Day 27 of 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Ruppert Jones gets his head around the truth

“#NeverGiveUp: A Memoir of Baseball
& Traumatic Brain Injury”

The author:
Ruppert Jones
With Ryan Dempsey

The publishing info:
Self published
228 pages
Released April 23, 2021

The links:

Caption for above photo:
Home plate umpire Rocky Roe calls the Angels’ Ruppert Jones safe after he slid past Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman, tying the score in the bottom of the ninth in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS on Oct. 12 at Anaheim Stadium. Jones, running for Bob Boone, scored on Rob Wilfong’s single. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The review in 90 feet or less

When Adam Ulrey wrote a 3,000 word piece on Ruppert Jones’ life and times for the Society For American Baseball Research’s BioProject, it began:

“If a movie of Ruppert Jones’ career were to be made, its title might be ‘What Could Have Been.’ This gifted five-tool player was beset by injuries throughout his career. He could hit with power to all fields and run like a gazelle. Jones called homers “accidents,” maintaining that he was at the plate to make contact and get base hits. He hit 147 accidents in his career. He came to Seattle from Kansas City after being the very first pick in the 1976 expansion draft. Jones was the first Mariner to be an All-Star, in 1977 and made the team again, this time for the National League, for the San Diego Padres in 1982. As a Mariner playing in front of small crowds, Jones heard the constant chants of his name: “ROOP! ROOP! ROOP!”

Hmmm … think about how a movie would look …

Opening scene: Overhead shot of Olympic Stadium in Montreal, with 59,000 in attendance, scene of the July 13, 1982 All-Star Game

Ruppert Jones’ voiceover describes his season to that point with the San Diego Padres:

“Despite all my problems, I was playing great this season. The fans in San Diego really took a liking to me. They even had T-shirts made up with ‘Rupe’s Troops’ written on them. I was playing so well that I was selected to the National League All-Star team … The National League took pride in trying to beat the American League. All the National League players talked about was winning the game. Their attitude was infectious and when the game time arrived, I was ready to play.”

Cut to video clip of ABC’s coverage of the game:

Jones comes up as a pinch hitter leading off the bottom of the third inning. He hits the first pitch off Dennis Eckersley, deep to right-center field that looks like a home run. It slices off the wall and bounces high between right fielder Reggie Jackson and center fielder Fred Lynn, caroming sharply on the artificial turf back toward the infield. Jackson chases down the ball, picks it up just before it reaches second baseman Bobby Grich, and Jones steams into third base, celebrating a triple.

Two batters later, Pete Rose hits a fly ball to medium right-center field. Jackson makes the catch. Jones breaks for the plate. A head-first slide gets his left hand in around a tag attempt by Carlton Fisk to score on the sacrifice fly. The National League’s lead goes to 3-0. The camera picks up Jones coming back to the dugout, getting a hug from National League Manager Tommy Lasorda, then high fives from Gary Carter, Al Oliver, Dale Murphy, Steve Howe and Steve Sax.

ABC commentator Don Drysdale remarks: “It took the speed of Ruppert Jones to beat the tag because Reggie made one whale of a throw!”

Back to Jones’ narration over the video:

“I thought Tommy might put me back into the game, but he didn’t. So, you know what I did instead? I went to the restroom and snorted cocaine.”

Ominous notes of a violins plays as Jones’ narration continues:

“To an outsider, I was completely out of control and reckless, which I was. But it’s easy to judge someone only by what we see on the outside. Rarely do we know what’s happening with a person on the inside. We all have something going on inside, and that’s important to consider before making judgements because that paints a clearer picture. But back then, even I didn’t understand what was going on inside. While I was in the restroom, the National League won the All-Star game, 4-1.”

So how do you remember Ruppert Jones?

A while after his two All-Star appearances with Seattle and San Diego, and coming off his time with the Tigers as they won the 1984 World Series, his last three seasons are in Anaheim.

Starting in 1985, Jones aligns with manager Gene Mauch. The team lost Lynn to free agency and found Jones as a needed bat. He responded with 21 homers, primarily as the DH, second on the team to Jackson’s 27.

The next season, Jones had 17 more homers but hit only .239, playing more right field because Jackson, now 40, took over as DH. That year, of course, the Angels made it to the AL Championship Series but tragically lost to the Red Sox.

In the Angels’ ’87 hangover, Jones’ playing time diminished as Devon White and Gary Pettis were coming up, and Brian Downing, Bill Buckner, George Hendrick and Tony Armas shared the DH heavy lifting.

Jones was free again at age 32. He tried to come back with Milwaukee, but didn’t make the team out of spring training. He did a minor-league deal with Texas and played some Triple A games, then headed to Japan with the Hanshin Tigers for 52 games. He came back to the Rangers’ organization at Oklahoma City, tore a rotator cuff and labrum in 1989, and was done after 27 games.

