The cheering starts the instant he steps from the shelter of the dugout, and it washes over him, wave upon wave, as he strides past each crowded section of the stadium. The people rise from their seats as he goes by, honoring him as if he were carrying the flag in a Bicentennial parade or bearing the Olympic torch. He does not look heroic. His face is plain and long-nosed, his curly hair unruly, and he walks in a shuffle reminiscent of period Henry Fonda. He acknowledges his worshipers by raising the fingers of his left—pitching—hand to the bill of his cap. When he reaches the bullpen in left field, he removes his jacket, and there is silence. Randy Jones of the San Diego Padres is about to warm up to pitch a baseball game.
John McNamara, the Padres' affable manager, sits in the dugout, smiling at the spectacle and spitting tobacco juice. "It happens every time," he says, expectorating onto the turf. "They cheer him even before he throws a ball." The 26-year-old Jones is the winningest pitcher in baseball this season, and on this warm evening last week in San Diego he would win his 14th game against only three losses. Even so, the reception seemed excessive. What is this hold that he has on the masses?
"It's the way he comes across," says McNamara. "He's a humble person, the underdog making good. People can relate to him. He's not that big in stature [6 feet, 180 pounds] and he is not overpowering on the mound. Randy's the common man's pitcher."
That's it, of course. Jones is to San Diegans a Mr. Deeds come to town, a John Doe to meet, a nice guy who outwits the slickers and wins the day. Fans are ordinarily drawn to the big strikeout pitchers, a Nolan Ryan or a Tom Seaver, whose sheer power holds them in awe. The so-called cunny-thumbers like Jones ordinarily are around only for the amusement of the purists. Jones, to borrow from Dizzy Dean's final assessment of his sore-armed self, "couldn't break a pane of glass" with his fastball. He retires batters by obliging them to hit his pitches to one of his infielders, a humdrum business at best. Nonetheless his popularity is unrivaled.
It was estimated that Sandy Koufax, when he was striking out all those hitters in the '60s, drew an extra 10,000 spectators to Dodger Stadium every time he started. The similarity between the pitching of Koufax and Jones ends with the fact that both are left-handed. Koufax' fastball was nearly 30 mph swifter than Jones', which has been clocked at a leisurely 73 mph. But Jones is the better drawing card. In his first dozen appearances at San Diego Stadium this season, he attracted crowds averaging 32,775. At Jonesless games, the Padres have drawn slightly more than 21,000.
One reason the faithful turn out in such unusual numbers is that Jones most often wins—and usually does so with dispatch. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who either perform interminable household chores on the mound or affix themselves to it like garden statues, Jones does not shilly-shally between pitches. And when he does throw the ball it is normally a strike. On June 22 he tied a 63-year-old National League record set by Christy Mathewson when he completed 68 consecutive innings without issuing a base on balls. Even when Jones is not throwing strikes, his uncanny sinkerball arrives at the plate looking like one. Then it plummets, so that even the mightiest hitters are reduced to topping rollers to the infield.
And Jones rarely requires succor from the bullpen, with all the tedium—conferences, auto trips and the like—such emergencies entail. In his first 20 starts this season he had 14 complete games, throwing an average of only 105 pitches in each.
The result of all these time-saving factors is that the average Jones game takes only two hours and two minutes, a fact that adds to his popularity with teammates and opponents alike, because he leaves them ample time after the game for dinner, cocktails and associated goings on. Jones' 3-1 win over the Reds last week was vintage stuff. He allowed only six hits, walked two batters (one intentionally) and induced the Cincinnati strongboys, against whom he now has a 7-4 career record, to hit a dozen ground outs. The time of the game was one hour and 49 minutes.
At his present clip Jones could arrive at the All-Star Game with the most impressive record since Don Newcombe of Brooklyn showed up there in 1956 with 18 wins and one loss. There is already talk of a 30-victory season, conversation which Jones, ever unassuming, diligently tries to suppress. But the speculation persists. Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner, had a record of 16-2 at the mid-season break in 1968. With a week still to go before this year's All-Star Game, Jones had won 15 times, including a 5-2 victory over the Dodgers that followed his win against the Reds last week.
If Jones avoids injury—and receives a modicum of good fortune—his chances for 30 would seem reasonably good, because he clearly is no half-season wonder. He won 20 games last year while losing 12, and led the league with an ERA of 2.24.