Obituary: Doug Jones (1957-2021)

RIP to Doug Jones, an All-Star closer who was the epitome of “late-bloomer.” Of his 303 career saves, 302 of them were recorded after his 30th birthday. Jones died on November 22 at the age of 64. Former pitcher Greg Swindell announced on Twitter that his friend and ex-teammate Jones had died from complications of COVID-19. In his 16-year career, Jones pitched for the Milwaukee Brewers (1982, 1996-98), Cleveland Indians (1986-91, 1998), Houston Astros (1992-93), Philadelphia Phillies (1994), Baltimore Orioles (1995), Chicago Cubs (1996) and Oakland Athletics (1999-2000).

Douglas Reid Jones was born in Covina, Calif., on June 24, 1957. His family moved to Indiana, and he went to Lebanon High School before attending Central Arizona Junior College. He threw a no-hitter and was a first-team pitcher for the Arizona Community College Athletics Conference All-Star Team in 1978, along with another future major-leaguer, Marty Barrett. The Milwaukee Brewers selected Jones in the Third Round of the 1978 Amateur Draft, held in January.

Jones’ first season in pro ball was for the Newark Co-Pilots of the New York-Pennsylvania League in 1978. He wasn’t great, with a 2-4 record and 5.21 ERA in 15 appearances, mostly out of the bullpen. During the rest of Jones’ stay in the Milwaukee system, he was kept as a starting pitcher, and he was pretty effective for a while. He won 10 games for Class-A Burlington of the Midwest League in 1979 and then went 14-7 with a 2.97 ERA in 1980, while pitching at three different minor-league levels. Jones won 10 more games in 1981, showing his biggest successes in Triple-A Vancouver. He almost had a no-hitter while pitching for the El Paso Diablos against Amarillo in the Double-A Texas League. He ended up with a 1-hit shutout after a blooper in the second inning fell into right field for a double.

“There’s not much you can do about that. A Texas Leaguer. I guess that’s a habit here,” he joked afterwards.

A poor-quality photo, but it was the only mustache-less photo of Doug Jones that I could find. Source: El Paso Times, May 10, 1981.

A spring training injury to reliever Jim Slaton left a hole in Milwaukee’s 1982 Opening Day bullpen, and Jones was given a chance to fill it. He made the trip up north with the team and made his major-league debut on April 9, with a scoreless inning against Toronto. The Blue Jays treated him more rudely in his second appearance on April 11, as Ernie Whitt hit a solo home run off him in his one inning of work. Jones appeared in 4 games for the Brewers and ended up with a 10.13 ERA. When Slaton was healthy again, Jones was sent back to Vancouver. He took the demotion in stride was was pleased with his debut.

“It was a good experience, but I knew I would be coming back here as soon as he got over his back troubles,” Jones said. “My main objective was to make myself noticed and I think I did that. I even heard some talk that they may be grooming me to replace Rollie [Fingers]. But that’s likely four or five years down the road.”

Jones was effective for Vancouver for the rest of the ’82 season, but he suffered a shoulder injury the following year and missed most of 1983. He showed some success back at Double-A in 1984, but the Brewers elected to let him leave the organization via free agency at the end of the season. He signed with the Cleveland Indians, who decided to make him a full-time reliever. That decision would pay massive dividends a few years down the road.

Even before his shoulder injury, Jones was known for being effective through control and offspeed pitches, not a blazing fastball. When he came to Cleveland, he had two pitches, a fastball and a changeup, and neither one ever reached 90 mph on a radar gun. “My game is to get batters to hit the ball to someone. If I walk people or give up home runs, I’d be gone in a minute because I don’t have anything else going for me,” he said.

Jones’ lack of speed didn’t hurt him as a reliever, and he won 9 games with a 3.65 ERA in Double-A Waterbury in 1985, his first year with the Cleveland organization. He also struck out 113 batters in 116 innings. At this point in time, Cleveland management approached him with the idea of becoming a minor-league pitching coach, but he felt he still had more to offer as a player. Did he ever.

Jones had an even better season in 1986, with a 2.09 ERA and 9 saves in 43 games, and Cleveland brought him to the majors in September. The 29-year-old picked up his first major-league save on September 14 against Oakland. Starter Ken Schrom pitched into the ninth inning but was pulled with the bases loaded and one out. Jones retired Mike Davis on a flyball, walked Jerry Willard to force in a run to make the score 5-2 and then retired Dave Kingman on a grounder to shortstop. He also picked up his first career win and finished the season with a 2.50 ERA in 11 games.

Jones was a borderline candidate to make the Cleveland staff in 1987. He had his pinpoint control and the big walrus mustache that would become his signature look throughout his career, but he wasn’t established enough to have job security. As a nine-year minor-leaguer, he took it in stride.

