The cheering starts the instant he steps from the shelter of the dugout, and it washes over him, wave upon wave, as he strides past each crowded section of the stadium. The people rise from their seats as he goes by, honoring him as if he were carrying the flag in a Bicentennial parade or bearing the Olympic torch. He does not look heroic. His face is plain and long-nosed, his curly hair unruly, and he walks in a shuffle reminiscent of period Henry Fonda. He acknowledges his worshipers by raising the fingers of his left—pitching—hand to the bill of his cap. When he reaches the bullpen in left field, he removes his jacket, and there is silence. Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres is about to warm up to pitch a baseball game.
John McNamara, the Padres' affable manager, sits in the dugout, smiling at the spectacle and spitting tobacco juice. "It happens every time," he says, expectorating onto the turf. "They cheer him even before he throws a ball." The 26-year-old Jones is the winningest pitcher in baseball this season, and on this warm evening last week in San Diego he would win his 14th game against only three losses. Even so, the reception seemed excessive. What is this hold that he has on the masses?
"It's the way he comes across," says McNamara. "He's a humble person, the underdog making good. People can relate to him. He's not that big in stature [6 feet, 180 pounds] and he is not overpowering on the mound. Randy's the common man's pitcher."
That's it, of course. Jones is to San Diegans a Mr. Deeds come to town, a John Doe to meet, a nice guy who outwits the slickers and wins the day. Fans are ordinarily drawn to the big strikeout pitchers, a Nolan Ryan or a Tom Seaver, whose sheer power holds them in awe. The so-called cunny-thumbers like Jones ordinarily are around only for the amusement of the purists. Jones, to borrow from Dizzy Dean's final assessment of his sore-armed self, "couldn't break a pane of glass" with his fastball. He retires batters by obliging them to hit his pitches to one of his infielders, a humdrum business at best. Nonetheless his popularity is unrivaled.
It was estimated that Sandy Koufax, when he was striking out all those hitters in the '60s, drew an extra 10,000 spectators to Dodger Stadium every time he started. The similarity between the pitching of Koufax and Jones ends with the fact that both are left-handed. Koufax' fastball was nearly 30 mph swifter than Jones', which has been clocked at a leisurely 73 mph. But Jones is the better drawing card. In his first dozen appearances at San Diego Stadium this season, he attracted crowds averaging 32,775. At Jonesless games, the Padres have drawn slightly more than 21,000.
One reason the faithful turn out in such unusual numbers is that Jones most often wins—and usually does so with dispatch. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who either perform interminable household chores on the mound or affix themselves to it like garden statues, Jones does not shilly-shally between pitches. And when he does throw the ball it is normally a strike. On June 22 he tied a 63-year-old National League record set by Christy Mathewson when he completed 68 consecutive innings without issuing a base on balls. Even when Jones is not throwing strikes, his uncanny sinkerball arrives at the plate looking like one. Then it plummets, so that even the mightiest hitters are reduced to topping rollers to the infield.
And Jones rarely requires succor from the bullpen, with all the tedium—conferences, auto trips and the like—such emergencies entail. In his first 20 starts this season he had 14 complete games, throwing an average of only 105 pitches in each.
The result of all these time-saving factors is that the average Jones game takes only two hours and two minutes, a fact that adds to his popularity with teammates and opponents alike, because he leaves them ample time after the game for dinner, cocktails and associated goings on. Jones' 3-1 win over the Reds last week was vintage stuff. He allowed only six hits, walked two batters (one intentionally) and induced the Cincinnati strongboys, against whom he now has a 7-4 career record, to hit a dozen ground outs. The time of the game was one hour and 49 minutes.
At his present clip Jones could arrive at the All-Star Game with the most impressive record since Don Newcombe of Brooklyn showed up there in 1956 with 18 wins and one loss. There is already talk of a 30-victory season, conversation which Jones, ever unassuming, diligently tries to suppress. But the speculation persists. Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner, had a record of 16-2 at the mid-season break in 1968. With a week still to go before this year's All-Star Game, Jones had won 15 times, including a 5-2 victory over the Dodgers that followed his win against the Reds last week.
If Jones avoids injury—and receives a modicum of good fortune—his chances for 30 would seem reasonably good, because he clearly is no half-season wonder. He won 20 games last year while losing 12, and led the league with an ERA of 2.24.
It would stand to reason, then, that Jones' opponents should have the profoundest respect for him. But Mike Schmidt, the Philadelphia slugger, recently was quoted as saying of Jones, "If I were a pitcher, I'd be embarrassed to go out to the mound with that kind of stuff." That kind of stuff has twice shut out the Phillies this year. Cincy's Pete Rose was reportedly so impatient with Jones' low, soft ones that he stepped out of the batter's box and bellowed, "Why don't you go warm up, then come back and throw the ball?" Merv Rettenmund, now Jones' teammate but a Red last season, confirms that there was much anti-Jones sentiment in the Cincinnati clubhouse. "They'd say, 'I've never seen a guy throw so bad. We'll get him next time.' Next time he'd win again."
