The following is a two-part article on the life and career of San Diego Padre pitching icon and Escondido resident Randy Jones. In this issue, we feature the first installment.
Perhaps a significant number of those who read this article were either too young or not even around to remember the phenomenon that was San Diego Padre pitcher Randy Jones.
It has been, after all, 40 years since Jones was riding ever so high and in the midst of his halcyon days. A lot of games have been played in the interim and thousands of pitchers have toed the rubber and delivered countless offerings to the plate since then.
But for those local baseball fans lucky enough to have seen him in the flesh and to have watched a dealing Jones become a veritable Rembrandt on the mound, the memory of him and his artistry remains intact and virtually untouched by the passage of time. You don’t ever forget witnessing greatness and for a period of time in the National League, Jones was as good as it got.
Jones was a fan’s delight in every way imaginable.
To begin with, he made for an appealing visual. With his sandy-blond hair bulging out from beneath his brown and yellow Padre cap, the equivalent of a sideways Afro, the 6-foot, 178-pound Jones had an easy motion and an economical style. He pitched off a stiff front leg and threw across his body, a technique that helped him stay closed and maintain his mechanics.
Jones was also a wondrously quick worker, a practitioner of getting the ball, grabbing it and letting fly. Jones always pitched as if the stadium was a ticking time bomb and he needed to vacate the place in one hell of a hurry.
Moreover, unlike the power pitchers of the day, who could overwhelm the opposition with sheer velocity, the southpaw Jones dominated in a completely different manner, with guile and a remarkable variance of speed that saw his pitches look as if they were coming in at slow motion, sometimes at no more than a pedestrian 72 mph.
And what a sight it was when free- swinging, intimidating and legendary hitting teams like the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies would stroll into then San Diego Stadium and be turned into flailing and thoroughly exasperated pretzels by the confounding Padre ace. Once Jones had third baseman extraordinaire and Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt so frustrated by his tantalizing stuff that the perplexed Phillie couldn’t contain himself any longer and yelled out to Jones, “I’d be embarrassed to be throwing that kind of stuff.” Randy delights in that memory, knowing that he achieved the ultimate for a pitcher. Having gotten inside the head of one of the game’s true immortals.
But talent and results alone won’t ensure the fact they you’ll connect with the public and become a fan favorite. It goes a lot deeper than that. There’s got be a genuineness and sincerity present that can’t be faked and Jones had those traits in abundance. Even at his zenith, he never got carried away with himself and remained a folksy, approachable guy who always took time to sign autographs and interact with the Padre fans who sought him out. The expression “He’s a good old boy,” has been often been misused and misapplied—but in the case of Jones, it rang true. Padre fans willingly took him to their hearts because of his authenticity as a human being.
Despite his down-home persona and Southern-like charm, Jones had his roots in the Orange County area, having prepped at Brea Olinda High School and then starred at Chapman College. For three years he was the Panthers’ top pitcher and by his senior season he had earned All-American honors.
Based upon conversations that he’d had with scouts, Jones was confident that he would be drafted and get the opportunity to pitch professionally. But he was surprised when the Padres made him their fifth-round selection in the 1972 amateur draft since he’d had no previous contact with the club. Truth be told, Jones felt that the Detroit Tigers, who had expressed strong interest in him, would be the team most likely to tab him.
Jones, anxious to get on with his career, quickly signed with San Diego and spent the majority of his first pro summer with the Alexandria (Louisiana) Aces of the Texas League, where his manager and pitching coach were Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodger legends Duke Snider and Johnny Podres.
At the start of the 1973 campaign, Jones was back again in Alexandria, throwing really well and equipped with something different. Working closely with instructor/ coach Warren Hacker, Jones began using a sinker ball, which was to become his go-to and signature pitch. Once he got the hang of it, Randy was amazed at its movement and how the bottom just seemed to fall out. “It was like having a new toy,” Jones smiles fondly. In one memorable game that spring training against a college team, Jones fanned all nine batters that he faced, the sinker doing some nasty and unspeakable things.
Jones was rampaging with an 8-1 record with the Aces when the parent Padres traded lefty Freddie Norman to the Cincinnati Reds, which opened up a spot in the rotation. In some ways, Jones and Norman were comparable, crafty southpaws who pitched to spots and were thinkers on the mound. When the Padre brass took a look at his stats and got feedback that Jones was ready for duty at the major league level, the 23-year-old was summoned to the big show.
In a first outing just to get acclimated, the Pads used Jones in a relief role versus the New York Mets. “I didn’t even feel my feet under me I was so excited,” Randy recalls. The first batter he ever faced was the accomplished shortstop Jim Fregosi. A short time later, the wide- eyed rookie was staring down at the immortal Willie Mays in the batter’s box. Shortly thereafter, Mays proceeded to crush a Jones pitch that went yard. “That was my welcome-to-the-major-leagues- moment,” laughs Jones. A few days later, in his very first start versus Atlanta, Jones gave up another dinger to a second baseball icon, “Hammerin” Hank Aaron. “I wasn’t one to mess around,” Jones jokes.
But Jones was hardly unnerved by the Mays-Aaron blasts and proved to be a quick study. The burgeoning hurler settled in quickly and showed himself to have great upside. By season’s end, Randy had racked up a solid 7-6 record, pitched six complete games and owned a nifty 3.16 ERA.
