College Jones

Freshman Phenom Justin Jones Almost Went to the Pros, But Life at Cal Has Been a Perfect Match for Him

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Justin Jones lifts his sweat-stained cap with one hand, rakes his shaggy hair to the right and pulls the cap back down. He does this a lot over the course of 20 minutes. It is almost compulsive.

When his hair is longer, he has a habit of flipping it. That's why, sophomore pitcher Matt Flemer says, the Cal baseball team calls Jones "our Zac Efron."

"I go with it," Jones says, smiling. "It's cool to have a nickname, I guess."

Keep pitching like he has and Jones, the Bears' left-handed freshman, may find himself with a more distinguished title by the end of the season. Right now he is 8-2 with a 2.62 ERA, leading the conference in innings pitched (72), and a big reason why this young Cal team is 22-11 and second in the Pac-10. Barring some second-half meltdown, Pac-10 Freshman of the Year is a good bet, and National Freshman of the Year a legitimate discussion.

"It's unbelievable what he's doing," says Flemer. "And we're kinda lucky to have him, because he did get drafted (out of high school) and fairly high. You don't see a lot of those guys come to college."

But here Jones is, precisely because he found college-this college-too good to sacrifice for the instant gratification of a contract, signing bonus and professional label. He got the chance to attend his dream school and chose not to pass it up.

"It just fits my personality," says Jones. "I'm a laid-back guy and I've always loved the Bay Area, Berkeley. I guess you can say I'm kind of hippie without the title? I don't know. I just love the atmosphere."

Jones is so laid-back that when Bears pitching coach Dan Hubbs called him about two years ago to express the program's interest, the then-Oakdale High senior was lying-not jumping-on the trampoline in his backyard.

His reaction was, "Wow, that's pretty intense." No word on whether he sat up.

Last Saturday, Jones requested that Carl Perkins' "Blue Suede Shoes" be played over the speaker system while he warmed up prior to the first inning. Bemused, the guys working the sound, used to blaring out rap and AC/DC, shrugged and said, "This is what he wants."

One of his favorite things to do around here is walk down Telegraph, because "the diversity on that Avenue is amazing." That includes the food, but it's mostly about the people. He likes talking to people in general. He carries out conversations with the homeless every chance he gets.

"I was walking with my girlfriend and I think a girl said, 'You look good,'" says Jones. "And I was like, 'Well, thank you!' And she goes, 'No, not you. You're not good-looking at all. I'm talking about your girlfriend.'"

"Stuff like that-I love stuff that catches me off-guard."

He smooths the hair again, but by this point you realize that it's an exception to the rule-one of the few things about which he is meticulous. Compare it to something more grandiose like, say, his pitching mentality, which he describes as: "I just kind of throw the ball."

That's part of what makes him so good. Take his last outing against Washington. In the fifth inning of a 1-1 game, he has two runners on with two out and two strikes on the Huskies' No. 3 hitter-and hits him with an inside fastball.

On this day, Jones is being nagged by a persistent cough and has no command of his curveball, which is normally his best pitch. That means he's working solely with a fastball and changeup.

He falls behind Washington's cleanup hitter, Pierce Rankin, 2-0, but works the count back to 2-2. He misses with a fastball down and in, then comes right back inside on the full-count pitch with another fastball. It jams Rankin and he hits a fly ball to center field.

Jones gives up one earned run in 8 1/3 innings and gets the win.

"We always talk to our guys about being able to stay in the moment, not let the moment be too big," says Hubbs. "Be able to relax in the moment so you're able to make the pitch. I think he's the epitome of what that means. He doesn't get rattled. He doesn't have to try harder in the bigger spots, he just has to make a good pitch."

Jones internalizes much of what he's thinking. When he told the coaches on his unofficial visit to Cal that it had always been his dream school, it was news to his own father.

That was the summer before his senior year of high school. He saw a football game, walked the campus with the coaches and was offered a scholarship right there.

"We talked on the way home," says his father, Stanley. "And I said, "If it's a place you want to go, call now."

Jones could have waited. He hadn't used any of his five official visits to college campuses.

So he thought about it-for a day. Then he called and committed.

But the draft was still to come, and the following summer, in the wake of being selected in the seventh round by the Chicago White Sox, Jones warmed to the idea of turning pro out of high school. He even backed down from his original "firm number," the amount of money he was asking from Chicago, which indicated that he was leaning towards signing.

"I really wanted to go," says Jones. "I really wanted to play baseball-that's what I want to do with my life."

Still on the fence in mid-June, Jones attended the Summer Bridge program at Cal, which is geared towards easing the transition into the university for accepted students.

Truth be told, academics were a somewhat daunting prospect. Jones is a self-motivated learner. He was home schooled until the ninth grade and, away from the books, also taught himself to play the piano and guitar. So he bucked against the structure at Oakdale and, while his transcript wasn't bad, it didn't jump off the page.

"Coming in I was like, wow, college is probably going to be really tough," says Jones. "(In Summer Bridge) I took Chicano Studies and College Writing, and it was just easier than high school to me. Just the fact that you're more on your own, that it was more on me to learn."

Seeing his son begin to gravitate towards college, Stanley told Justin, "If you think you want to do it, you need to up your value to the White Sox." So Justin went back to asking for his original firm number. Chicago refused to meet it.

By that point, though, it wouldn't have mattered.

"I remember asking him when (summer school) ended, 'Will you be showing up in 10 days,'" says Bears head coach David Esquer. "And he says, 'Coach, I wouldn't give this up for any amount of money now.'

"We've had kids in the past who have given up Cal because they didn't know what they were giving up. He had a clear picture of what he would be giving up."

For one thing, as Hubbs says, Jones would have given up the chance to be a kid for a few more years. You wonder, though, if he ever won't be. His good-luck charm, a stuffed penguin named Petey given to him by his girlfriend, is present for all of his starts.

He would have given up the chance to prove Hubbs right. While Jones was deciding between school and draft, Hubbs told him that he could someday be a first-round draft pick.

"I said, 'I'm not going to tell you what to do, but just don't sell yourself short,'" says Hubbs.

"You never know, but I thought he'd be pretty good."

So here Jones is, sitting in the home dugout at Evans Diamond, as Bob Dylan plays over the speakers on a Sunday afternoon. Dylan is his idol, Jones says. He plays both the acoustic and bass guitars, loves oldies and "indie-type stuff." He has thought about bringing his acoustic to Telegraph and jamming with the street musicians, but hasn't gotten around to it yet.

The song playing is "Like a Rolling Stone," and although it's Dylan's familiar rasp jangling across the empty field, it does not apply here because Justin Jones is exactly where he wants to be.

Tags: CAL BASEBALL, DAVID ESQUER, JUSTIN JONES, DAN HUBBS


Contact Matt Kawahara at [email protected]



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