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Jones maturing in faith in twilight of career
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
By Joshua Cooley

DETROIT (BP)--Todd Jones vividly remembers his worst outing ever.

It was June 1, 2007, and the Detroit Tigers were at Cleveland. The Indians were threatening to close a 9-5 deficit in the eighth inning, so Detroit manager Jim Leyland brought in Jones, the team’s veteran closer, to nail the game shut. Two runs scored before Jones retired the side, but the Tigers spotted him two more runs in the top of the ninth.

It wasn’t enough. Jones imploded in the bottom of the ninth, surrendering a three-run homer to Victor Martinez and two more runs to absorb a bitter 12-11 loss.

“That was nice,” Jones recalled, sarcastically. “There’s usually one game a year where a fan leans over and says, ‘Mr. Jones, are sure you’re right-handed?’”

To survive as long as Jones has in the pressure cooker of being a major league closer, you have to possess a thick skin and a sense of humor. But more often than not, it is Jones who has had the last laugh. Last September, he entered baseball’s 300-save club, which includes just 20 other members. And this season – the 16th of his career – he has been a sturdy anchor for underachieving Detroit.

But to peg Jones simply as a ninth-inning specialist is to completely overlook one of baseball’s most interesting characters. This is a man who believes that “humans are underneath a crotchet piece of cloth” (more on that later) and enjoys listening to music “that tells other people Christians can rock out, and we know a guitar riff when we see it, and we know a party and can get in a mosh pit and don’t have to drink.”

Mercy, there’s a lot of Dixie in that 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. In his Georgia-bred drawl, Todd Barton Givin Jones will tell you about how the Christian faith is like taking a “Lipton Ice Tea plunge.” His brawny handlebar moustache screams “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” and he has an artistic rendering of John 20:29 – Jesus’ provoking post-resurrection encouragement to Doubting Thomas – tattooed on his hand.

You gotta love this guy.

Jones grew up in Marietta, Ga., without any knowledge of church or the Bible, except for the holier-than-thou vibes he felt from Christian acquaintances. In college, he met his wife, Michelle, whose family, Jones said, “showed me God’s love and forgiveness.” He put his faith in Christ on Oct. 6, 1991, at Eden Westside Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala., where he still lives during the offseason with Michelle and their two children.

For the next 10 years, Jones was self-admittedly “lukewarm” in his faith. He didn’t study God’s Word much and fell into complacency. Eventually, though, spiritual growth started as truth of the gospel began to sink in “because I realized the price Jesus paid,” he said.

Now, Jones actively looks for ways to share his faith. Last Saturday, he gave his testimony during Home Plate, an annual evangelistic outreach, in front of an estimated crowd of 5,500 before Detroit’s home game against the Angels. His song selection for late-game entrances is “Last One Standing” by MercyMe, a Christian rock band who wrote the tune with him in mind. And when the Tigers are on the road, he frequently hosts the team Bible study in his hotel room and orders refreshments for the participants.

“The last two years in particular, I’ve really seen Todd’s faith mature,” said Jeff Totten, the longtime Baseball Chapel leader to the Tigers. “I think it’s greatly due to his increased desire to read and study the Word of God. Not that he didn’t do that before, but he’s had a greater passion for that in recent years.”

As Jones’ knowledge of Scripture has deepened, so has his understanding of divine sovereignty.

“I think humans are underneath a crotchet piece of cloth,” he said. “We’re underneath and we see all the knots and the strings hanging loose, but God is looking from the top of it and sees the picture being knitted around you. We can’t see it because we’re underneath. God is making this big masterpiece in your life.”

A first-round draft pick out of Jacksonville State (Ala.) University in 1989, Jones broke into the majors with the Houston Astros in 1993, but his career didn’t take off until he was traded to Detroit before the 1997 season. In 4½ years with the Tigers, Jones recorded 142 saves, including a career-best 42 in 2000, the only All-Star season of his career.

But he was shipped to Minnesota in July 2001, a move that inadvertently spawned a prolonged stretch of ineffectiveness, frustration and the loss of his closer role. From August 2001 through 2004, he posted a combined five saves while bouncing between Minnesota, Colorado, Boston, Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

“I had fallen from graces,” Jones said. “I wasn’t worthy. The ninth inning is pretty important to teams. I wasn’t doing my job. I had to earn my way back into that.”

Jones returned to prominence with the Florida Marlins in 2005, finishing with 40 saves and a career-best 2.10 ERA. He arrived back in Detroit in 2006 and combined to save 75 games the last two seasons.

This year, Jones has been one of the few bright spots for a Detroit team that spent lavishly on marquee free agents in the offseason but has struggled early on. While the Tigers stumbled to a 13-15 record through April 30, Jones has earned five saves in five chances and a 2.45 ERA.

“On paper, we were supposed to beat everybody, 10-0, every night and go 162-0,” Jones said. “We’re supposed to be great. We’ll see.”

Regardless of the Tigers’ success this season, Jones has put together an impressive career. Besides his 306 career saves, he was the last person to throw a pitch in old Tiger Stadium, he played for the United States in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and he helped Detroit reach the 2006 World Series.

So how long will Jones, who just turned 40 on April 24, keep playing? It’s a good question – worthy of a patented Todd Barton Givin Jones crack.

“I just want to get through today,” he deadpanned. “As an older player, you lose sight of ‘have a good season.’ You just want to have a good week. I can’t even think about what’s going on down the road. But I know one thing: God has been good to me. I’m so thankful to be able to do what I’ve done.”


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