Mary and Bubba Jones found the perfect spot on the fourth level of a parking garage adjacent to Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. They’ve tailgated more times than you could imagine, but this was different. Make no mistake, they still had lawn chairs, reminisced with friends and chowed on snacks while they waited in anticipation for what was coming.
This tailgate, however, wasn’t for a baseball game.
But just like at any baseball game, Mary had her long-focus lens attached to her camera. She inched closer to the barrier that separated her from a four-story fall to the street, leaning over the edge to document each moment of what was happening inside the hospital room. She did this for about 15 hours until something changed shortly after 1:52 a.m. May 11.
That’s when her son, Detroit Tigers outfielder JaCoby Jones, looked up at her.
He wore a black Nike hat and Jordan-brand hoodie, with a face mask around his neck. He glanced at his mother and flashed an indescribable smile — the type you can’t rightfully explain nor understand unless you’ve shared his experience. His girlfriend, Cassandra Inacio, smiled and waved.
Jones’ attention shifted, again. This time, his eyes permeated with love. His grin indicated just how awestruck he was by her unmatched beauty.
It was his newborn daughter, Naomi Alayah Jones.
“Very emotional, very awesome,” Jones said Saturday. “One of the coolest moments of my life. Just knowing that I became a father. When it really happened, it was such an exciting time.”
To recognize how that day transformed Jones, both as a baseball player and a man, you have to acknowledge where he’s been. A small-town kid from Mississippi, winning his state’s player of the year award as a senior in 2010. A second baseman at LSU, after turning down a chance to play for the Houston Astros as an 18-year-old. A two-time violator of MLB’s banned substance list. An underrated center fielder who lacked offensive production. A person so hard on himself, so desperate for greatness, that his failures angered him. And a polarizing athlete, wearing his emotions with every play.
As his mother said: “It’s always been about JaCoby.” Because of this, he would spend his nights alone thinking about his shortcomings at the plate (like when he hit .207 in 2018), a rare mistake on defense or an injury.
But that’s not Jones, 28, anymore, and he has his daughter to thank for his .725 slugging percentage (third in the majors through Saturday), .315 batting average, five home runs and 13 RBIs in 17 games this season. Oh, don’t forget about a few stellar catches in center field and his “John Wayne” nickname from manager Ron Gardenhire.
Everything is a byproduct of fatherhood.
“I used to think nothing was bigger than baseball,” Jones said. “Until I had my family. If I’m struggling or having a bad day, I get to come home to that. And it’s like baseball doesn’t even matter anymore when you have a daughter, a little angel looking up to you and smiling.
“Going home to them has been a blessing, and it takes my mind off baseball for every second until I get to the field.”
‘Whatever you do, you always own up’
Roughly 1,000 people live in Richton, Mississippi, and Jones had about 75 kids in his graduating class. The city has one traffic light, and if you drive through at the wrong time, you might mistake it for a ghost town. It’s so small that the high school annually celebrates Aug. 30 — the day he made his MLB debut for the Tigers — as “JaCoby Jones Day.”
So the phone calls from MLB teams, college teams, coaches, scouts and hopeful agents to the high school baseball star were quite overwhelming.
Living what his mother described as a “sheltered life” because of his Richton roots and constant weekend travel for baseball games, Jones decided to continue his career at LSU, a top SEC program, instead of turning pro after the Astros picked him in the 19th round of the 2010 draft.
“Coming from a small town, he’s got the whole world,” Mary, 51, said. “There’s no telling what he’s gonna do. He’s never experienced any of that before. … There was no way that’d be good for him. He needed to go to college.”
Even three years at LSU — where he hit .292 with 14 homers and 92 RBIs in 179 games — didn’t do the trick. A third-round selection by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2013 draft could fully acclimate him to the world outside of Richton.
On two separate occasions, Jones tested positive for marijuana, violating MLB’s drug prevention and treatment program, once with the Pirates (a random offseason drug test) and a second time with the Tigers in November 2015, just three months after being acquired for closer Joakim Soria.
His mother hit rock bottom. His father was disappointed.
