By Will Burchfield
JaCoby Jones brought his mother to tears two nights in a row.
On Monday, it happened over the phone. Jones had just learned he was being called up to the big leagues for the first time in his career, so he dialed home to tell his parents.
“That was probably the best call I’ve ever had in my life,” Jones said.
“My mom was crying as soon as I told her.”
On Tuesday, it happened in person.
With his family in attendance for his MLB debut, the 24-year-old lashed an RBI double in the bottom of the sixth inning, keying a four-run rally in the Tigers’ 8-4 win. He clapped his hands three times as he strode into second and then pointed to his parents and his sister in the crowd.
Jones’ mother drew her hands to her face and dried her eyes. Then she began pumping her fist in jubilation, the moment too dizzying to be filtered through a single emotion.
Jones felt the same way.
“That’s probably one of the biggest things that I can think about right now, is just my parents being here for that moment for me,” he said afterward. “I don’t even know how to describe it.”
It wasn’t always easy for Jones. Indeed, for such a highly-regarded prospect, he had a rather rocky road to the major leagues.
Originally drafted by the Pirates, he was unexpectedly shipped to the Tigers at last season’s trade deadline in exchange for Joakim Soria. Then in November he was suspended 50 games for his second violation of MLB’s drug policy (non-P.E.D. related), keeping him out of action for the first 38 games of the 2016 season.
When he returned to the field in May, he found himself playing third base instead of his natural position of shortstop. Then he was moved to center field, then to first base, then back to third, then back to center and so on and so forth from Double-A Erie to Triple-A Toledo.
And now, finally, to the big-league club in Detroit.
“It’s been a long 13 months,” he said. “But it’s all good and I’m here now, so I’m ready to go.”
The Tigers called upon Jones looking for a spark.
“See if we can inject a little bit of life into the offense,” Brad Ausmus said before Tuesday night’s game.
The team had scored just 10 runs in their prior four games, fatigued, perhaps, from the dog days of August. Meanwhile, resident third baseman Casey McGehee had hit just .235 since taking over for the injured Nick Castellanos.
The Tigers thought Jones, torching the ball in Toledo, could help.
“That gives me confidence that they have confidence in me,” Jones said before the game. “Hopefully I can continue to play ball the way I’ve always played ball and help them win some games down the stretch.”
On this night, at least, his words proved prophetic.
With the game tied at three in the bottom of the sixth, Jones stepped up to the plate with runners on first and second. The crowd cheered, sensing something special. In his first at-bat four innings prior, the fans had given him a standing ovation, a reception that left the calm and cool Jones momentarily dazed.
“I didn’t really know what to think, to be honest. I just heard a bunch of people screaming and I was like ‘Alright, I’m just gonna hit, I guess,’” he laughed.
Jones hit a hard ground ball back up the middle but it was snagged by the pitcher. The fans sighed and retook their seats.
Now in his second big moment, they began to rise again.
Things didn’t initially go according to plan for Jones, awkwardly fouling off a bunt attempt for strike one and prompting Ausmus to change up the signs.
“I wasn’t overly impressed with it,” the manager laughed. “We just let him swing at that point.”
Two pitches later, Jones slapped a line drive down the right field line, scoring Justin Upton and moving Jarrod Saltalamacchia to third. The rookie motored into second with a double, and then did his best to fit in.
“I pointed to the team and did something with my hands,” he laughed, picking up on the Tigers’ season-long routine.
He came around to score on an Ian Kinsler single shortly thereafter (which would ultimately become the winning run), nearly running down Saltalamacchia in the process. Of his many physical gifts, Jones’ greatest asset may be his speed, which is harnessed within a strong and streamlined stride.
But this night was about his first big-league hit, an accomplishment that left him relieved in the moment and reflective after it.
“It’s something I’ll never forget, my first big league hit,” Jones said. “It’s something you work hard for to get here. To do it on the first night at the plate, it’s simply amazing. I don’t have any other words to describe it.”
In his final trip to the plate, Jones delivered again, knocking an RBI single through the second-base hole in the bottom of the seventh. All told, he finished 2-4 with 2 RBIs and a run scored, while playing sound defense at third base. It was exactly the kind of all-around performance the Tigers were expecting out of their five-tool phenom.
“He’s not unknown,” Ausmus said. “We had him in spring training, we’ve see him play. He’s very athletic, he’s strong as well, so he’s kind of a physical-type baseball player. Tonight he showed that he’s got a little pop in the bat and he can run and he can play multiple positions.”
It remains to be seen how the Tigers use Jones moving forward. Ausmus indicated he’s open to playing the rookie at both third base and center field but will likely favor him against left-handed pitchers over righties. Either way, Jones doesn’t seem like a player who will get hung up on his role.
“They just told me I’m in there at third base tonight,” he explained before Tuesday’s game, “and I was like, ‘Alright, I’ll be ready.’ So here we go.”
It was a dream come true, after all. And who discriminates in fairy tails?
“Ever since [I was] a young kid just thinking about it, watching all these guys play in the big leagues, you wanna do that,” Jones said. “It’s just a great fulfillment in your heart.”
That fulfillment was shared by his parents, who booked plane tickets to Detroit the minute they get off the phone with their son on Monday night. His journey has also been theirs.
“For all these years they put up with me, travelling and everything, it’s amazing. I’m so glad they could be here for it,” said Jones.