Jones Has Real Shot at Padres, by Golly

Times Staff Writer

When Jimmy Jones entered his first big league clubhouse, he said, "Gooool-eeeee!" Basically, that's his favorite word, but he needs to stop saying it so often.

Jimmy Jones was drafted ahead of Dwight Gooden, and that's the problem. Gooden became Dr. K by the time he was 19, while Jones spent much of his time visiting a real doctor. Jones' dream has always been to pitch in the major leagues ("Since I was 5," he said), but he kept injuring his knee or his ankle or his arm and then he kept psyching himself out. He says he'd come to spring training and see the big league clubhouse and wonder, "Golly, it's great here! But Gooden's in the big leagues, and I'm not. Did the Padres make a mistake in drafting me?"

This obsession to get to the big leagues and outdo Gooden was a big detriment to Jones, who is 22. He would be pitching in some minor league stadium, and he says he would actually be thinking on the mound, "Golly, I want to get to the big leagues." And you don't get there by dreaming about it.

But then came his dream game, and nothing's been the same since. It was last year in Houston, in his home state. It was going to be his first major league start.

He couldn't sleep the night before. He went to bed early, but he gave the pillow a workout (punching it and so forth). Finally, he was out of bed by 6 a.m., peering out the hotel window.

"I was saying, 'When is it going to be daylight?' " Jones said.

Turns out the lack of sleep helped him relax.

"I was still pumped up, but a controlled psyched up," he said. "I was tired. But if I'd had eight or 10 hours' sleep I would have been saying, 'Let's go! Let's go!' I would have been knocked out in the first inning."

Turns out he pitched a one-hitter against the division-leading Astros.

Bob Knepper, the Houston pitcher, had the only hit--a ball that sailed just beyond center fielder Kevin McReynolds' glove.

"Golly, I'm glad they got a hit, because I'd have been gray-headed by the end of that game," said Jones, a 6-foot 2-inch right-hander. "If I'd been working on a no-hitter, I'd have probably done worse at the end. When they got a hit, there was no pressure on me."

Suddenly he was on the brink--of his big league dream. In his next outing, against Cincinnati, he lasted only two innings (a no-decision). But then he beat the Dodgers with a three-hitter.

During the winter, he pitched in Puerto Rico. Tom Romenesko, the Padre farm director, took him on a walk.

"It's up to you now, Jimmy," Romenesko told him. "Stop worrying about who's your manager, who you got to impress, who makes the final decision on the rotation. It's you against the batter. That's it."

You've got to understand Jones' past to understand the situation, though. At Thomas Jefferson High School in Dallas, Jones went 14-3 as a senior. Jack McKeon, the Padre general manager, saw him strike out 17 batters in one game. Sandy Johnson, then the Padre scouting director, liked Jones better than Gooden.

"Sandy had seen all those guys, and he was the scouting director, and--in his opinion--this kid Jones was the best," McKeon said. "They liked Jones better (than Gooden). But it doesn't mean anything, because how do you know? Anytime you look at a high school kid you see the good arm but you don't know whether he'll put it all together or develop or stay healthy? Listen, we' re happy with him (Jones). In the long run, he may just be as good."

Jones' problem is that he tends to pout if he thinks an umpire blows a call or if anything else goes wrong. Another problem is that he tends to rely on his fastball too much. In high school, he threw in the mid-90s. But in the Houston game he was throwing more changeups and more breaking balls and had uncanny location.

He says he tends to think too much on the mound. In other words, rather than just throwing, he starts wondering what the hitter is wondering. Larry Bowa, his manager at Triple-A last year, kept yelling for him to cut that out and "just throw!"

Jones has had a frustrating past. In 1983, he had tendinitis in his arm; in 1984, he tore ligaments in his ankle while running before a game; in 1985, he hurt his left knee.

"I thought about Dwight a lot," Jones said. "A whole lot. He was 19 and blowing people away, and I'm hurt. You see what he's doing, and I'm home with a cast on watching the All-Star game.

"Golly, it got to me. But then I saw guys' stats on the back of bubble-gum cards, and these were pitchers who didn't break in until they were 25 or 26.

"Well, it got to me at first. I'd say, 'Did the Padres choke (in drafting him) or what? I always heard the rumors like that, and I asked myself, 'Well, did they?'

"But I won those two games last year (in September), and I said, 'I can still pitch.' "

For the first time, Jones has a shot at the Padres' starting rotation. On Sunday, he started their 4-2 exhibition victory over the Angels and gave up three hits and one run in three innings.

"Last year during spring training, I saw in USA Today that the Padres had already named the 10 pitchers that would break camp with them," Jones said. "You see that and you're saying, 'Why am I here? To collect meal money?'

"But, golly, it's a great feeling now. The last two springs it's been like, 'Jones, you're in the B game' or 'Jones, you're a backup in the A game.' This year is a whole different thing. And I love this challenge. I know if I have to go back to Triple-A, it's because of me."

With him, it's a confidence thing. He lacks it. But his wife, Judy, has helped. She tells him "to keep the fire in my eyes," he said. And she's at every game, sitting behind the plate. She called the Padre office here to complain that all the seats in the front row behind the plate were taken. Last year, she used to drive from Las Vegas to Phoenix to watch him throw on the road. She throws a fist in the air when he strikes somebody out.

McKeon laughs at them, because at a Padre organizational dinner last week Jones held hands with Judy the entire time. He could eat only with his right hand, because the other one was occupied.

After he pitched the one-hitter in Houston, he saw her near the team bus and said: "Gooool-eeeee! Can you believe it?" Then they hugged for minutes, which delayed the bus from leaving.

But nobody interrupted them.

Padre Notes

In the Padre victory over the Angels Sunday, second baseman Joey Cora had two hits, scored two runs, had an RBI and stole a base. On Saturday, Manager Larry Bowa had lectured Cora on his lack of concentration. Bowa says that Cora has a "heck of a chance" to make the team. . . . Pitchers Ed Vosberg (who gave up one hit in two innings), Joe Bitker (who allowed no hits in two innings) and Craig Lefferts (who allowed three hits and one run and had two strikeouts in two innings) impressed Bowa as well. Outfielder Shawn Abner had a double, infielder Bip Roberts went 1 for 1 and James Steels went 1 for 1 with an RBI. . . . The Padres face Seattle and former Padre Manager Dick Williams today at 12:05 in Tempe. Ed Whitson will be the starting Padre pitcher, followed by Eric Show and Brian Snyder.

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