“I’ve seen a lot of guys with more talent than me, who didn’t make it, throw their hands up in the air in frustration and walk away from the game,” he told Ohio reporter Jim Ingraham. “And once or twice in my career I’ve felt like quitting. But what would that prove? Only that I didn’t have the fortitude to stay with it.”

Jones made the Opening Day roster but was hammered in his first seven outings and spent about two months back in the minors. He didn’t fare much better upon his return to the big leagues, and after allowing 2 earned runs in 2 innings of work on July 1, Jones’ ERA stood at 8.10. Then on July 11, Jones threw a perfect eleventh inning against the White Sox and picked up the win. From there to the rest of the season, Jones lowered his ERA all the way down to 3.15. In the second half, it was a stellar 2.04 ERA, and he added 8 saves as well. He tried to add a cut fastball to his repertoire during 1988, but the experiment failed so badly that Jones almost was cut in spring training. So he went back to his two pitches that worked for him, and Cleveland manager Doc Edwards made him the team’s closer to see what would happen.

What happened is that Jones broke Cleveland’s record for saves in a season with 37, set a new major-league record for saves in 15 straight appearances, made the All-Star Team, and struck out 72 batters in 83-1/3 innings against a mere 16 walks. It was one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in Cleveland history, and it was his first full season in the major leagues.

Ingraham pointed out a great irony of Jones’ success in a News Journal (Mansfield, Ohio), column. While Jones was having success in Triple-A, reporters would ask Cleveland manager Pat Corrales about bringing him up to the majors — particularly since the Indians bullpen was a glaring weak spot. “Doesn’t throw hard enough,” Corrales would say, or “He can fool the kids at Triple-A, but he couldn’t do that up here.” Well, by 1988, Jones was an All-Star closer for Cleveland and Corrales… was the manager for the Indians’ Triple-A affiliate.

For fun, Gary Nuhn of the Dayton Daily News asked AL All-Stars what pitch Jones threw that was so successful. Don Mattinglly called it a palm ball, Carney Lansford said it was a screwball, Cal Ripken called it a “specialty pitch.” Alan Trammell said, “I don’t know what it is. I just know he’s dealing.” Rickey Henderson didn’t know either, but he added, “But I’m just happy anybody who spent that much time in the minors is getting a chance to play in the majors.”

The best part of Jones’ story is that it wasn’t a one-year oddity. It wasn’t that the batters figured out his changeup and hit him out of the league. Jones had two more outstanding seasons for Cleveland as the closer, saving 32 games in 1989 and 43 in 1990. He was an All-Star for each of those two seasons. He never let the fame get to his head, either. He compared himself to some of the fireballing closers of the ’80s, like Lee Smith or Goose Gossage. “It’s only human nature to want to see the tenor come in and sing the high note at the climax of the show. Then we bring in a guy with the style of a drunken bartender instead. I come in, it’s a pop-up, there’s one out. Line drive to the center fielder. There are two outs. Grounder to the infield. Game’s over. Oh, how’d that happen?”

Closers can have very uneven careers, and Jones had his first poor season in 1991. The Indians struggled, too, with 105 losses. After recording 5 saves in the month of April, he didn’t work often enough to maintain his effectiveness, and his fastball noticeably slowed. He lost his role of closer to Steve Olin and was demoted to Triple-A Colorado Springs in late July with a 1-7 record and 7.37 ERA. When he returned to Cleveland in September, he was moved to the starting rotation for the first time in his major-league career, in the hopes that throwing more innings could restore a few miles per hour to his fastball. The former closer made 4 starts and pitched into at least the seventh inning in all of them. He won 3 of those 4 starts, too. His best performance was a 3-1 win over Detroit. Jones struck out 13 Tigers in 8 innings while scattering 9 hits. He finished the year with a 4-8 record, 7 saves and a 5.54 ERA. He became a free agent after the season, and Cleveland, probably assuming his best days were behind him, let him depart.

Jones signed a minor-league contract with the Houston Astros in January 1991. “I will be their closer,” he said. “That’s what they told me.” Jones bounced back to have one of the best years of his career. He showed that he really did need to pitch often, as he reached career highs in games (80) and innings pitched (111-2/3) while earning an 11-8 record, a 1.85 ERA and 93 strikeouts. Jones made his fourth All-Star Team, and his 36 saves were fourth in the NL. His second year with Houston resulted in 26 saves, but his ERA inflated to 4.54. That December, Jones and Jeff Juden were traded to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for closer Mitch Williams. Williams was fresh off surrendering a World Series-winning home run to Toronto’s Joe Carter, and it was widely believed that his return to the team wouldn’t be well-accepted by the fans. Both closers were given a fresh start. That link to Williams, aka “Wild Thing,” also earned Jones the nickname of “Mild Thing.”

