A MINOR DELAY
Tough to imagine that a player who was drafted four different times, won two minor league home run derbies and hit .357 his senior year of college hadn’t played a game in the major leagues until age 31.
Tough to imagine that player, Dodgers outfielder Mitch Jones, spent seven years in the minor leagues and two more playing professionally in Japan. Even now that he’s been called up, however, he still has goals.
“I just want to be a part of the club and do things to help the club win,” he said.
Jones was drafted four times, but didn’t sign until after his senior year at Arizona State, when the Yankees took him in the seventh round in 2000. He hit .268 with 11 home runs in Class A that year and led the league in home runs, total bases, slugging percentage, extra-base hits and doubles. He said he didn’t have any thoughts about how long it would take to reach the major leagues.
“I didn’t come in with a thought process as far as that went,” he said. “I took care of what I could take care of on the field and hopefully the rest of the stuff would fall into place.
“Obviously, it took a little longer than I would have expected.”
In 2004 he won the double-A home run derby and he took the triple-A home run derby crown in 2005. Still no call-up. But he wasn’t fazed.
“At some point I just put it out of my mind that I can do what I can control and that’s about it,” he said.
In 2006, he finally got word that the Yankees had called him up -- only to sit on the bench and be sent down the next day. That one game helped plant a seed, though.
“It didn’t change my mental process too much,” he said. “I was just up short term but it gave me a little bit of a taste. I knew that I wanted to come back at some point. I took that detour to Japan but I always knew I’d like to come back if possible.”
That detour to Japan, which he took with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2007, was a family decision, he said. He encountered cultural differences, he said, but the quality of play was comparable to that in the States.
“There’s a big break, like a halftime show almost, in the middle of these Japanese games, a lot of the guys smoking in the dugouts,” he said. “Talent-wise, there are as many good ballplayers over there.”
Jones played in the 2007 and 2008 seasons with the Fighters before they released him.
Jones isn’t the only player to wait his turn before rising to the majors. Mets reliever Ken Takahashi, 40, made his major league debut this spring. Takahashi spent 14 seasons playing in Japan.
During Dodgers spring training this year, Jones hit four home runs in 36 at-bats. When the Dodgers called him up, he was tied for the Pacific Coast League lead with 21 home runs and had hit .292 with the triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes. In his first at-bat Tuesday night, he struck out but received an ovation from the crowd.
Wednesday, he hit a pinch-hit single in the eighth inning off of Oakland’s Brad Ziegler.
“Obviously it was a moment you dream about. I always think about getting that first hit,” he said. “I thought that it would be a sharper single than it was, but a hit’s a hit. It’s exciting.”
Now on to more pressing matters, such as helping the Dodgers win, which Jones said was the goal in the first place.
“That’s what it’s always been about,” he said. “It’s nice to get some of those firsts out of the way, but after that it’s just about participating, being a part of it and trying to show that you belong.”
Manager Joe Torre said that, depending on the pitching matchup, he plans to use Jones as a designated hitter in this weekend’s series against the Angels.
“I think tomorrow he’ll go, probably DH,” Torre said. “I haven’t settled in on it, but with the left-hander going that probably will be what I’ll do.”