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May 14, 2009 / Sports

With future full of promise, Jones enjoys the moment

The Brooklyn Paper
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There is the lightning in his left arm that draws 15 to 20 Major League scouts for each scheduled start. There is the athleticism that has them drooling, his ability to throw a baseball 400 feet flat-footed or dunk a basketball without a running start. There is his sensational skill with a bat in his meaty palms, the speed in which he brings it through the zone, the power he packs upon contact.

All of it – the mid-90s fastball, the foot speed and the power – comes secondary to those close to Long Island University junior James Jones. They are just part of the man, a self-proclaimed jokester who leads team cheers in Spanish – he doesn’t speak the language, ironically – eats honey buns during stolen bases and playfully dons the NCAA-mandated helmets coaches must wear on the bench to get a laugh.

“When you see J.J. play,” pitching coach Joshua MacDonald says, “you see a Little Leaguer.”

In temperament, but obviously not ability. He got his start at the age of 7 in the Brooklyn Bonnies summer baseball organization. He found his way to Telecommunications as a sophomore, instantly becoming a starter. He pitched and played the field, leading the Yellow Jackets to the postseason each of his three seasons.

“It was like getting three players in one,” Telecomm coach Ed D’Alessio says. “He’s the best player I’ve ever had.”

As a senior, he hit a grand slam off Grand Street Campus superstar right-hander Dellin Betances, a former summer ball teammate with Youth Service who is now in the New York Yankees organization.

When LIU recruiting coordinator Craig Noto came back from taking a look at Jones, he told head coach Don Maines: “I just found the franchise.”

“You could tell he was something different,” says junior right-hander Matt Owens.

The strapping 6-foot-3, 185-pound Jones instantly became a fixture at LIU, particularly once he began filling out. He was a first-team All-NEC selection as a sophomore, finishing third in the conference with 41 runs scored and stole a team-best 19 bases. He is batting a team-best .370 with eight doubles, seven home runs and 28 RBIs. He has struck out 52 in 58 1/3 innings pitched. Baseball America rated him as their 65th prospect in the country and 35th among draft-eligible college players.

“Bottom line is, J.J. is one of the most talented athletes you’ll ever be around,” MacDonald says.

His stock started to skyrocket this summer, when he spent time as a reliever with the Waterloo Bucks of the Northwoods League, considered by many the next step down from the Cape Cod Baseball League.

Jones hasn’t enjoyed the best junior season on the mound, at least as far as numbers go. He has been bedeviled by one bad pitch here or there. Yet, the opposition generally leaves impressed.

“He has the livest arm we’ve seen, maybe since I’ve been here,” Wagner College slugger Vin Avella said on Saturday. “He was impressive, very composed. He’s definitely a big-time prospect with a lot of potential to grow.”

It’s particularly impressive considering his locale. Brooklyn, the home of such greats Shawon Dunston and John Franco, isn’t known for producing standout baseball prospects. Jones wasn’t recruited much out of Telecommunications. After he landed at LIU, he never wanted to leave, finding comfort in a local setting.

“This sport is different from basketball or football – you don’t have to go to a big school to succeed,” he says. “Maybe it’s an eye opener that there are a lot of underrated guys in the Northeast.”

One American League scout who has followed Jones’ career closely said his projection as a hard-throwing left-hander – he still hasn’t completely filled out, so his velocity should improve – and athleticism is what intrigues most teams. Jones is currently projected to be drafted in the top three rounds, something no baseball player at LIU has ever done before.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go pretty high,” the scout said with a wink.

He has a fluid motion, improving secondary pitches and a warm personality, which is an added attraction, the scout said. A team doesn’t want to have to worry about a problem, particularly given the amount of money doled out to players selected in the top three rounds.

His pure athleticism – he can squat 400 pounds – adds to the total package with Jones. Although he is being looked at as a pitcher by most clubs, the scout said, his ability with the bat isn’t overlooked. Maines, the fourth-year coach, said Jones produced the highest score among all LIU athletes in the Nike Sparq Test, an assessment of athleticism.  

“There’s an old saying,” the scout said. “Give us an athlete and we’ll make you a baseball player.”

Jones, despite the constant presence of scouts and chatter about his looming future, hasn’t let it distract him from the task ahead. It is consistent with Jones’ personality. He lives for the moment. “Forget about the past, the future is a mystery. The present time is a gift from God,” his mother, Brena, says he likes to repeat. When friends ask about his future, about the millions he could make or his next home, he sheepishly smiles and changes the subject.

Tomorrow is never guaranteed,” he says.

Owens, his roommate, said the two have never discussed the draft. Jones is far more concerned with the Blackbirds’ remaining games, how they can improve. He, Maines said, will be the one voice in a blowout barking out encouragement.

“There’s zero ego with J.J.,” MacDonald says. “Our current record isn’t what we would like it to be, and it’s very easy to quit, but he never does. He never complains. When we lose J.J., we won’t be talking about losing his arm on the mound, we won’t be talking about losing his hitting prowess or speed on the base paths, we’ll be talking about losing a genuine person.”

Says Maines: “We need to pull the tarp, he’s the first guy to pull the tarp, first guy carrying diamond dry to the field. You see him at a softball game last week, talking to all the other athletes. … I see him in the training room – he wants to be an athletic trainer – enjoying his time there. He has to get clinical hours in for requirements. A lot of guys are like I don’t need it, but he’s getting his hours in.

“These are things, quite honestly, I will always remember about the kid.”

Jones does think about the future, he says. Very often, in fact. He thinks about how far he’s come, from a skinny young man who told his mom one day he would be a professional baseball player to the young man who draws scouts for every start. It was always his dream; he never thought it would happen so quickly.

“I never knew what it was to be a high prospect,” he says, flashing that infectious smile yet again.

Now he does. Jones said it was a tough transition, getting used to radar guns and notepads. It hasn’t changed him, not as a person or as a player. He is still the same, still wants to remain active on the bench and make others smile.

Soon, Jones’ life will change dramatically. His bank account will be different. He will move from Brooklyn, the only home he has known.

James Jones the person will remain.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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