His teammates may grumble about the quick turnaround, the lack of sleep and the inconvenience.
But not James Jones. This one game means everything. Monday’s game at Yankee Stadium is the culmination of countless hours spent in the cage, overcoming frustrating slumps and fighting his way to the big leagues.
Jones is going home to New York City. He will run onto the field he revered as a child with his mother, Brena, his sister, Sophia, and other close friends in the stands watching.
“It’s going to be surreal,” he said. “I know once the game starts I will zone out. But before and afterward, I know I’m going to be speechless.”
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Every kid who slides a glove onto his hand or swings a bat dreams about playing at big-league stadiums. Kids in the Puget Sound dream about playing at Safeco Field. But a New York kid playing in baseball’s mecca?
“Any time a New York kid plays in Yankee Stadium for the first time, it’s beyond special,” said Tom McNamara, the Mariners’ director of amateur scouting and a New York native. “Almost every kid in New York has that dream.”
Despite the city’s massive population, few kids actually get to live it.
Born and raised in Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field apartments, Jones dreamed that dream.
Unlike many of his friends growing up, Jones pursued it, focusing on baseball over all other sports.
“Basketball is the dominant sport in New York City,” he said. “Baseball was something guys just played to stay busy. But I loved it.”
By age 11, Jones was good enough to start playing for the famed Youth Service League program headed by legendary coach Mel Zitter. It was same the same program that produced Shawon Dunston, Julio Lugo and Manny Ramirez.
“Mel coached Manny and he would tell us stories about him, how he was the greatest hitter he ever coached and how he had such a great plan as a young hitter,” Jones said. “That’s what every one of us aspired to be.”
Jones laughs when comparing his youth baseball experiences to that of his teammates. Youth baseball in New York is vastly different from hotbeds in California, Texas and Florida
“We definitely didn’t play as many games,” Jones said. “We had to take care of our own field. We’d have to come early after days it rained to get the water off the field. There was a lot of learning from that.”
They also played games in public parks around the city.
Jones had hoped to play for St. John’s — one of the best baseball programs in the Big East. But he would have had to walk on to the program.
“We couldn’t afford that,” he said.
His mom, Brena, was already working multiple jobs to support him and his older sister, Sophia.
Long Island offered him a scholarship. And he gladly accepted. He grew as a player and flourished as an outfielder and a pitcher. The Mariners scouted him and selected him in the fourth round of the 2009 draft as an outfielder.
“We were split, but sometimes you have to look at the big picture,” McNamara said. “This guy can run, he can throw and he’s got a good enough swing, and he has make-up off the charts.”
Shortly after being drafted, Jones walked into Yankee Stadium for the first time. Despite being a Yankee fan growing up, he’d never set foot in the stadium.
“I never went to games,” he said. “I only saw it from the outside or on TV.”
So when the Mariners were playing there, they invited him to visit the clubhouse and take early batting practice with the players. He was even introduced to his childhood idol, Ken Griffey Jr.
“I was speechless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say, but he made me feel comfortable.”
Trainer Rick Griffin tried to get Jones, who was an athletic training major, to tape Griffey’s ankles.
“I would’ve done it,” he said. “But I don’t know if he would have been happy with it.”
Jones progression through the minor leagues to the majors wasn’t seamless. He struggled to find consistency at times.
“I just learned I had to be positive,” he said. “The problem at the time, I was changing a lot. If I didn’t have a good game, I would change my whole mechanics of my swing. That’s not going to create consistency.”
So he worked and worked more.
“Nineteen years of scouting and he’s the best kid I’ve ever been around in my life,” McNamara said. “He has unbelievable work ethic.”
It eventually carried him to the big leagues where he’s hitting .293 in 28 games as the new starting center fielder.
“He had to work,” McNamara said. “And he’s going to have work to stay. He knows it. You never have to talk to him about getting to the field early or doing extra work. That’s the kind of kid he is.”
And now he’s going home to play for the first, and probably not the last, time
“I can’t wait to see his reaction,” said teammate Brad Miller. “He’s going to run out on the field at Yankee Stadium as a big-leaguer. He’s earned it.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @RyanDivish