Ruppert JonesAugust 10, 2009
(continued from Scott McGregor)
I used to live a few blocks north of a bustling Hasidic neighborhood in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. On Fridays as dusk approached the streets emptied but for a few stragglers who hustled to get where they were supposed to be before it got dark.
I never had anywhere to go on a Friday evening at dusk. Maybe later I’d end up at the International on Seventh Street in Manhattan, and I’d stay there for hours, until last call and beyond, and with a couple other regulars help Rose close and lock the gate, and then after a long wait for a subway and a ride under the East River, where decades earlier my grandfather was found floating, I’d stumble home as the sun rose.
My grandfather was an orthodox Jew and presumably hustled to get where he was supposed to be at sundown on Fridays. This notion of a place to be must have been the only thing that was the same in the country he had moved to and the country across the ocean where he’d been born. Everything else was different. The language, the customs, the ability to find work. He didn’t fit in anywhere, not even in his own home, where his children regarded him as a glowering stranger. He didn’t fit in anywhere except at sundown.
Ruppert Jones is unaware of the trophy that has been added to his portrait in the lower right of his 1978 card. Some would say we all have a blessing like that hovering nearby, invisible to us but there nonetheless, present, even tangible to the extent of our faith in the possibilities of the path ahead. I don’t know the nature of Jones’ faith, but one way or another he lasted several years beyond this early card in one of the most exclusive professions in the world, traveling from team to team as a valuable platoon player who could feast on right-handed pitching and field all three outfield positions ably. He found a place on the 1980 New York Yankees, who won more games than any other Yankee team between 1963 and 1998, found a place on the World Series champion 1984 Detroit Tigers, the best team in the history of that franchise, and found a place on the division-winning California Angels in 1986. But if there were a Hall of Fame for platoon players, Jones’ enshrinement would be commemorated by a plaque, or maybe half a plaque (the other half filled in by a right-handed batting specialist such as Rusty Kuntz or Lou Piniella), showing him as a member of the Seattle Mariners. He played more games for the Mariners than for any of his other five teams in his twelve-year career. More importantly, he was in some ways the First Seattle Mariner. A handful of players were purchased by the Mariners in late October of 1976, and a couple of those players logged time in a Seattle Mariners uniform, but Ruppert Jones was the very first player taken in the November 5 expansion draft, the cornerstone upon which the team chose to build.
The feeling of being taken first in the expansion draft is probably not as glorious as I’d like to believe it is. After all, your availability for that draft resulted from your original team deciding that you aren’t necessary. I wonder if a team that exposes a player to an expansion draft lets the player know that they have done so. If they do, maybe being taken in the expansion draft provides something of a vindication. Beyond that, maybe it restores a player’s hope in the future.
I want to believe it’s all that and more. I want to believe it’s like being born again.
Jones certainly responded as if he felt the same way. After hitting just .216 in a brief call-up in 1976 to an excellent Kansas City Royals team crowded with talented outfielders, Jones smacked 24 home runs for the Mariners and became the first Seattle Mariner representative at the All-Star Game.
By the end of 1977, Ruppert Jones had authored the best season of any of the four players featured on a “rookie outfielders” card that came out that year (and which unfortunately is not among the cards in my collection). Most of the time, when I revisit a card showing small photos of young players beneath a heading like “rookie outfielders” or “prospects” or “future stars,” I have a gratuitous chuckle over the failure of the players shown to make good on Topps’ promise of forthcoming major league prominence. But the rookie outfielders card Ruppert Jones made his cardboard debut upon is different. Besides Jones, the card features two other eventual All-Stars, Lee Mazzilli and Jack Clark. Though Clark surpassed Jones in career achievement and Mazzilli more or less matched him, Jones had the edge by the end of 1977.
There is a fourth player featured on the card: Dan Thomas. He would never appear on another.
My grandfather’s death did not shake my grandmother’s faith. If anything, she became even more religious. The youngest of her four children, my father, associates his own father’s death with an increase in times he was dragged to synagogue, weekly visits becoming daily.
Here is where you need to be, his mother was telling him. Here is your place in the world.
As soon as my father was old enough to live on his own, he stopped going to synagogue. I wonder if, when he was a young man, he ever found himself on a Friday at dusk quickening his pace out of habit, then slowing as he remembered that he didn’t have anywhere to go.
If there’s no place for you to be, where do you go?
Dan Thomas got off to a start in 1977 that suggested that he might be the best of the promising quartet on the rookie outfielders card. He continued to hit as he had at the end of the previous season. And the Brewers, fresh off their last place finish the year before, were winning. From mid-April to early May the Brewers led the division. Everyone was happy. In a harrowing offseason, Dan Thomas had found a place for himself in something called The Worldwide Church of God.
His new faith, specifically his following of the church’s observance of the Sabbath, put him at odds with major league baseball’s practice of scheduling games on every Friday night and Saturday. Even so, for a while he seemed to have also found a place for himself in the majors. By May 11, the Brewers had dropped a couple games out of first, but Thomas, now known as the Sundown Kid, continued to hit, getting his average up to .309, with an on-base percentage of .361 and a slugging percentage of .527. The following day he went 1 for 4 and slipped to .305 as the Brewers dropped their fourth game in a row and their eighth out of the last nine. They needed all the help they could get to stop their slide, but, as had been the case all season, their most effective hitter was unavailable because the game occurred after sundown on a Friday. Thomas was unavailable the next day, too. When he returned from his two-game absence, he began to slump. By May 18 his average had dropped to .271.
The Brewers decided they’d be better served without Dan Thomas on their roster, so they sent the Sundown Kid to their Triple A affiliate in Spokane.
(to be continued)
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(Love versus Hate update: Ruppert Jones’s back-of-the-card “Play Ball” result has been added to the ongoing contest.)