Friday, September 9, 2011

#245 - Cleon Jones

Now we get Cleon Jones, an iconic Met if there ever was one, in a great action shot. This swing is all power - it makes a nice contrast to the Glenn Beckert shot a few posts ago. It's so strong that his front leg came off the ground. Cleon had a huge season in '69 when the Mets won the Series. '73 wasn't quite the same. In early June he broke his wrist and was expected to miss six weeks but other injuries decimated the outfield and he had to return early which really compromised his swing. Pain in the wrist forced him to sit out some games down the stretch but he was there for what many describe as the pivotal play of the season, the "ball off the wall" play.

On September 20th, Pittsburgh was in first place, a win over .500 and the Mets were one and a half games back. The Mets had already won two from the Pirates in the series to move from fourth to second and the game was tied 3-3 in the top of the 13th inning. Ray Sadecki was pitching at Shea and Richie Zisk was on first. The batter Dave Augustine hit a long shot that had homer written all over it, but the ball nicked the top of the fence in the left field corner and bounced right into Jones' mitt. He wheeled and line drived the ball to Wayne Garrett at third who then pegged it to Ron Hodges at home, nailing Zisk for the third out. The Mets then won the game in their half of the inning and went 6-2 the rest of the way to win the division.

Cleon Jones grew up in Alabama and was a childhood - and lifelong - friend of his outfield mate Tommie Agee. Cleon grew up without a dad and a few years later a mom (check out his SABR bio here to see why) and stayed in 'Bama with his grandma where he developed into a big local football and baseball star. He continued in both at Alabama A&M University where he set a school record for touchdowns in a season but then was nearly killed in a horrible auto accident. He recovered and was signed by the Mets in '63. He had a strong start that year in A ball and got in a couple games up top. In '64 and '65 he played at Triple A Buffalo where he waffled between being a line drive and a power hitter and again got some games up top the later year. In '66 he came up for good, initially playing center and then left after Agee was acquired. Cleon kicked things off pretty well, his '66 numbers god enough for fourth place in NL ROY voting and a place on that year's Topps rookie team. In '67 he had a couple nagging injuries and his numbers came in pretty hard, but he rebounded to hit nearly .300 in a tough year to do that in '68.

1969 was all Mets and Jones enjoyed a significant role in that legendary title run. Only one Met - John Olerud - has since topped his .340 average and his 75 ribbies, a career high, were second only to his pal Agee's. He had a bang-up playoff against the Braves - .429 with a homer, four RBIs, and two stolen bases - and though he cooled off considerably against the Orioles he caught the last out of the Series. '70 was a bit of a disappointment for everybody in Mets land but in '71 he put up numbers approaching his '69 stats. But '72 was a downer. Cleon got hurt early in the season and when he returned he was platooned in the outfield with John Milner. His stats took a beating and that continued into the early part of '73 before he got hurt. He rebouned pretty nicely in '74 - .282 with 13 homers and 60 RBIs - when Milner got moved to first base full time. Unfortunately that rebound was only a season long. In '75 he missed most of spring training and the first two months of the season with a knee injury and was then in Florida doing rehab work when he was busted sleeping in a van in a parking lot with a young woman. Donald Grant, the Met's GM at the time who was a true a-hole, had him come up to NY to attend a press conference at which Cleon publicly apologized to the fans. After hitting only .240 in a few games he asked for and was given his release that July. He stayed out of ball until he was signed by the White Sox at the start of the '76 season, put in a few games, and was released at the end of April. That was all for Cleon and he finished with a .282 average, 93 homers, and 524 RBIs. He also had 91 stolen bases and hit .284 in 20 post-season games.

When Jones finished playing he returned to Mobile where he worked in various positions for the city for a number of years. He has done some spring training work for the Mets and had his number retired by the team in '91. He has also appeared in Jerry Grote's fantasy camps. His son, Cleon Jr. was a star back at the University of South Carolina and played a bit in the Indoor Football League.

I like that Topps focuses on recent events for Cleon's star bullets. His line in '73 from August 31 on was .238 with 13 runs, six homers, 19 RBIs, and a .375 OBA. He was truly hot the final ten games of the season when he anted up a .278 average with four homers, eight runs, 14 RBIs, and a .472 OBA.

Cleon gets with Morton through another outfield buddy:

1. Jones and ken Singleton '70 to '71 Mets;
2. Singleton and Carl Morton '72 to '76 Expos.

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