Linsanity in the NBA has fans digging for comparable out-of-nowhere heroes in other sports. Some have cited Fernando Valenzuela, who opened the 1981 season by winning his first eight starts, including five by shutout, going nine innings every time out. Others like Bob “Hurricane” Hazle, who sparked the Milwaukee Braves by hitting .473 with five homers and 19 RBIs in his first 14 games late in the 1957 season. His contributions helped the Braves reach the World Series, though his bat cooled off by October.
I don’t think we need to go back quite so far. In 2009 a journeyman first baseman/outfielder who had spent the previous four seasons stuck in Triple-A got a long-awaited opportunity to showcase his abilities. After taking an 0-for-4 in his first start, he slammed three extra-base hits in his second game, notching a double, triple, and home run as well as two RBIs. Two nights later he connected again, matching his previous career home run output (two in 31 games in 2007).
His second week was even better, as he homered in four consecutive games, single-handedly winning the last one by accounting for his team’s only runs with a pair of solo blasts in a 2-1, 14-inning victory.
Garrett Jones had arrived.
He finished the month of July with 10 homers, 17 RBIs, and a .310 batting average, plenty enough to earn him National League Rookie of the Month honors. While he wasn’t able to quite sustain that pace, he never completely cooled off, popping six more long balls in August and five in September, to finish with 21 in just half a season’s worth of playing time (82 games, 314 at-bats).
Of course, he accomplished all of that for the Pirates, so Jonesanity didn’t quite sweep the nation in the same fashion as Jeremy Lin’s heroics. No Kardashian sisters are known to have sought Jones out for a quickie marriage.
Jones’ road to the big time was nearly as meandering as Lin’s, and certainly longer. A 14th-round selection by the Braves out of high school in 1999, he never made it out of Rookie ball in three years in the Atlanta system. They released him in May 2002 and he signed with the Twins three days later. In his first taste of full-season ball, Jones connected for 10 home runs at Class A Quad Cities, but hit just .202 with a paltry .238 on-base percentage and struck out in more than a third of his at-bats.
His numbers were only a tick better the following season at high Class A Fort Myers. The power was clearly there, but he didn’t make frequent enough contact to take advantage of it. Until 2004, when the Twins pushed him to Double-A New Britain despite his clear inability to master A-ball pitching. Suddenly it clicked. In 122 games, Jones hit .311 with 30 homers and 92 RBIs. His 98/28 strikeout/walk ratio was still concerning, but he’d proven for the first time that he could produce runs in spite of his propensity to whiff.
This triggered a four-year residency in Rochester, where he connected for 81 home runs while seeming to hit that glass ceiling in Triple-A. Outside of a few short callups in 2007, he never got a shot in Minnesota, where Justin Morneau was entrenched at first base and the Twins didn’t yet visualize him as a corner outfielder.
Jones signed with the Pirates as a minor league free agent that winter, figuring he had a better shot at reaching the majors. The Pirates invited him to spring training, where he hit .294 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 51 at-bats. It wasn’t enough to break camp with the big club, and the tall lefty swinger opened the year back in the International League, this time with Indianapolis. He hit .307 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs in 72 games there before finally getting the call to Pittsburgh on June 30 when Eric Hinske was traded to the Yankees.
Once he got his chance, he capitalized. He’s been a fixture in the Pirates lineup the past two seasons, moving between first base and right field. In 2010 he matched his rookie output with 21 home runs, though his average tailed off to .247 and his on-base percentage tumbled from .372 to .306. Last year’s .243 average, .321 OBP, and .433 slugging percentage don’t match up with the better corner men in the league. Jones’ struggles against lefthanded pitchers cut into his playing time, limiting him to platoon duty versus righties, against whom he hit a solid .262/.346/.462.
This winter in his first year of eligibility, he took the Pirates to arbitration to determine his 2012 salary, and lost. He’ll earn $2.25 million this summer, close enough to the $2.5 million he sought to make one wonder why the team couldn’t have simply split the difference with him.
But these are the Pirates, after all. Pittsburgh is not New York. Jones’ spotlight wasn’t as bright as Lin’s, and his paycheck, while handsome, will likely be outsized as well when Lin cashes in after this season.