This is the final installment and continuation of a two-part story on San Diego pitching great and Escondido resident Randy Jones.
It would make for a nice tidy story to say that Jones continued on his merry way with even more remarkable feats of pitching brilliance for many years to come. But often that kind of fortuitous scenario happens only in fairy tales and happily-ever-afters. Sadly, the skillful Jones had no such luck.
Near the very end of his magnificent season of ’76, in a game versus the Reds, Randy unloaded a slider and felt something snap. Jones had noticed some arm fatigue coming into that start but being from the old school, he felt compelled to take the ball, soldier on and continue to compete. In retrospect, he wonders if he should have paid more heed to the prior warning sign.
Exploratory surgery revealed that Jones had ruptured a nerve attached to his left bicep. The prognosis was hardly encouraging since little could be done to rectify the situation. The nerve basically had to regenerate on its own and there were no guarantees that would happen. By Jones’s recollection, that same nerve would snap a total of five times before he finally decided to hang’em up and retire. And though he would go on to have seasons of admirable productivity and efficiency, Jones reveals he was never quite the same. The mind was still sharp, the competitive zeal remained undiminished but the bicep, and by default the arm, had definitely been compromised.
Jones returned in 1977 but having to adjust to a wing that wasn’t 100%, his record dropped to 6-12 and his ERA rose by nearly two runs a game. Some began to openly wonder, given the uncertainty about his arm, whether Randy could ever again find some semblance of his previous form and reliability.
That season was highlighted, however, by a memorable May outing in which Jones vanquished the Phillies 4-1 in an astonishingly brief 89 minutes. You had to go back some 50 years to find a game that required less time to complete. Though Jones was clearly the speed merchant of the contest, it didn’t hurt that his counterpart on that day was another quick worker, Phillie lefty Jim Kaat. Dealing in rapid fashion and taking only six warm-up pitches between innings, Jones gave the impression that if he wasn’t on a caffeinated high, he must have had a cab waiting with the meter running.
However, shortly after this amazing performance, his bicep nerve would give out again, giving the doubters even more reason to be skeptical about his future prospects.
But Jones has always been about meeting challenges and rising above less-than-optimum circumstances. Despite his arm issues, Jones showed the following season that at the age of 28, he could still get it done. Reverting back to his old workhorse days, Randy started 36 times, pitched seven complete games, posted a solid 13-14 record and again went low with his ERA, 2.88. Nineteen seventy-nine was another solid year with a near .500 record (11-12) and a whopping 39 starts.
And yet, Jones was now on the clock as far as his stay in San Diego was concerned, his days in a Padre uniform becoming increasingly numbered. The season of 1980 was to be his last hurrah in America’s Finest City. Much to the dismay and disappointment of countless Padre fans who truly revered and embraced him, Jones was about to turn in his familiar number 35 jersey. After Randy went 5-13, Padre management made the unpopular decision to send the SD favorite to the New York Mets.
The news hit Jones hard and where it hurt. “I felt as if I’d been gut-shot,” he admits. This was quite an understandable reaction given the fact that he was the player most synonymous with Padre baseball and the man clearly responsible for giving the team much of its national credibility and exposure.
The truth is had Jones so desired, he could have nixed the trade but seeing that the Padres were heading in a different direction with an influx of younger talent, he accepted their decision and opted to move on. Besides, the Mets had expressed a real desire to have him onboard and that sentiment carried a lot of weight with Jones, who appreciated being wanted.
Though Jones didn’t exactly take the Big Apple by storm he did have his moments, such as in 1982 when he won six of his first eight decisions and blanked both the San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros. Jones went 7-10 that season and made 20 starts. But misfortune was to dog him again as once more after releasing a slider, the problematic nerve gave way for what seemed like the umpteenth time. By then, Jones was wearying of the recurring injury, and having to constantly deal with its repercussions was taking a heavy toll. Jones had just about had it. “My spirit was getting crushed,” Randy candidly admits.
The next spring training found him in the camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates but the end was near. One day, Randy came to the honest realization that both his skills and joy for the game were seriously ebbing if not totally gone. “I’d always told myself that I would step away once it wasn’t any fun,” Jones says. And that was the harsh reality that he was facing. Subsequently, Jones met with manager Chuck Tanner and declared his intention to retire. Jones sort of beat Tanner to the punch because the Pirate skipper told Jones that the team was planning on releasing the veteran lefty anyway.
So the curtain came down on Jones’s playing career at the relatively young age of 32. Jones finished with exactly 100 career wins and a very solid ERA of 3.42. In the process, he had captivated a city, become a cult figure of sorts and made himself into a Padre legend.
Reflecting back on his time with the Padres, it’s interesting and revealing what comes to his mind. Jones fondly recalls the simpatico that he had with catcher Fred Kendall. It was almost surreal how their minds operated on the same wavelength. “We thought alike,” shares Jones, “Just about anything he put down, I went with.” Jones didn’t throw very many curve balls during the course of a game, perhaps six to eight, but every time he had an inclination to use one, Kendall seemed to be using telepathy by reading his pitcher’s very thoughts and calling for a curve ball almost before Jones even knew it.
Jones laughingly remembers two occasions when he shook Kendall off and threw something other than what the catcher wanted. Whoops, bad choice since both times the result was a bomb/ homer by the opposition. Needless to say, from that point forward, Randy rarely, if ever, second-guessed what Kendall called. The rapport that Jones and Kendall established was notonly uncanny, it was “magical” in Randy’s view.
