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June 9, 2011

Justin Jones: International Man of Mystery

BERKELEY -- In the middle of the California baseball team's first practice back at Evans Diamond since returning from winning the NCAA Houston Regional, sophomore southpaw Justin Jones takes the eight-year-old son of a Berkeley graduate student out onto the field. Not a big deal, right?

At Jones' urging, the kid starts shagging fly balls.

"We have to leave soon," his father mused. "I'm going to have to go out there and get him, because he's not coming off on his own."

It's not a stretch to say that Jones was having just about as much fun as his newfound friend, just as he does every day he puts on his spikes. His fun fact for this particular occasion: You need 15 hugs a day to be healthy.

"He's such a lefty," laughs junior catcher Chadd Krist, the recipient of more than his fair share of Justin Hugs this season. You see, the quixotic hurler has an … interesting … pre-pitch routine. Before he takes the mound -- whether in relief or before a start -- he gives each of his infielders and Krist a deep embrace.

"I've been a hugger since I was 13," says Jones. "I've been doing that forever. I'm a lefty. That's my excuse: I'm a lefty. Hopefully, if I move on, I can still do it, but I don't think that some hard-nosed people will appreciate me hugging them during a game and whatnot. Chadd lets me hug him, though. We get a lot of hugs."

Well, whatever works, right? Jones has an 8-6 record this season with a 3.09 ERA, improving on his Freshman All-American season a year ago and, apparently, relying as much on his anti-Newtonian deuce as good old-fashioned guy love.

Jones gives Bull Durham's Ebby Calvin "Nuke" LaLoosh a run for his money in the what-did-he-just-say? department. No, he may not get his eyelids clogged, but sometimes, you just have to wonder.

"He mouths stuff on the mound, when he's in his windup, talking trash to the hitter. I know he's doing it, but I don't know if the hitters know he's doing it," says Krist, who more often than not shakes his head and does the only thing he can: just go with it.

In the second half of the season-opening doubleheader against Utah, Jones and the Bears were trailing 5-2 in the top of the fifth inning. Not a great first showing for one of the Pac-10's premier lefties.

"He's always loose," says Krist. "When I go out and talk to him, it's not ever about baseball. It's always, 'What's up man? What are you doing after the game?' First game, I went out to talk to him, and I go, 'Hey man, let's go, I need you to start finding that strike zone.' He goes, 'I got it. Look at that guy behind you in the stands. He's a big old fat hillbilly with his gut hanging out, his shirt was up around his chest.' We're losing 4-0 and at that point, it's a pretty tense situation, and I just couldn't help but laugh. I'm sure everyone was wondering what we were doing, but it was hilarious, this big old fat dude sitting there with his shirt off."

Before the crucial three-game set in Los Angeles against eventual conference champ UCLA, Jones took the entire pitching staff out on the field in front of the Bears' third-base dugout, had them all grab bats and start taking synchronized dry swings. Then they practiced their home run trots. Then they moved on to drag bunts. Just a note: Jones has not a single collegiate at-bat. Not that that particular fact means much. While the field players met with coaches in shallow right field on Wednesday, Jones led the staff in pitchers' infield practice, with senior Kevin Miller at third, 6-foot-6 Dixon Anderson at short, junior Stephen Pistoresi at second (not a bad glove, by the way, as he made several smooth double play turns) and Erik Johnson at first.

Following that little adventure, Jones and Anderson each picked up fungo bats and set up on the first base line, trying to hit balls over the left field fence. Remember that not-a-single-college-at-bat thing? Yeah, best Jones did was a few weak pops out of the infield. The other way. After tossing the ball up for himself. Guess even Baseball Jesus can't do everything.

Jones does, however, have a sense of humor to go along with his childlike sense of wonder and that luxurious mop of long brown hair. His target on Wednesday? Fellow 2010 Freshman All-American Tony Renda. To hear Jones deliver one-liner gems like, "Why do people think so little of you, Tony?" one would think the 5-foot-7 Pac-10 Player of the Year was an Oompa-Loompa.

"Hey, Tony, can I use you as a bat?" Jones queries. "You know, just pick you up and swing you instead of the fungo?"

Gold. Comic gold. Almost as gold as the hair of five Cal players, who held a bleaching party in the locker room before departing for Houston.

