Sometimes making a change that can be tough to swallow initially can eventually work out for the best. For former Indians reliever Doug Jones, a switch out of the starting rotation ended up turning him into one of the most effective closers that baseball has ever seen.
Jones started his long career as a young starting pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers organization after being drafted in the third round of the 1978 amateur draft. He worked through multiple seasons in the minor leagues finding only mixed successes and failures. Jones was called up briefly in the 1982 season and only spent only four games with the Brewers before being sent back down to the minors for what turned out to be another four seasons. After becoming a free agent and signing on with the Cleveland Indians in 1985, Jones made a tough career-altering turn by switching from the starting rotation to the back end of the bullpen.
“That change happened in the minor leagues when I came from the Brewers to the Indians,” Jones recalled. “It was basically take whatever role they would give me and make it work somehow.”
Switching from being a starter to a reliever is not the dream of many pitchers, but the young Jones had another mental obstacle to overcome by being sent to the Indians AA team, as well.
“It was a tough transition because I was going from three or four seasons at AAA back down to AA and I was throwing four or five different pitches, so it didn’t translate very well immediately,” Jones said. “The hitters were there were young enough and ignorant enough that they didn’t know that they were being set up. I learned how to do that and they just swung at everything. Eventually I had to drop three or four pitches and concentrate on my fastball and then changing speeds with my changeup. Ever since, I just used those two pitches and was pretty successful.”
The success that Jones speaks of was a long time coming, but instant once he was recalled by the Indians. The 29-year old rookie was called up to the Majors for good in 1986 and notched his first save in just 11 games that summer. He had eight more saves in 1987 and then made his first All-Star team as the Indians closer in 1988. From there, Jones continued to stay steady by representing the Indians for three consecutive seasons in the Midsummer Classic.
Jones saved 37 games in 1988 and then 32 more in ’89. Jonesy toppled both of those seasons in 1990 by collecting a career-best 43 saves—an Indians record at the time. After saving just seven games while struggling through the dismal 1991 season, Jones left Cleveland as a free agent and signed on with the Houston Astros where he posted his best season in 1992. Jones performed well enough to make his fourth All-Star game and finished the season with 36 saves and a 1.85 ERA. He would later make his final All-Star appearance in 1994 in his one season with the Philadelphia Phillies.
“In the All-Star Games we got to meet all sorts of people,” Jones said of his impressive five games. “I got to shake hands with a couple of presidents, dignitaries and things of that nature.”
It was his final All-Star appearance as the game that sticks out for Jones the most.
“In the ’94 game, when Tony Gwynn scored the winning run in extra innings, I was the winning pitcher. I wasn’t even supposed to pitch that day,” Jones remembers. “Jim Fregosi, who was our manager in Philly, told me that I wasn’t going to pitch that day, but circumstances dictated that I do and it came down to that last inning. It was a tie ballgame and he said, ‘Sorry Jonsie, but I need you to get loose.’ It was a pretty exciting game and pretty fun to be a part of.”
Jones continued having success in the closer role through the 1997 season when he turned 40-years old. He locked down 36 saves for the Milwaukee Brewers in ’97 and earned some MVP votes in the process. The aging Jones’ closing philosophy was a simple one, but one that gave him all sorts of success for well over a decade.
“You’ve got to go strike one right now and get into that first hitter with command and control,” Jones said. “Middle relievers have that chance of scoring a run in another inning to cover a mistake, but in the ninth inning with a one run lead you need to get people out. You’re trying to hold your team in a winning situation so it’s a little more immediate. You don’t have much room for error.”
After starting the 1998 season back with the Brewers, Jones was traded back home to the Indians on July 23. The Tribe was coming off a pennant-winning 1997 season and were in the fourth year of a period where they won five of six AL Central Division crowns.
“Being traded over there late in the season, they already pretty much had everyone that they needed,” Jones said of going back to the Tribe. “It was an Eric Plunk for me deal and we were both struggling where we were. It was almost a favor to the two of us to go somewhere where the scenery was different.”
