➔ See how BaltimoreBaseball.com can grow your business.
The message came as I was getting ready for bed. The Orioles were in San Diego, and a former major league pitcher was messaging me, asking if I had time for lunch while the Orioles were there.
I don’t generally get asked to lunch by former big leaguers, so this was an easy yes.
Three years before, in the middle of the pandemic, the Orioles were playing the Yankees in an empty Camden Yards. Most nights, there were just four of us, spread out, in the press box, watching games without fans.
An email arrived during the game, asking if I was the same Rich Dubroff who lived on Gerritsen Avenue in Brooklyn. It was from a familiar name.
In the spring of 1971, I was 14, and my friend Chris Smith and I decided we should start fan clubs for players. Chris was much more of a Mets fan than I was, and I was more the Yankees fan.
Those were the Mets less than two years removed from their spectacular upset of a World Series win against the Orioles in 1969. Gil Hodges was their manager. They had future Hall of Fame pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. Many of their players had been with the Mets for that World Series win.
As I recall, Chris’ choice was Don Hahn, a reserve outfielder of no particular distinction. I think Hahn sent some autographed cards in answer to Chris’ letter.
I went the more obscure route.
Those Yankees were years removed from their last World Series win, and five years away from their next. No one had yet heard of George Steinbrenner.
I knew that the Yankees’ stars — Thurman Munson, Bobby Murcer and Mel Stottlemyre — weren’t going to answer my letter, so I called in a pitcher from the bullpen who had only pitched in a handful of major league games, Gary Jones.
Jones was a left-handed reliever who pitched in just 14 major league games in 1970 and 1971. His brother, Steve, was also a left-hander who pitched in 38 games from 1967-1969 with the Chicago White Sox, Washington Senators and Kansas City Royals.
There were few brothers who played in major league baseball, and fewer still who were both left-handed relievers.
The brothers would find their way into my answers for “Immaculate Grid.” While others would think of Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams for a Yankee who played for only them, I had a better answer.
Steve came in handy for those combination of White Sox and Texas Rangers grids. For those of you too young to remember, the Senators became the Rangers in 1972.
I wrote a letter with my terrible handwriting to Gary asking if I could start a fan club. He answered quickly and we exchanged letters.
In July, I went to camp in Pennsylvania, and they took us on a bus trip to Yankee Stadium for Old Timers’ Day. Casey Stengel would make his first appearance as a Yankee since they fired him in 1960.
Before the game, I made my way to the bullpen and spotted No. 39. I called his name and tried to tell him who I was. He stared blankly at me but didn’t come over to say hello.
The next day he was sent to the minor leagues, and his major league career was over with a 7.88 earned-run average.
Jones went back to Syracuse, the Yankees’ Triple-A team, and after the season was traded twice in the same day, once to Texas and then to Cleveland.
In 1972, he had a lackluster year for Portland, Cleveland’s top minor league team. We exchanged letters again, and then his career was over.
His name was a common one, and by the time I began covering baseball, few people were around who knew him. One longtime major league coach said that he heard he had done well in California real estate.
I made a few halfhearted attempts to find him, but foolishly didn’t use his legal name, which is Gareth. I doubted that he’d remember me.
Then came the pandemic, and the email that shocked and delighted.
I quickly answered it, and the next week had a phone call with him. He said he didn’t want me to interview him. He was happy to just talk, to get to know each other. He was a private person.
He had kept my letter for five decades. I was ashamed that I hadn’t kept his autographed photos when I moved out of my parents’ house.
After the late-night message, we arranged lunch for the next day. I walked two blocks from my hotel to the restaurant. He drove two hours.
I immediately recognized a man in his late 70s who looked years younger. After baseball, Gary has had a happy and successful life, a nearly six-decade marriage to Diane, who also looks far younger than her years, children and grandchildren, including one college baseball player.
He had done well investing in real estate and publishing, and satisfies his need for competition by playing racquetball.
Former major league manager Rene Lachemann, a Southern California contemporary, introduced him to racquetball late in Jones’ career, and he’s nationally ranked as a senior.
We talked about baseball and he was eager to know about my job and my thoughts on the game. He still follows the sport, but not closely and presented me with a photo of his Little League team, the Maywood Crushers.
Jones grew up in Orange County, and in the picture, there were four people who played in the major leagues: Jones; Tommy Harrison, who pitched an inning for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965; Dennis Saunders, the team’s bat boy and son of the team’s coach, who pitched in eight games for the 1970 Detroit Tigers; and a tall, familiar looking boy, Jimmy Wiesen, who we now know as Jim Palmer.
Palmer was away from the Orioles at the time because of Covid but remembered the team when he saw the photo.
I couldn’t believe that a former major leaguer not only kept my more than 50-year-old letter but had driven two hours to meet me. I told Gary that I’d met hundreds of major leaguers, and while I would have eagerly driven two hours to interview some of them, I had picked the only one who would have gone to such an effort.
The Gary Jones Fan Club was just my friend and I in 1971, but it should have been larger. Jones’ major league career should have been longer.
I’ve been fortunate in life to be blessed by a long and happy marriage and terrific fortune professionally. He’s had the same.
I just wish there were more Gary Jones’ in baseball.
RAVENS LINKS FROM BALTIMORESPORTS.COM