It's not as if the Cincinnati Reds, the oldest team in professional baseball, haven't had their share of brash stars and talented newcomers--Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, George Foster and Dave Parker have won most valuable player awards just in the last 25 years.
But rookie Tracy Jones is rapidly carving his own niche. The former Lawndale High three-sport star, only three years removed from Loyola Marymount University, returned to his hometown as a major leaguer for the first time last week. Though he sat out the Dodger Stadium series with a pulled hamstring, Jones made it clear he intends to stay in the big leagues.
The rookie outfielder, a non-roster player at the start of spring training, was a surprise opening-day starter and was leading the Reds in batting with a .339 average (and a .397 on-base percentage) when the leg injury put him on the disabled list a few weeks ago.
It isn't only Jones' statistics that are impressive. One Reds beat writer said last week that he couldn't remember a player breaking in with such verve and enthusiasm since, well, maybe Rose himself.
Mighty Like a Rose
Rose, the Reds player-manager and resident legend, said that while he and Jones are different types of players, the rookie's attitude does indeed remind him of himself. Rose said the biggest problem in trying to get Jones' leg injury healed comes because "like me, you just can't get him to take it easy."
Gregg Hoard, who covers the Reds for the Cincinnati Enquirer, said Jones is "probably the most quotable young player I've ever been around. I think even the team is surprised by his freshness. He's not like what the modern ballplayer has become. You can't not like Tracy."
So Jones doesn't blush when he says things like:
- "I owe a lot to Pete. I try to play like Pete. I play real hard. I play 100%, and not everybody up here does. It's a thrill to be playing for your idol."
- "With this injury I don't feel like I'm earning my keep. I want to play. I didn't come here to sit on the bench."
- "I don't want to come up here (to the majors) and be an average ballplayer. I'm only going to get better. I'm going to work at it. I'm going to work harder than anybody."
Veteran third baseman Buddy Bell, sitting at the next locker, good-naturedly complained, "Jeez, how much more of this do we have to listen to?" And teammates joined in on the razzing, but--corny or not--there's no mistaking that Jones means what he says. And that he's popular with teammates, despite his fledgling status.
(When the brash Rose made his debut in 1963 and replaced a well-liked veteran, he was shunned by most of the Reds. He has always gone out of his way to welcome rookies.)
After earning all-Southern California Baseball Assn. honors with a .391 average, Jones signed out of Loyola in 1983 as a first-round choice in the secondary draft. He split that season between Reds' lower farm teams in Eugene, Ore., and Tampa, Fla. By the end of the season, he said, he was down to 160 pounds, about 10 pounds below his college weight, on a 6-3 frame.
To avoid wearing down during the season, he went on a rigorous weightlifting program that winter. "Lots of peanut butter sandwiches," he said with a grin. "I made a commitment to give it my best shot and build myself up. A friend got me in the weight room and worked me every day for six months. You'd be surprised how people look at you different when you're big. Before, I was batting sixth or seventh. Suddenly, I'm batting third and fourth."
More Muscle, New Stance
A 200-pound Jones reported to Tampa in 1984 and combined his new muscle with a new, odd-looking stance--in which his hands are held so close to his body they are nearly touching his chest--to bat .309 and steal 24 bases in 25 tries before he broke his hand and missed the second half of the season.
He started the 1985 season in AA Vermont, got off to an Eastern League-leading .317 start with 26 steals in 75 games and was promoted to AAA Denver, where he batted .337, hit 10 home runs and stole 20 bases in only 51 games.
Going to spring training this year, however, Jones was a dark horse to make a Reds team that was coming off a second-place finish in 1985 and had three top-rated outfield prospects: Eric Davis, Kal Daniels and Paul O'Neill. However, none had a spot clinched in the mind of Rose, who had never seen Jones play. A barrel-chested Jones showed up ready to play at 217 pounds.
"When I go to spring training most everybody has a chance," Rose said last week. "You go to spring training with an open mind. He definitely had a good spring."
'Pete Gave Me the Chance'
Jones said he "kind of had a feeling" he would be sent back to Denver. "All you heard in the spring was Kal Daniels and Paul O'Neill. But last year I had the best stats in the organization except for Parker (the Reds outfielder led the National league in runs batted in and was second in MVP voting). No one had the year I had in double-A and triple-A. Pete gave me the chance, and I thought if he just watched me I'd make him keep me. He stuck his neck out for me. I said, 'Pete, I won't let you down.' "
Daniels and O'Neill found it hard to keep up with the hustling Jones. Rose wound up trading a veteran to keep all four young outfielders on the roster. Daniels and O'Neill were eventually sent back to Denver.
Sportswriter Hoard said Jones "made the team keep four young outfielders. He made the team keep him. O'Neill probably outhit him in the spring, but nobody outplayed him, the way he worked and hustled."
Jones, maintaining a playing weight of 210 pounds, hasn't hit with exceptional power yet but Rose predicted he will be "a pesky hitter who gets on base and makes things happen. His approach to the game is very similar (to Rose's). He hates to lose. He loves to play hard. He's very hyper."
Improving as Outfielder
Jones, a third baseman at Loyola, has also become a respectable outfielder and expects to get better. "I love the outfield. I never felt I was an infielder. The outfield is a lot closer to my personality. And I've made only one error in three years--and that was on a foul ball where I had to run about 100 yards."
Jones may have been destined for the big leagues. The son of a former Red Sox farm player, Jim Jones, he's the oldest of three talented brothers. Middle brother Terry was recently released by the Angels organization and is talking to other clubs, and youngest brother Heath, who just finished his sophomore year at El Segundo High, is being watched by scouts.
A lot of friends and family came out to see the Reds last week, though they could only watch Jones jog and take batting practice. He hoped to be back in the lineup this week.
Will success spoil Tracy Jones? "I really enjoy it," he says of life in the major leagues. "You get used to it. Some guys get spoiled. I hope one day to really come here an established major league player, like a Buddy Bell and a Dave Parker. It's how hard you work. Everybody up here has talent. Look at Pete. He made himself better by hard work. He makes me play harder, just being around him."