And despite the reality that during his eight-year stint in San Diego the Padres finished with a winning record (84-78) just once, and never finished higher than fourth in the Western Division, Jones nonetheless truly respected and held genuine esteem for his teammates. “We didn’t have the talent that other clubs had,” Jones begins, “But day in and day out, no one played harder than those guys. They played as hard as they could. It’s just that over the long haul, our weaknesses were eventually exposed.”
And Jones couldn’t help but notice that whenever he toed the rubber, the team appeared a little more juiced and energized, knowing that with their stalwart on the mound, the chances for victory were exponentially higher. His team was prepared to go all out for him and that impressed the hell out of Randy and still resonates with him even to this very day.
Jones is nothing if not a masterful storyteller and an entertaining chronicler of his baseball experience. His power of recall about countless players, circumstances and pitch counts in specific games waged decades ago is truly astounding. Moreover, Jones has a sharp wit and a keen sense of humor. Jones really does have legitimate stand-up comic in him. While regaling us with some exceedingly funny anecdotes, Jones had this reporter and T-A photographer Lenny Kerbs almost doubled over with his humor. Sometimes I found it quite challenging to concentrate and carry on with the interview because I was in such a laughing jag.
As Jones would reminisce about his career, interesting factual tidbits and amusing stories would invariably emerge. Like when Jones had the bulky Phillie slugger Greg Luzinski ready to take a bite out of his bat because Randy induced him to hit into either five or six double plays in a row. Or when longtime veteran Ron Fairly, so tired of fouling tricky Jones pitches off his front leg, eventually attempted to come to the plate wearing a catcher’s shin guard. Much to Jones’s delight, the umpire told Fairly to take it off.
And then there was Cincinnati’s Pete Rose, who had a most interesting history with Jones. Rose of course, is baseball’s all-time hit leader and was one of the most accomplished batsmen ever. But just like some many others, Jones could bedevil the Reds’ great. It got to a point, where the switch-hitting “Charlie Hustle” was so flummoxed by Jones’ mastery over him that he decided to forego batting right-handed and try a straight lefty-on-lefty matchup. This was basically an act of desperation and capitulation by Rose and everyone knew it. As Rose settled into the batter’s box, Jones gazed over at the Reds’ dugout and saw manager Sparky Anderson and Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench grinning over the goings-on. Jones then proceeded to vary his routine to the Cincy star Rose and instead of throwing him a steady diet of sinkers, he offered up three sliders. Rose, thoroughly confused by now, never even got the bat off his shoulder and struck out. Not surprisingly, Pete would predictably go hitless on the day, taking the collar. So much for that idea!
At the All-Star game of 1976, Rose was manning third base and called over to Jones, the National League starting pitcher, that he hadn’t yet gotten a ground ball. The energetic Rose was craving some action. No problem said Jones. Right-hand hitting Hal McRae was next up for the American League and sure enough, Jones threw a moving slider that McRae could do nothing with except pull it, right smack dab to Rose who fired over to first to get the out. “There you go Pete,” teased Jones. An amazed Rose was dumbfounded that Jones could deliver so easily on his request. “You can’t be that good,” a disbelieving Rose marveled.
Because he was such a ground ball inducing machine and control pitcher extraordinaire who once went 68 innings without issuing a walk, it’s hard not to wonder what heights Jones might have reached had he been relatively injury free which most likely would have led to a much longer career. But Jones isn’t one to live in the past or engage in what-ifs. “I don’t go there,” explains Jones, when asked if he feels at all victimized by fate. “I had my share of moments and have some great memories.”
Putting not only his college degree to good use but making the most of his winning and relatable personality, Jones has found success on multiple fronts since stepping aside as a player. He has been a successful restaurateur and has made a viable business out of selling his signature Randy Jones barbeque sauce, which features an original recipe by his grandfather. Presently, Jones is heavily involved with the three Randy Jones Grills located inside of downtown’s Petco Park.
Off and on for quite awhile, Jones has schooled and instructed many young pitchers from a mound set up in his spacious Escondido backyard. Included among those he has tutored has been the notable left-hander Barry Zito, who went on to win the 2002 American League Cy Young Award for the Oakland Athletics. “I love the kids,” says Jones, “and when I see someone working hard, I feed off that kid’s desire.”
For a number of years, the personable Jones hosted a show called the Strike Zone that was seen by millions on the Outdoor Channel, where he hunted and fished with other notable sports greats.
And of course, fittingly, he has maintained a tight relationship with the team that he is so closely identified with. For 18 seasons prior to this one, his voice, observations and insights were huge parts of the pre and post-game coverage of the Padres on radio. Currently, he takes part in a program called the Padres Social Hour, a pre-game show on the Fox Sports Network. And Jones also stays involved by working in the Pads’ public relations office.
In some respects, because he has so prominently remained in the public eye, Randy’s footprint and profile are perhaps just as large now as they were when his wizardry on the mound was unequaled and he was arguably the biggest thing that San Diego had to offer.
Given what he was able to achieve, the manner in which he took the city by storm and based upon the many thrills that he provided, it was hardly any surprise that Jones became part of 1999’s inaugural class of the San Diego Padres Hall of Fame.
For those that never saw him in action, you missed out on something special. And for those that did, you were privileged to watch a true one of a kind, a craftsman who turned pitching into an absolute art. So it’s no wonder that Jones has become such an indelible part of San Diego folklore and has justifiably earned his place as a true sporting icon.