A career war of 22.6 that included a .250 batting average, 147 homers and 579 RBIs with an OPS of .746 is what the baseball card says for the 5-foot-10, 170-pound left-handing hitter, a third-round draft choice of the Kansas City Royals in ’73 out of Berkeley High. His travels went to Seattle — the first pick by the Mariners in the ‘76 expansion draft – then a key piece in a trade to the Yankees after the ’79 season.

That one year with the Yankees in ’80 would be a turning point in his career, his life, and a reason to write a book about it all 40 years later.

The quotes pulled from Jones above about the ’82 All Star game are on pages 100 and 101 of this memoir. Five chapters into Jones’ new book describes growing up in Texas, moving to Oakland, becoming a three-sport star who ran with Claudell Washington and Glenn Burke, then reaching the majors, we get to “The Day That Changed My Life.”

The sports cover (B11) of the New York Times on Aug. 26, 1980. The story is here.

He had already come back from what he considered a near-death experience, and six weeks on the disabled list, hospitalized with an intestinal obstruction after an emergency appendectomy.

At Oakland Coliseum on Aug. 25, 1980, chasing down a fly ball hit by the A’s Tony Armas, Jones ran head-first into the center field wall.

Jones says he has no recollection of what happened.

In a New York Times’ 1981 spring training story, as Jones was trying to make his comeback, he said: “People tell me what happened. But there’s a whole night of my life I don’t remember. Initially, I was just grateful I was still alive. When I woke up feeling somewhat fine and alive, I was relieved.”

In a USA Today piece that would appear years later, New York Yankees trainer Gene Monahan said Jones’ injury was the worst he’d ever treated because he stopped breathing for awhile and they had to clear his airways. Teammates Lou Pinella and Bobby Murcer rushed to his side and felt helpless. Jones said he never knew those facts until he read that story. He missed the rest of that season because of the concussion along with a separated shoulder and broken clavicle.

But what really happened?

It didn’t dawn on Jones until 2010, when he was reading about the way Justin Moreau once slid into second base, hit his head on the infielder’s knee, and was ruled out for the rest of the season. The Minnesota Twins’ All Star and 2006 AL MVP had what was diagnosed as Traumatic Brain Injury. The symptoms are frightening and sobering.

Writes Jones:

It made me stop and think: Hold on! He hit the second baseman’s knee with his head and he was having all kinds of issues. I ran into an outfield wall chasing a fly ball and suffered a severe concussion that knocked me out cold … The more I read, the more answers I found about what I had been living with for the past 30 years – regret, guilt and countless unknowns.”

As he found through therapy, the aftereffects of Jones’ injury led to a better understanding about his previous issues with depression, black-out drinking and cocaine use. All those things he said actually calmed his racing mind, which had led to a lack of discipline and self control, memory loss, confusion, having to spend a night in jail with a DUI and missing the birth of his son, outbursts in the locker room, his wife leaving him, the inability to function as a single dad, bankruptcy, lack of identity, emotional imbalance … and now trying to repent.

As for his time with the Angels, starting the ’87 season, he writes on page 121:

“I was inundated with negative energy and bad karma. My mood swings were severe. Anger and frustration would build up until I exploded. I was always worried, and I slept less with each passing day. I started to hear voices in my head that would haunt me to no end. People might not understand what I mean when I say that, but it felt like … a devil who ran his mouth nonstop and quickly became the enemy.”

He broke up a locker room table at one point. It was a flashback to a time he was with the Padres and nearly choked out teammate Alan Wiggins for interrupting his card game.

Enlightenment, and the need to help others, puts Jones in the position to write this book – self-published through Amazon. With his second-wife and business partner Betty, Jones can reboot, reassess and refocus on telling his story. It may not change the minds of those who still see him as the erratic being and locker room wildcard.

But this is a tremendous way to reboot.

Our author Q&A

Because the book speaks so much about the message Jones wants to get out, we’ll refrain from asking him to reiterate. Yet in speaking to him from his home in Poway, Jones sounded more curious about how we personally got out of his story and explained the process of getting it out:

Q: What has the response been so far? Have you heard from any other Major League Baseball players who tell you they’ve had a similar experience and find solitude in what you’ve written here?

A: It’s all coming in piecemeal. Not a lot of athletes so far, but many people who say ‘You’ve helped me out with myself or a loved one,’ or someone they know. That’s the feedback. A lot of the people I’ve talked to seem to take away something different. There are many ways to connect. One person said he thought it was also important to talk about my experiences playing on championship teams. People are interested in that too.

Q: When you’re asked “How are you doing these days?” what assessment do you go through to describe that and answer?

A: When I wake up each day I try to record everything I do, keep a list. That really helps me look at the positives. When you’re dealing with depression or a negative mindset, you don’t really get to focus on how many positive things happen. Consequently, when I go through my day, I’ll write – made breakfast, rode my bike, did a Sudoku puzzle, went to the gym to exercise. That’s an important regime. Now I can go back and see how productive day I had. It’s like adding up the numbers at the end of the day.

Q: How did your book come about and what was the process of eventually deciding to self-publish?

A: You know the book industry is having trouble like a lot of things, and if it was easy to write a book, everyone would be doing it. You’ve got have the nerve to want to do something like this.