"What are you saying, that it doesn't look good on me?" says the now-toe-headed Krist, who joined junior outfielder Chad Bunting, freshman infielder Derek Campbell (who both decided to go completely off the reservation and add Mohawks to the mix) and three others in going blond. Far be it from this humble reporter to question the style choices of this bunch. "Some of the freshmen had the idea, and so I just went with them, and we got it done."

Jones, for his part, prefers the playoff beard and hair, or, well, just his patchwork face garden and lengthy tresses. He might as well pitch in a robe and sandals, and ride to the mound on a white donkey. To Hell with the bullpen carts of yesteryear.

"I probably say it's my hair, just because I always try to grow out the beard, but they actually had the cajones to bleach their hair," says Jones. "But, I've said all year that if we make the College World Series, I'll get a Mohawk. I'll leave my hair this length and get a Mohawk. It's actually becoming a reality now, so I don't know what I'm going to do."

Don't think for a second, though, that Jones will renege on his promise. He's just trying to find the best way to do it and still keep his hat on, which is already enough of a challenge. At least once a game, Jones will lose his cover on his follow-through.

"I'm going to do the whole thing," he says. "Punk rock Mohawk. I may dye it blue and gold. I'll do whatever. Coach Tony [Arnerich] was actually saying that, if I get the Mohawk, it was his idea to face a left-handed hitter and flip it to the left, face a right-hander, flip it to the right. We'll see how things go."

Hair, though, isn't Jones' only predilection. He also has an affinity for taxidermy. (To this writer's knowledge, those two sentences have never appeared consecutively in any sports article, ever.) This year, it's been a stuffed rattlesnake from the back of Pistoresi's garage. The little fella has stood silently in the home bullpen all year, sitting on the mound as Jones warms up. Will he make the trip down to Santa Clara, or perhaps even Omaha?

"I don't know if the snake will make the trip, but it would be awesome," says Jones. "I don't know if they'll allow a stuffed rattlesnake on the plane. Might have to resurrect the penguin."

Oh, yeah, almost forgot. Last year, Jones' totem of choice was a plush penguin. The question that usually elicits some lengthy thinking in most interview subjects -- If you were an animal, what would you be? -- gets an immediate answer with Jones.

"Dolphin, lion, house dog or penguin," he fires back. "Or, a Berkeley squirrel. Berkeley squirrels are just phenomenal. I've had one jump on my leg once, so I'd love to be one of those."

At that point in the interview, I had just one thought: This is turning into five levels of awesome.

Jones is the very embodiment of something's-off-about-that-guy, a poster child for left-handed pitchers everywhere. He's not quirky, he's not weird, he's not strange; he's just Justin, and when he's feeling it on the hill, he's just about unhittable. As touchy-feely as Jones is, he's a gamer. His slight, 6-foot-2, 188-pound frame has borne 113.2 innings of work this season -- tops on the Cal staff and fourth-most in the conference. During the Bears' magical run in the Houston Regional, Jones took the hill three times in three days, going 8.1 shutout innings and allowing four hits and two walks while striking out two.

"I love throwing. I'm like a little kid," he says. "As soon as I get the ball in my hands, I just want to throw however many innings I need to throw. My arm feels fine, I have a noodle for an arm, so we'll see how things go.

"It feels great right now. I told Coach multiple times that at this point, it's team and win over the individual, and if they want me to throw as many innings as I can, I'm down."

Jones -- never one to let himself be put in any box -- will likely get the starting nod against Dallas Baptist at Santa Clara's Stephen Schott Stadium on Saturday in the Super Regional opener, and he'll take all of his little oddities with him as the Bears try to reach their first College World Series since 1992.

"I don't admit to superstition. I'll admit to habit. I have a lot. One baseball rule is not to step on the white line, so I never step on the foul line. If I do, I punch myself," says Jones. "I have to write things on the mound when I'm pitching. I write 'FEM.' It's on my hat, actually. I've been using that for a while, a long time. My pitching coach back home inspired me to do that one. I'd love to say it, but it's personal. I can't let that one out. It's just something I've done. I guess what I like to use it for, is just that nobody's better, I guess you could say. That's pretty much what it is. As far as superstitions go, I have a lot, and I don't know if I can pick any out."

Well, he does have one: "If Justin Jones doesn't get his pregame hugs, he won't do well."

Justin Jones, ladies and gentlemen: International Man of Mystery. Or, you know, just a lefty.


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