Monday, October 22, 2018

Ruppert Jones tells of his dark year with the New York Yankees

For most baseball players, wearing the New York Yankees uniform is a life-altering experience. One look at the legends in Monument Park can give even the most prolific athlete chills knowing that they are carrying the lineage of the most iconic figures ever to play the sport.

Ruppert Jones came to the Yankees in 1980 after a career-year with the Seattle Mariners where he played all 162 games while swatting 21 home runs and stealing 33 bases. He entered Yankee Stadium with the hopes of World Series victory and visions of patrolling the same center field as Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Ruppert Jones / Topps
Two months into the 1980 season, Jones led the team with 28 RBIs; however, his .222 batting average did little to evoke the memories of the aforementioned Hall of Famers. While Jones attributed his weakened average to a string of bad luck, his fortunes quickly changed for the worse on Memorial Day. Returning home after their May 26th game, he immediately knew that something was wrong. Stomach pains from earlier in the day became unbearable.

“When I got home, I started to throw up all night,” the 63-year-old Jones said via telephone from his San Diego home. “I was scheduled to pick up my wife at the airport, but I couldn’t pick her up. When she got in, she was kind of upset that I told her she had to catch a cab home. When she came home, she started to yell and scream, and when she came into the room, she saw the garbage can sitting there, and I’m puking.”

His wife called for an ambulance, recognizing that this was more serious than a stomach virus. After reaching the hospital, doctors resolved that Jones needed immediate surgery to treat complications related to his 1978 appendectomy.

“I had to have an emergency operation,” he said. “I had an appendix operation two years earlier and I had adhesions [that] caused a blockage. I was in a bad way. I was out for a month and a half. I didn’t come back until after the All-Star break.”

During his recovery in the hospital, Jones found inspiration while taking a visit to the pediatric ward. There he saw children battling cancers that were much tougher than any of Nolan Ryan’s fastballs.

''That really woke me up,'' Jones told the New York Times. ''Those kids had so much courage. They would never have the opportunity to do what I had done, so what was I complaining about?''

Jones returned from his abdominal surgery after the All-Star break, determined to deliver the player the Yankees envisioned in their trade. On August 25th, 1980, with the Yankees clawing to a half-game lead in the American League East, Jones took to his spot in center field in the first inning against the Oakland Athletics, focused on making an impact defensively.

With two runners on base, the Athletics power-hitting outfielder Tony Armas drove Tommy John’s offering screaming into the left-center gap. Racing to snare Armas’ blast, Jones connected squarely with Oakland’s cement outfield wall. With Jones lying on the ground motionless, the situation turned grave.

“They asked Gene Monahan what was the worst injury he had, and he said, ‘Ruppert Jones.’ I was the worst injury he ever had because I stopped breathing,” Jones said during his 2018 interview. “He had to get me breathing again before he could get me off the field.”


Jones suffered a severe concussion and separated shoulder that ended his 1980 campaign. The impact was so powerful that he was unable to recall the immediate 24 hours after he was injured.

''People tell me what happened,'' Jones said to the New York Times, ''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.''

Jones watched helplessly as the Yankees battled the Royals for the 1980 American League championship. Even though he could not participate on the field, he empathized as his teammates wrestled with defeat.

“I felt [their] pain; those guys really played hard,” he said. “Kansas City played a little better than we did. That is all you can say, they played a little better than we did, so consequently, they won; they outplayed us.”

As Jones worked his way back into shape, the Yankees traded him to the San Diego Padres during 1981 spring training. The trade marked a sojourn that included a 1982 National League All-Star selection and a World Series victory with the Detroit Tigers in 1984. After his final major league season with the California Angels in 1987, he continued to play in Japan and the minor leagues before hanging it up for good in 1989.

Looking at his post-concussion accolades, most fans would not understand the extent that Jones suffered the rest of his career. His injury came well before the sports community acknowledged the severity of concussions and their proper treatment.

“After my head injury, [my body] couldn’t do what I wanted it to do,” he said. “People don’t understand the damage that a head injury does to a person. Your head is your computer. It works all of the parts of your body. When it is not functioning ... parts of your body suffer.”

For the rest of his baseball playing days, the trauma altered not only his skills but also his life in ways that were never evident in any box score.

“I never got over it,” he said. “My shoulder was not the issue. I never was the same again. Some things happened to me that I didn’t know and that nobody knew. As the years progressed, I started getting an idea … my life was never the same again. Let’s just put it like that … I was never the same.”

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