“I told him, ‘You don’t make no excuses. Whatever you do, you always own up for what you’ve done.’ And he did,” Mary said about the positive drug test five years ago that suspended her son 50 games. “They probably wouldn’t have ever tested him at all, but he ended up saying, ‘Hey, listen, I went to a party and had some of that stuff in the cookies.’ And, bang, he got tested.”
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While he owned up for his mistake the second time, viewing the situation as a reality check, that’s only a small part of Jones’ transformation. His drug tests became an afterthought once he made it to the big leagues for 13 games at the end of the 2016 season. Still, he was only 24 years old — enchanted by expectations of stardom.
He remained this way until 2018, a significant year in his development.
‘Blessing in disguise’
Two years ago, Jones was a regular in the lineup for the Tigers. Through mutual friends, he heard about Cassandra, a former Rutgers soccer player and graduate student at New England Law in Boston.
“Yeah, he did message me,” Cassandra, 26, said, laughing. “And then we went from there. But we had some mutual friends that, you know, put in a good word.”
They had been communicating over DMs for a while, and Jones promised a date when he came to New York to play the Yankees; Cassandra was home in New Jersey for the summer. Sure enough, he kept his word. They went to a Mexican restaurant, sharing conversation over margaritas and tacos.
Since then, Cassandra has watched Jones live his childhood dream.
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She graduated from law school in May, only a week before giving birth, and looks forward to taking the bar exam in 2021 to pursue her dream of living in Mississippi and working in criminal law as an attorney for victims of human trafficking.
“To be honest with you, I wouldn’t say what he would be doing if he didn’t end up having Cass in his life,” Mary said. “How the corona(virus) is, he might have already been out, you know, being around some people and stuff that got exposed. But now, he’s just staying at home, so he’s matured.”
The couple remembers Oct. 10, 2019, the day Cassandra told Jones she was pregnant.
She was nervous.
JaCoby? Not so much.
“He handled it so good,” Cassandra said, “and was like, ‘All right, yeah, this is going to be awesome, next chapter of our lives.’ For me, I was in school still, so that was kind of different for me, but he was just so supportive and so excited, so he made the experience beautiful.”
That day served as the rising action in Jones’ transformation.
When his parents got back home from a weekend vacation in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Jones told them by tossing a baby shoe at his father. Beyond the initial shock, they were overjoyed. And despite COVID-19 protocols, Jones made sure to find a hospital in Mississippi where he could be present for his daughter’s birth.
Luckily for his parents, they had a great view, too.
“Another blessing in disguise,” Bubba, 50, said. “At the end of the day, that has really given him a different perspective on life. Sometimes as a professional, I just think they go through so much and deal with so much. A lot of pressure.”
‘It changes your life’
His father isn’t wrong.
JaCoby Jones is hard on himself. Oftentimes, too hard.
He wants to be in the lineup every day, even when dealing with back soreness after robbing an extra-base hit by crashing into the center-field wall, or an abdominal strain from a wild 10th-inning slide into home plate to take the lead. He becomes infuriated when Gardenhire wants to give him a day off to rest, so he demands to be in the lineup.
[ Jones is the Tigers’ version of John Wayne; explaining his offensive surge ]
Jones is finally playing with a free spirit, and his improvements on the field reflect his new role. Instead of thinking about his mistakes, he spends every morning snuggled in bed with Cassandra and Naomi.
When he is with his daughter, the game becomes an afterthought.
“It’s super important to have that mental space to be away from it,” Cassandra said. “And, you know, not concentrate on anything and just be with your family. … It changes your life so much that you see things so differently. You see the world differently, and you appreciate little things that maybe you didn’t appreciate beforehand. That’s the big thing.”
Understand that baseball has been and always will be Jones’ dream.
But someday he will settle down in the home he is building for his family in Mississippi, returning to his quiet, small-town state of mind, where he can watch his daughter grow up in a town with one traffic light before sending her off to pursue her own dreams.
And he will think back to his transformation.
Fueled by fatherhood.
“That’s probably where our kids are going to grow up and where we’re going to live,” Jones said. “And it’s going to be fun watching our kids grow up and going on that journey.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.