New infield coach clicking with youngsters
In first year with Cubs, Jones striking chord with Castro, Baez
MESA, Ariz. -- Nearly every morning, before most players have arrived at the Cubs' complex, new third-base and infield coach Gary Jones grabs his fungo bat and gets to work.
This will be Jones' 33rd season in professional baseball, but only his second on a big league staff. If anyone knows about how hard it is to get to the big leagues, it's Jones. He never made it as a player.
Jones first met Cubs manager Rick Renteria when the two were in the Padres' Minor League system, and they spent seven years there. He was one of the first people Renteria wanted on his staff in Chicago. Jones' job now is to help the Cubs' infielders, hence the pre-sunrise sessions.
"My thing is just to get to know the players, find out what they like to do," Jones said. "We work together. I give out suggestions, they give me feedback -- 'Do you like it? How does it feel?' It's all about the players. We're in this for the players."
Before he injured his hamstring, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro was one of Jones' star pupils.
"It's pretty good work every day," Castro said. "[His message is to] attack the ball, keep your left foot in front and throw straight to first base."
Castro has worked with other infield coaches on his footwork, but he seemed to be responding to Jones' instruction.
"It's just a rhythm thing to keep his feet moving so to speak, so that once he catches the ball, he's in a better position to throw the ball, as opposed to catching it and getting his feet in position," Jones said of the shortstop, who has led the National League in errors the last three seasons. "We're just trying to get his feet in position."
Jones, 53, hadn't seen much of Castro live before camp began, but he did his homework this offseason, watching videos of the shortstop and all the other Cubs infielders.
"He's a talented kid, but the biggest thing is on routine balls, we never want to catch them flat-footed," Jones said of Castro. "You want a little rhythm, a little timing and [to] keep your feet moving. He's been doing great. Before he came down with this hamstring thing, he was doing outstanding and coming along real well. Once he gets healthy and gets back on the field, I don't think he'll miss a beat."
So far, the feedback Jones has received has been positive. They may be on the field before breakfast, but that's what Spring Training is for. Jones' latest pupil is top prospect Javier Baez, who will open at shortstop at Triple-A Iowa but has been getting playing time at second base.
"We're in it for those guys -- whatever they need, that's what we're here to do is get them to feel good about themselves, get them to feel comfortable making plays," Jones said. "Defense is just like offense -- it's a muscle memory type of thing."
But it's usually much easier to get players to hit early than work on fielding grounders.
"That's the most fun part about playing this game is hitting," Jones said. "I try to relate it to hitting in some aspects. I'll mention to the guys, 'Hey, the things you guys are doing in the cage -- the tee work, the soft toss, developing repetition, developing a feel for your swing -- that's the same thing we need to do defensively with your footwork, our rhythm and timing defensively as well. It goes hand in hand."
Jones has a Cubs connection. He signed with the team as as a non-drafted free agent in 1982 at the age of 21 out of the University of Arkansas. Jones spent seven years in the Cubs' and Athletics' Minor League systems, reaching Triple-A Tacoma. He retired as a player and began his coaching career in the A's organization, managing their Rookie League team at the age of 29.
Jones remembers Spring Training at the Cubs' Fitch Park complex and staying at the Mezona Hotel in downtown Mesa.
"That was a while ago," he said.
Jones just never made it to the big leagues.
"I don't have any regrets," he said.
During Jones' time in the Minor Leagues, he picked up different coaching tips from people like Ron Washington, Tony Franklin, Karl Kuehl and Jeff Newman. On Tuesday, he was watching the Cubs' Class A players in spring games, and talking to the staff. Jones remembers the days when he was in the Minors. It wasn't that long ago.
"It's a learning experience," Jones said of his job. "I'm still learning, just like these players are learning. It's something that over the years, it's progressed into what I'm doing now. You're around people, and you pick up things, this and that, and mold it into what you like to do."
Whatever Jones is doing, it's working with Castro.
"People are trying to help everybody here," Castro said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.