A sports era ended in Detroit this week. Perhaps you heard of it. It was a time that had people wringing their hands and double-checking the supply of antacid in their medicine cabinets. Sports talk radio just got a little quieter.
One of the city’s perceived athletic villains is no more.
No, this isn’t about Matt Millen, the ex-Lions president who was “relieved of his duties” on Wednesday. I only have about 900 words left, after all.
Todd Jones isn’t a roller coaster, but he played one on the baseball diamond.
They say Ernie Harwell gave Jones the nickname.
“Here comes Roller Coaster Jones,” Ernie supposedly said into his microphone, back in the earlier days of Jones’s Tigers career. Because with Jones, the closer and the Tigers’ all-time leader in saves who retired on Thursday, it was hardly ever three up and three down in the ninth. It was up and down and around and down and up and across and down – and then the Tigers were on the field, shaking hands after Jones put everyone through the ringer.
Just like a roller coaster. It was yet another of Ernie’s apt nicknames.
But there’s great irony in the moniker, because if ever there is someone who’s so NOT a roller coaster, as a person, it’s Todd Jones.
Why in the world someone would want to be a closer for a baseball team, I’ll never know. You sit in the bullpen for eight innings, sometimes freezing your fanny off, and then, after some two-and-a-half hours of your team clawing and fighting, you’re asked to warm up and, basically, you’ll have one of two outcomes by the time the game is over: hero or goat. Nothing in between. Sometimes a minion will hand the closer a warm up jacket as he departs the bullpen for the pitching mound; he might as well hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.
You save the game for your team, or you blow it. No gray areas. And no one cares if a couple of the base hits were of the bloop variety, or that the umpire squeezed the strike zone, or your shortstop couldn’t come up with the ground ball that had “game-ending double play” written all over it. If you need to get four outs instead of three thanks to your team’s leaky defense, then so be it. Just do it.
It’s a job that has destroyed lesser men than Jones. Literally.
Donnie Moore was the California Angels’ closer in 1986. His team was on the brink of going to the World Series, about ready to nail the coffin shut on the Boston Red Sox. Moore was one out away from saving the clinching game in the ALCS that year. He entered Game 5 in the top of the ninth with a one-run lead and a man on first base. But then Boston’s Dave Henderson drilled a home run off Moore deep into the left field seats, and the Red Sox moved in front, 6-5. The Angels tied the game in their half of the ninth, but the Red Sox won it in extra innings. And they would rally to win the ALCS in seven games.
Games 6 and 7 wouldn’t have been necessary, if only Donnie Moore hadn’t given up that home run. Or so it was written, and talked about, and screamed and cried about, in the days that ensued. Boston’s Bill Buckner and his horrific gaffe a couple weeks later in the World Series took Moore off the front pages. Or so we thought.
Moore let the Henderson home run haunt him. Terrorize him, really. The fans and the media were no help, of course – but then, they never are in situations like that. Moore pitched the 1987 and ’88 seasons, but with not nearly the effectiveness as his pre-Henderson home run days. The Angels released their one-time closer in August, ’88.
Then one July morning in 1989, another baseball season in full swing, the news came in: Donnie Moore was dead. Of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 35. Think about that for a moment. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
So don’t tell me that pitchers who close baseball games aren’t a little goofy, to want to do something as thankless as that.
Todd Jones heard it all in Detroit, especially during his second stint here, which began in 2006 and ended with Thursday’s announcement.
He stinks! He’s costing us! He couldn’t close a door!
Get rid of him!
Jones, you see, wasn’t the prototypical closer by the time he returned to Detroit in his late-thirties. He was, as they say, a pitcher who “pitches to contact”, which is a nice way of saying, “he couldn’t strike out Stevie Wonder even if you spotted Jonesey an 0-2 count.” Jones’s style was to let the batter hit the ball, and hope for the best. That’s not as ill-conceived as it reads. His control was usually pretty good, so you didn’t have to worry about walks. And, he was usually ahead in the count, which meant he held the upper hand in numerous at-bats. But he wasn’t the brute who storms into the game, treating the affair with disdain and acting as if the opposing hitters are making him late for a date with a Playboy bunny after the game. Jones didn’t have that closer’s scowl or the temperament of a hibernating bear being nudged awake. In fact, the way he chewed his gum so fervently on the mound, you got the impression that he was just as nervous as we were. He wasn’t Don Quixote. He was Don Knotts.
Jones closed games as if he was waiting for everyone who had been in line at the concessions, or in the little boys room, to return to their seats, so as not to miss the final out. He didn’t know the meaning of one-two-three, unless it was in terms of how many base runners he was going to surrender before finally ending the matter.
Now, about that irony of which I spoke earlier.
If Jones was a roller coaster on the field, he was a Ferris Wheel in the clubhouse: slow, comfortable, and reliable.
Part of the closer’s job is to field questions from the media, especially when things don’t turn out so well. Then you’re staring at a bunch of bottom feeders in the face who want to know, “Hey, what happened out there?”
I’ve been one of those bottom feeders, and I can tell you that Jones never ran and hid from any of us. If he stunk, he said he stunk. No excuses. No sugar-coating. And no flashes of anger, even after some obnoxiously stupid questions. He manned up.
Oh, and I should tell you that, a few years ago, Todd Jones helped set up a trust fund for a paralyzed high school football player in Jones’s native Georgia. Paid for a new wheelchair ramp and everything for the kid’s home. Jones said that watching the young man battle his horrible misfortune gave him pause.
But you probably didn’t read about that, did you?
Well, now you have.