything herself until about six months ago, when Jansen, a hospice nurse, started to assist. She brings Jones coffee and makes her breakfast and cleans the apartment and watches baseball. The first time Jansen made Jones’s bed, Jones told her, “That’s the first time in 100 years I haven’t made my own.”

It was Jansen’s son who told the Mariners about Jones’s story, and then it happened. The call. The plan. The Mercedes van that showed up at the retirement home to whisk Jones and all five generations of her family to Safeco Field.

The Mariner Moose presented Jones with a cake and all the souvenirs that line the wall in her apartment. The family watched the game from a suite. And before the toss, Hernandez asked Jones if there was anything he could do for her.

“I want a hug,” she said.

“I do, too,” he responded.

“I’m never washing my hands,” Jones said. “Or my waist.”

People at the game kept asking: What did she want? Her response never changed: a win. The Mariners delivered. As Jones left the stadium, fans sought pictures. And selfies. And autographs.

Before Jones, the oldest person believed to have thrown a first pitch was Agnes McKee, who did so last season at a Padres game at age 105. “She probably has a hitman out for mother now,” Vea cracked.

News of Jones’s pitch reached as far as Australia and Japan. Everyone wanted to know her secret. “Keep having birthdays,” she told them.

Iwakuma went on to throw a no-hitter in the game against the Orioles. Jones watched, mostly silent. This game, like the perfect golf swing, was what kept her coming back. That’s one thing she loves about baseball. The promise of every season, even for a Mariners fan.

I pulled up the video on my cell phone. Jones viewed it for the first time, giggling throughout, studying her form. City officials had called her earlier that day. They wanted her to ride in a parade that weekend. She wasn’t sure. It had been an exciting summer. But an exhausting one at that. A week later, a heart attack sent her to the hospital. She was released in early September.

She told the city officials the same thing she says about the Mariners.

“There’s always next year.”

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