Rose, for one, now professes nothing but admiration for Jones' pitching. "Randy's no fluke," he says. "Sure, I yell at pitchers occasionally, but I'm not about to run down a guy with his record. The other pitchers should take him as an example of somebody who gets the most out of what he has."
Rose paid Jones an unusual nonverbal compliment last week. A switch hitter, Rose ordinarily steps up right-handed against lefties, but against Jones he reasoned that he might have a better chance hitting left-handed, especially because he was 4 for 29 right-handed against him. Only once before had Rose flown in the face of the lefty-righty percentages. He did it for one at bat facing former Dodger screwballer Jim Brewer. Rose batted lefty four times against Jones, grounding out twice, striking out and walking "Left-handed, right-handed, cross-handed, he still gets you out," Rose said after the failed experiment.
Padre Pitching Coach Roger Craig holds Jones' detractors in contempt. "Randy has three outstanding pitches—a sinker, a slider and a curve—and he usually needs only two," he says. "He never throws the ball straight, but he has the best control of any pitcher in the game. The sinker is unusual in that it breaks late; it looks like a fastball down the middle before it drops four to eight inches. And Randy turns it over so that it breaks a little like a screwball. To a right-handed hitter, the sinker breaks down and away and the slider down and in. If you're looking for the sinker, no way you're gonna hit the slider."
Away from the madding crowd, Jones remains in character—a nice guy who married his high school sweetheart (the former Marie Stassi) and who would rather cuddle his 18-month-old daughter Staci and romp with his Brittany spaniels, Sweets and Sandy, than hear people tell him how wonderful he is. He is even an early riser, particularly on days following a win. "A win you want to savor as long as you can, so I don't sleep well on those nights," he says. "Losing is such a letdown, I go right out. I got a lot of sleep in 1974."
It is typical of Jones that he often draws notice to his 8-22 record in '74, his first full season in the big leagues. When praise tumbles promiscuously down on his curly head, he only has to recall that lamentable season to regain his equilibrium. "It's not hard to stay humble," he says humbly. "Twenty-two losses will do that for you. Besides, I don't particularly care to change my personality. I can see how some people would change, though. You can be leading a simple life with not too much exposure, then it all explodes in your face. All of a sudden you have no private life."
To preserve his private life, Jones retreats to the four-bedroom Spanish-style house he owns in Poway, a determinedly rural community about 25 miles north of San Diego. "This is my privacy," he says. "Here I keep a low profile. I never thought any of this would happen to me. If somebody had told me when I was a kid that I'd have a house like this and a life like this, I'd have said, 'No way.' "
Jones, who grew up in the Orange County, Calif. town of Brea, was hardly considered a hot property as a youngster. He hurt his arm pitching in high school and lost his fastball altogether while playing for Chapman College, also in Orange County. He earned a degree in business and was preparing to enter the world of commerce when the Padres drafted him and signed him for a $3,000 bonus. The scouts, he reasons, recognized his "other qualities"—a willingness to work and steely determination. Even the modest Jones acknowledges that he possesses these traits.
As he sees it, his only problem in this superb season is avoiding self-imposed pressures. "I was cruising along fine at the start of this season," Jones says, "then after I'd won a few I started looking ahead, thinking about how many I could win. That's not my style. I must stay relaxed. If I'm too anxious, pressing too hard, I defeat my purpose. For one thing, my sinker works best when I throw it at slower speeds. I don't get the movement on the ball when I overthrow."
Jones is a most unlikely hero and a most likable one. In the opinions of his teammates, coaches and manager, his extraordinary success has left him unfazed. "He's the same person who lost 22 games two years ago," says McNamara, who has seen more than one impressionable young head turned by public acclaim.
Three years ago the Padres very nearly moved to Washington before Owner Ray Kroc convinced San Diegans that a baseball team is worth having. Now Jones is convincing them that they also may have a winner, and San Diego, which, according to the old saw, is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean, the east by the desert, the south by Mexico and the north by the Dodgers, is fast becoming one of the more rabid baseball towns. In third place, six games behind the division-leading Reds, the Padres had drawn only a few thousand short of a million customers by the end of last week. On the field, they are much improved over previous dead-last editions. The outfield is strong, with Johnny Grubb in left, Willie Davis, still a speedster at 36 years of age, in center, and 6'6" Rightfielder Dave Winfield, who leads San Diego with 50 RBIs. And the addition of Third Baseman Doug Rader from Houston has considerably tightened an infield that includes the steady-hitting (.287) Second Baseman Tito Fuentes. Dave Freisleben (6-3) and Brent Strom (8-7) are solid young pitchers who back up Jones. "As the personnel gets better, the easier it gets to manage," says McNamara.
It is particularly easy every fourth day when Jones steps forward to accept the roar of the crowd. Says San Diego Union Sports Editor Jack Murphy, "This town never before had a figure like Randy Jones." Nor, he should be reminded, has any other city.