Williams struggled in Houston and never regained his form. Jones made the most of his opportunity and earned his fifth and final All-Star nod with the Phillies in 1994. He didn’t fit in with the image of the hard-partying Phillies like Williams had — Jones was quiet and laid back — but his efficiency on the mound was appreciated. “He gets it done painlessly,” said general manager Lee Thomas. “The other way was excruciating, with walks and hit batters and wild pitches.” Jones had 27 saves — third-best in the NL — and a 2.17 ERA, and he walked 6 batters in 54 innings. He recorded his 200th save on May 29 against Houston, striking out the only two batters he faced.

“One guy is at 78 rpm, the other’s at 33,” Phillies reliever Larry Anderson said of the difference between Williams and Jones.

Jones became a free agent at the end of the strike-shortened 1994 season and joined a new-look Baltimore Orioles pitching staff in April of 1995. He signed a 1-year deal the same day the Orioles announced the signings of starter Kevin Brown and reliever Jesse Orosco. He saved 22 games but had an ERA over 5 and a walk rate of 3.1 walks per 9 innings that was the worst of his career. He signed with the Cubs for the 1996 season but only lasted until June. He blew 3 saves in April and served as a middle reliever until his release. He signed with the Brewers days after his 40th birthday, and once again, he defied the odds. He won 5 games as a middle reliever with a good 3.41 ERA, proving he still knew how to get hitters out. Then he saved 36 games for the Brewers in 1997 while appearing in 75 games. He earned 12 more saves in Milwaukee in 1998, though his ERA once again rose past 5.00, and he allowed an alarming number of home runs. Still, he was effective enough that he was traded to a contending Cleveland Indians team at the trade deadline, in exchange for reliever Eric Plunk.

The 42-year-old Jones had done many thing in his career, but he had never appeared in a postseason game to that point in time. Cleveland, however, finished in first place in the AL Central. Their closer Mike Jackson was having a sensational season, so Jones picked up just one save. But he did provide strong relief work with the team, with a 3.45 ERA in 23 games. Jones made his first postseason appearance in the AL Division Series against Boston. He pitched 2-2/3 innings of Game One after the Red Sox chased starter Jaret Wright. He allowed a 2-run homer to Mo Vaughn as the Sox cruised to an 11-3 win. He was not on the roster for the Championship Series, where Cleveland lost to the New York Yankees.

Jones spent his final two seasons with the Oakland Athletics. He topped the 100-inning mark for just the second time in his career in 1999, while earning 10 saves. His 300th career save came on September 11, 1999, against Tampa Bay. Jones threw just three pitches in securing the Oakland win, as Jose Guillen hit a 1-1 pitch that left fielder Jason McDonald snagged with a diving catch. It tied him with Hall of Famer Bruce Sutter for 10th on the all-time saves list. Jones’ final games came in the ALDS against the New York Yankees in 2000. The Yanks beat the A’s in five games, and Jones tossed 1-1/3 scoreless innings in two appearances.

Jones had agreed to rejoin the A’s in 2000 after they agreed to hire his 15-year-old son, Dustin, as a clubhouse attendant. Dustin traveled with the team on road trips as well, and father and son spent Jones’ last year in professional baseball as roommates. “I made the request that if I could bring him for the day-to-day stuff, to have him be a part of my life, then I’d be more than happy to come back. That was the deciding factor. That was the turning point,” Jones said.

Source: The Baltimore Sun, April 16, 1995.

In 16 years in the big leagues, Jones appeared in 846 games, all but 4 of which were in relief. He had a 69-79 record and 303 saves, which is now 29th most all-time. His 640 games finished are 12th all-time. Jones struck out 909 batters in 1,128-1/3 innings and walked just 247 — 53 intentionally. His career WHIP is 1.243, and his ERA+ is 129. According to Baseball Reference, he earned 21.4 Wins Above Replacement in his career. He also had 7 at-bats in his career, with 1 hit — a single off Pittsburgh’s Dan Miceli on May 12, 1994. He was 36 years old at the time.

With all his success in the majors, Jones gave back to the community. He was a long-time resident of Tucson, and during his playing career he started working with a local non-profit organization called Teen Challenge/Springboard Shelter Home for Youth and Crisis. Springboard helped disadvantaged teens, particularly abused girls. Jones was initially contacted by Springboard to participate in a radio campaign. He made those public service announcements, but then he also started donating food to the shelter, to the tune of about about $10,000 in meat and produce a year.

“I know how hard those people work to assist these girls,” he said. “By providing the food, I thought that would be one less thing that would have to worry about.”

Jones called it quits to spend more time with his family in Tucson. He worked as a co-coach for the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy’s baseball team. According to his SABR biography, Jones also coached San Diego Christian College to the NAIA World Series in 2015 and worked as a minor-league pitching coach as well.

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