When I got going on this, people kept telling me there wasn’t any money in book writing. But that wasn’t my goal. Initially I just started writing down things that happened to me, going back and assessing myself. That was over six or seven years. I would write with pencil and paper. My wife would transcribe it onto the computer. When I looked at all I went through, it was very unusual circumstances. The fact I played as long as I did was a great accomplishment.

When I finished the process, I had one publisher express interest, but wanted me to give away most of my rights and I didn’t want to do that. I found a co-author (Ryan Dempsey) who worked with me on this, captured my voice, did a fantastic job. When we couldn’t find a publisher we wanted, we found someone who specialized in self-publishing. Once we gave her all the materials, she had it up on Amazon in 24 hours.

Q: Where do you connect spiritually or religiously in your community?

A: We go to the Church of Rancho Bernardo now the last five or six years. I try to do things in my community as much as possible, take care of the local merchants. I don’t golf as much as I did, but I will get out to Vista Valley, Rancho Bernardo, St. Mark in San Marcos.

Q: You said in the book that you can’t control how others judge you, and your actions in the past are sometimes difficult for others to change their opinion of you considering how you’ve come out on this side of things. Do you think this book will change opinions of you with people who are important?

A: The most important thing is who I am. If I’m trying to change what people think, that’s going about it in an artificial manner. Those aren’t real changes. If you make changes that come from within, it will be apparent and it will show. If I change the way I’m supposed to be changing, it will be noticed.

Q: Are you in contact at all with the Angels about reunions or other events? It seems you’ve stayed connected with the Mariners, Tigers and Padres.

A: When I got out of baseball – and my last couple of years were tortue to me – I didn’t want to get back. It was too painful. I will get invited back to Seattle (as he is the first Mariners player). I’ll get out to Padres games since they’re local. I do love living in this area.

Q: It’s apparent you want your story to help others. What do you hope they get out of it?

A: I lived a long time with that stigma about treating mental health and I don’t want anyone to have to go through that. Get help, get assistance they need. Recreational drugs are more detrimental to gaining any sort of stability you need. Even when you find balance and stability, it’s hard to get your life together. But you have a much better chance of getting there. If I can help as many people as possible, then it’s worth the effort. They have to understand they have a chance, but it takes assuming responsibility in themselves. If you’re looking for excuses you won’t get anything done. I feel I’ve purged a lot of things with this book, removed a lot of bad feelings I had for myself. Really. I am able to have a better perspective of myself.

How it goes in the scorebook

In light of the fact Jones once hit a home run clear out of the old Comiskey Park, or two more  out of old Tigers Stadium, this is a true sacrifice.

“I can’t articulate how comforting it was for me to learn all (of what happened),” Jones writes on page 177. “After living in the dark for so long .. I learned so much and those answers delighted me. Then I did something I had not done in a very long time – I cried. Out of relief after all those years … I survived it all and had fought the unknown for more than 20 years to the best of my ability, only to learn that what I lived with could never have been conquered on its own or by the way I had been going about it.”

And on page 185: “I have gone from a man profoundly scarred by his past – a past wrought with negativity, ostracization and being treated like I was the scum of the earth – to a man who was learning what he had to overcome in the face of adversity, and it was beyond what anyone could ever imagine. I couldn’t explain or define it until I learned the truth about TBI and CTE. The more I read the more I was able to forgive myself for so much that had gone wrong in my life.”

Jones isn’t looking for excuses, just explanations. And truths, which were very hard to process, but necessary to move on. He takes plenty of ownership for his actions, but when you find out the genesis of why they occurred, with today’s modern methods, you can watch a movie like “Concussion,” or read a deeply personal account like this, and connect dots in a way you literally couldn’t do in prior years.

More to cover

== Jones talked to Andrew Maraniss for the Pandemic Baseball Book Club (we reviewed Maraniss’ book about Glen Burke last March):

*A bio of Jones done for the Baseball Hall of Fame Baseball Card project includes:

“Jones received his first exclusive baseball card in 1978. (In 1977, he shared a “Rookie Card” with three other prospects, including Jack Clark and Lee Mazzilli.) I’ve come to appreciate the card for a variety of reasons. First, the ’78 set is arguably the best offering from Topps during the late 1970s. The simple design, consisting of a thin colored line near the border and the team name in colorful script, works well, allowing the photograph to breath.

“Second, the Jones shows off the road uniform colors used by the Seattle Mariners in their first season. We also see Jones wearing the Mariners’ vintage cap, highlighted by that memorable trident. I loved both the trident and the bluish-green tint of the uniforms and never understood why the Mariners abandoned the logo and the look in the late 1980s.

“The Jones card is also notable for the inclusion of Topps’ iconic “All Star Rookie” cup. Each season, Topps selected an all-rookie team; every selection received the cup designation on his card, always featured in bright yellow for some reason. I can’t imagine that the real cup was actually yellow, but Topps went with that color on the animated cup, perhaps because it stood out so intensely against the rest of the card. I mean, how could you not notice that incredibly bright yellow cup?”

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