By Will Burchfield
Mikie Mahtook and JaCoby Jones, reclining in their leather locker room chairs, swiveled to face each other and smiled.
“It’s a pretty rare thing,” said Mahtook.
“I think it’s awesome,” said Jones.
The two Detroit Tigers are once again teammates, six years after playing together at LSU. They hold down neighboring spots in Detroit’s outfield just as they sit side by side in the clubhouse.
“I got to meet him when I was 20 and he was 18,” said Mahtook, now 27. “And now I get to see him at 24. I mean, that’s pretty cool. It’s my first time playing with a teammate from college.”
“Me too,” said Jones.
They have a unique rapport, Mahtook and Jones, both laid-back and lively at the same time. They lounge in their chairs when talking but jump at the chance to finish one another’s sentences. This eagerness is emblematic of the way they play.
“We talk about it all the time, being in the outfield together,” said Jones, who patrols center. “We’re both pretty fast.”
“Basically two centerfielders,” said Mahtook, who patrols right.
Between the two of them, the Tigers have quite the defensive luxury.
“You hit a ball in the air and it’s got some hang time,” said Jones, popping grapes into his mouth like candy, “there’s a pretty good chance it’s gonna get run down.”
Said Mahtook, “It’s gonna get caught.”
The season is young, but the Tigers have already begun to reap the rewards of this Baton Rouge-bred duo. Jones is making the vast outfield at Comerica Park look small and Mahtook has a way of turning extra-base hits into singles. On a team that makes most of its gains on offense, Jones and Mahtook are especially valuable for their defense.
Tyler Collins, who splits time with Mahtook in right, hasn’t been surprised by either player’s performance.
“J.J.’s just fun, he’s electric, he’s got that energy about him, and Mikie is just as specimen as it comes. So when you see what they’ve been doing, it’s like you can expect to see stuff like that because they’re so talented,” Collins said.
Size up Mahtook and the word specimen certainly rings true. His biceps burst out of his t-shirt sleeves and his forearms are carved with veins. Jones is a bit longer, still growing into his frame, but both players have this in common: bounce. They move as if propelled by springs.
They share some character traits, too.
“It’s just our competitiveness, our competitive nature is way up,” said Jones. “We hate to lose and we want to win all the time, so we do whatever it takes to get the job done.”
This isn’t lip service. Jones and Mahtook are so possessed with winning they still lament the 2011 season at LSU, the one year in which they were teammates.
“We were 36-20 but we didn’t make the playoffs,” said Jones.
“We should have,” said Mahtook.
“We won our last 15 out of 16,” said Jones.
“We needed to go 16 out of 16 to make it,” said Mahtook.
So, who dealt them the one loss?
“Mississippi State,” said Jones, with a rueful smile.
Mahtook nodded, needing no reminder. “7-6,” he said. “Walk-off.”
Mahtook was a junior that season and the star of the team, an All-American centerfielder who would be drafted in the first round of the MLB draft later that year. (LSU coach Paul Mainieri is on record as saying Mahtook might be “the most electric player” he’s ever had in his program.) Jones was a freshman with gobs of potential.
“I was kind of on my way out and he was on his way to being the guy,” said Mahtook. “I left and he was supposed to take over for me in center, and then…”
“…something happened with our infield,” Jones explained, “so I had to play another season at second base.”
Though they spent only one year together at LSU, Mahtook and Jones made some fun memories. At least, that’s the way it appears. Asked if they had any stories worth telling — college-type stories — they looked at each other like crooks and instantly started to laugh.
“Oh, we’ve got a few,” said Jones, as a Chainsmokers song rang out from the clubhouse speakers.
“But I don’t think they’re good for print,” Mahtook clarified.
From LSU, Jones entered the Tampa Bay Rays organization and Jones, drafted in 2013, entered that of the Pittsburgh Pirates. They kept in touch as much as they could – “It’s a little tough during the season because there’s so many games,” Mahtook explained – and hung out in the offseason at their old stomping grounds in Baton Rouge.
In 2015, Jones was traded to the Tigers. 18 months later, Mahtook was, too. Now here they are in the Bigs, neighbors in the same clubhouse just like they were in college. (“Actually,” Mahtook clarified, “we had one locker between us.) Seriously — what are the odds?
“It’s crazy because you don’t ever expect to be traded and not only did I get traded, he got traded,” said Mahtook. “So you tell me he was with the Pirates and I was with Tampa, and then he gets traded one year, I get traded the next year and now we’re playing together? It’s…”
He paused, searching for the right words.
Jones jumped in: “It’s just a crazy thing.”
“We don’t expect it to happen that way,” Mahtook added, “but it does.”
After Mahtook was dealt to Detroit this winter, Jones sent him a text.
“I was like, ‘Maybe we’ll be in the outfield together soon.’ I didn’t know I was going to be in the big leagues at the time, but I knew at some point we’d play together,” Jones said.
It wouldn’t take long, of course. And in hindsight we shouldn’t be surprised. They were Tigers in college, so it’s only fitting that they’re Tigers in the Bigs.
In a story flush with coincidence, perhaps the most ironic twist is this: Mahtook and Jones didn’t ask to sit next to each other in the Tigers clubhouse. As newcomers to the team, they weren’t really in the position of making requests.
“They just put us like this,” said Jones.
Mahtook agreed: “It was all them.”
Then the two of them smiled, wondering at the serendipity, clearly happy with how things worked out.