Jones remembers one game in particular as a defining moment for him as a young playerseeking validation and reassurance. Though it came in a loss to the mighty Cincy Reds, Jones had hung tough and pitched seven innings of notable ball against one of baseball’s most dynamic teams. “After that game, I felt I could definitely pitch in the bigs,” Jones relates. “I knew then that I could get major leaguers out. Oh sure, those guys were really good but I learned that just like anyone else, they had their weaknesses that could be exposed.”
The following year of 1974 was to be a challenging one for Jones, replete with hard knocks and painful lessons to be learned. Up until the All-Star break he’d been more than holding his own but in the season’s second-half, as Jones puts it, “things just blew up.” Undermined by a lack of confidence and a hesitancy to trust himself and his stuff, the losses began to mount. Jones would be fine for five to six innings but once he crossed that threshold, he would begin to noticeably tire and subsequently, his pitches would elevate and become exceedingly vulnerable. When that happened, the wheels tended to come off. Unlike his rookie season, which had been quite uplifting, his sophomore campaign, particularly with the way it concluded, was more of a bummer. Jones also had the dubious distinction of leading the N.L. in defeats with the none- too-pretty total of 22.
But Jones, ever the fierce competitor, wasn’t about to accept such results. Not living up to his potential truly haunted him. So in the off-season and run-up to the 1975 campaign, Jones made it a top priority to get in better shape and increase his stamina. He also collaborated with pitching coach Tom Morgan to hone and refine his mechanics.
What happened next was an absolute revelation. Randy Jones was about to take the baseball world by storm. Operating in a fast and aggressive style, controlling tempo, pitching to contact and rarely walking anyone, Jones used his killer sinker and a big, breaking slider to amaze and dominate. How efficient was Jones during his breakout season? Get a gander at these eye-popping stats: 20 wins, 18 complete games, six shutouts and perhaps the most amazing number of all, a terrific 2.24 ERA which led the entire N.L. His achievements were deemed so noteworthy that he was chosen to the N.L. All- Star squad, a first for a Padre pitcher, and was selected as the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year.
To say the least, Jones had found a groove. He had emphatically announced his arrival as one of the game’s most gifted men of the mound. But incredibly, what Jones had in store was to be even more spectacular. Compared to what was in the offing, Jones was merely clearing his throat in 1975. Thanks to Jones, San Diego was about to become somewhat of a baseball hotbed because of its dandy lefty.
If you weren’t there to actually see it or experience the Jones phenomenon, it’s hard to adequately convey it in mere words. But for a while, particularly in his banner season of 1976, Jones was bigger than any high-rise condo that currently looms over the downtown landscape. Randy could have run for mayor and won in a landslide.
When Jones was to pitch, the town was abuzz with anticipation and expectation. It was as if the city came to a virtual halt whenever Randy took to the hill, much of the populace hanging on his every pitch. No athlete in San Diego carried anywhere near as much cache or clout nor was as beloved. Jones’s popularity was immense and unrivaled.
And inside SD Stadium, once he concluded his warmup tosses and headed toward the mound, the crowd would stir with cheers, whistles and applause that reverberated throughout the entire ballpark. Watching Jones pitch became a bona fide happening, a big- time event. Few San Diego pro athletes, either past or present, could wow and mesmerize the patrons as did Jones. “I loved pitching in that kind of environment,” informs Jones. “It was magical. Sure, I was aware of the response that was occurring and I just loved being able to share that whole thing with our fans.”
Jones forever staked his claim as a SD folk hero with the incredible mastery he demonstrated in that charmed season. Randy would start 40 games (an N.L. high), complete 25 of them and pace the league in the touchstone categories of innings pitched (315.1), wins (22) and WHIP (1.027). “It was an uncanny year,” remembers Jones. “I had only three starts when I really didn’t have good stuff.”
Had Jones received better run support (thrice he lost 1-0 decisions) and had not the bullpen blown four games in which he left ahead on the scoreboard, Randy could have seriously challenged the Holy Grail of all pitching marks, the 30-win plateau.
At this juncture, fully in control of his repertoire and with a clever and analytical mind that could out-think his foes, Jones often made it look ridiculously easy. “Sometimes when I really had it going, I almost started feeling sorry for the hitters,” he admits.
Jones was a virtuoso who could go from slow, to slower, to slowest and each time he throttled back, his sublime sinker dropped with even more effect. Jones had become such a craftsman that by dragging his back foot in varying degrees, he could alter the velocity that he imparted on the ball.
At his apex, Jones was a superb control pitcher who could zero in on spots as if he was using a laser. He always threw strikes and was an expert at keeping the ball down. His ratio of pitches generally consisted of 60 percent sinkers and 30-to- 35 percent sliders. The occasional curve usually rounded out his arsenal. He routinely tied batters into knots with this confounding assortment.
Jones deservedly won pitching’s highest honor, the Cy Young Award, for his sterling performance in ’76. His outstanding work also garnered for him the cover of an issue of Sports Illustrated. In addition, he was named the starter for the N.L. in the ASG of that year and earned the win in the midsummer classic. Of all his many accomplishments, what he achieved in his two All-Star Game appearances rates extremely high with Jones. “Pitching four consecutive scoreless innings in that game was a thrill. And I’m really proud that I was able to represent San Diego in that kind of competition. That whole experience was really fulfilling.”
In next week’s issue of the Times-Advocate, read how Jones’s ascending career is forever altered by a significant arm injury. And how his popularity continued to grow in the aftermath of his playing days.