The Times West Virginian

July 20, 2009

HERTZEL COLUMN - Jones becomes instant smash with Pirates

By Bob Hertzel

MORGANTOWN — Garrett Jones is an overnight sensation … 10 years in the making.

His Pittsburgh Pirates career has started the way their fans like it, taking off like a Zambelli fireworks show, sending rocket after rocket to all parts of whatever stadium tries to hold him.

Fourteen games into his Pirates career, after getting so much seasoning in the minor leagues his nickname ought to be Lawry, he has seven home runs.

And these are not just your run-of-the-mill home runs.

Take the one he hit in Philadelphia. It cleared the “batter’s eye” background in straightaway centerfield at Citizens Bank Park. Only two people have hit balls there.

One is named Garrett Jones.

The other Ryan Howard.

Or the first of two he hit on Friday night. That came off Tim Lincecum.

He owns last year’s Cy Young Award and may win this year’s.

But Jones has him in his book.

And then there was the one he hit later in that game … much later.

This came in the 14th inning. It took two bounces and jumped into the Allegheny River, where only 27 other home runs have floated away.

Who is this guy, Roy Hobbs?

Only one Pirate has more than his seven home runs. His name is Adam LaRoche. He has 12 and all it’s taken him is 260 more at bats to hit those five additional home runs.

The thing about Garrett Jones is he looks the part that he is playing.

Perhaps the most noticeable thing about his walk-off homer on Friday night, other than the celebration of the arrival of the man who may save the season for the Pirates, was his size. He towered above those jumping up and down around him, looking almost like a Little League manager, surrounded by his players, after winning in Williamsport.

They list him at 6-foot-4 but he seems an inch or two taller.

Especially with a bat in his hands.

And get this. He’s as modest as he is strong.

“That one felt pretty good, but honestly, it felt best because we got a win, how everyone contributed,” he said after the 14th inning blast.

Jack Armstrong — the All-American boy, not the former Cincinnati pitcher — couldn’t have said it better.

Mom, home, apple pie and Garrett Jones.

He was caught up forever in the Minnesota Twins’ system, compiling only a career .258 minor league average, although he displayed enough power to reach 30 home runs twice.

He is a rookie, yes, but one 28 years of age.

"Honestly, my age isn't something I think about," Jones has said. "The way I feel about my age, I feel great physically, and I know there are a lot of years left for me."

But you wonder why it took so long and you know you’ve seen others come along and explode upon the major leagues only to fade from sight almost immediately.

The closest example is Kevin Maas, who made his major league debut on June 29, 1990, for the New York Yankees and used only 72 at bats to reach 10 home runs, the fewest in history. He finished that first year with 21 homers in 79 games but on the way to becoming the next Mickey Mantle he became the next Roberto Kelly. He was back in the minors by 1992, released by the Yankees by 1994.

How many others were there? Karl Spooner came to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1954, pitching a pair of shutouts in his first two starts, giving up seven hits in 18 innings. He struck out the first six batters he faced, 15 in his first game. His arm gave out on him the next year.

Bobo Holloman pitched a no-hitter for the St. Louis Browns in his first major league start but he finished the year 3-7 and never saw the major leagues again.

And then there was Mike Brown, who came to the Pirates along with reliever Pat Clements in exchange for John Candelaria, George Hendrick and Al Holland on Aug. 2, 1985. He hit .332 the rest of the way and was penciled in as the man who would fill Dave Parker’s shoes.

Turned out he couldn’t even shine them. He hit .218 the next year and was out of baseball four years later.

Manager John Russell believes such a fate will not await Jones.

"There are always going to be skeptics who say he can't keep it up, but we like what we see," Russell said. "He's a solid hitter, and he doesn't get away from himself. He sees the ball and has tremendous power. If people want to say he's going to end up failing, that's up to them."

Either way, enjoy the ride, wherever it leads. Certainly Jones will.

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.