The return was a homecoming for Jones and he was able to notch one more save as a member of the Indians, adding to his already team-record that finished at 129. The record stood for the better part of two decades until it was broken by Bob Wickman in 2006.
More important than adding one more save to his already impressive resume, his return to Cleveland finally took an unsettling zero off of Jones’ baseball card. Jones had pitched for 16 seasons since making his MLB debut in 1982 with the Brewers, but had never appeared in a postseason game. His long-awaited first opportunity to pitch in October was finally met when he was traded back to the Indians in 1998.
“Going back to Cleveland where I had been for so long was such a good feeling, but I didn’t really have the game attitude I needed. I was a bit giddy with excitement,” Jones said of his one playoff game in the ’98 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox. “I regret not really being mentally prepared for that. I wish I had had more experience in playoff situations…that’s the only thing I regret, but it was really exciting to be a part of the whole thing and to get into some playoff games.”
The Indians were able to take care of the Red Sox, but then lost the ALCS to the eventual champion New York Yankees. After becoming a free agent after World Series that season, Jones spent 1999 and 2000 pitching in Oakland at the ages of 42 and 43. He retired after prior to the 2001 campaign, ending a remarkable career that saw him accumulate an outstanding 303 saves. The total amount currently ranks 24th on the all-time list and puts him ahead of Hall of Fame closers Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm. Because of prowess as a closer, Jones received two Hall of Fame votes himself during his only year on the ballot in 2006. When reflecting on saving over 300 ballgames, Jones still looks back in astonishment.
“Nobody could imagine that,” Jones said of his calling-card number. “I never even imagined playing Major League Baseball or any professional baseball, for that matter. I just played sports as a kid growing up in California. I played every sport, just about. It was never a dream of mine. My dad was a sprint car driver, so I always thought I may end up as a racer but then I got a little too big for the cockpit. I never really thought about playing professional baseball to be honest.”
After making it as a Major Leaguer and finding so much success, Jones finds it somewhat hard to pinpoint a favorite memory.
“A lot of great things happened,” Jones said. “Making the All-Star team three years in a row was pretty special. I was also around long enough to be involved with the Indians save record and held onto that for several years until big, bad Bob Wickman came into town and walked by that. I was there for the planning of the transition to the new stadium and was fortunate to play long enough to come back and play in Jacobs Field as an Indian. A lot of guys missed out on that, but it was pretty exciting for me.”
Since retiring from playing, Jones took some time away from the professional game to take care of his family and spend some time with his sons. The knowledge that comes with a 16 year Major League career is still being passed on, however.
“I’ve raised three boys and helped coach their high school baseball team,” Jones said. “In 2006, I stopped doing that for a few years and worked with the Diamondbacks in their minor leagues and doing extended spring training. I did that for about three years and then in ’09 I went back to the high school and managed their baseball team again. We won the Arizona state championship and I got a call from Chris Bando, who got a job with San Diego Christian College, and I became their pitching coach and was there the last five years. We got them to the World Series last year and got our first three kids drafted. I’ve consequently retired from that also.”
Retired from baseball for the moment and now 15 years since last stepping foot on a baseball field as a player, Jones reflects fondly on his time playing the game he loves. He pitched 295 games for the Tribe—which is nearly twice the amount he pitched for his second highest team—and still considers himself to be a Cleveland Indian to this day.
“I think so. I spent more time here than anyplace else,” Jones said. “It’s where I had the opportunity to hone my craft and help the Indians push toward their transition. I was here when Charles Nagy, Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome and Albert Belle came into town and began their great careers, so I was a part of that in the beginning. That was a lot of fun.”
The thing that will stick out forever for Jones, however, is the love he always did and still receives from the great fans of Cleveland that he still adores.
“To this day, there are people that come up to me and ask if I’m going to close the game tonight,” Jones said. “The fans here are outstanding.”