Welcome to Dirtbags Baseball blog! I was introduced to Long Beach State baseball in 2002 when my nephew, Neil Jamison, joined the team (and university) as a freshman. I started the blog in March of 2004, and generally discuss the team, current players and those that have moved on to professional baseball - as Neil has done in the San Diego Padres organization. Living in San Diego County, and with Neil moving to the next level, I won't be attending as many Dirtbags games. But, mostly from a distance, I'll remain a Dirtbags fan. I welcome tips on stories and information concerning the Dirtbags (current, past and future). I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Dirtbags catcher Chris Jones was in a full-out sprint to second base last Friday against Cal State Fullerton, hoping his third-inning shot to the left-center field gap at Blair Field would get to the warning track.
So as he looked up and saw Titans left fielder Danny Dorn gazing at a spot over the fence, he admittedly got a little disoriented. Balls don't exactly jump out of Blair, and it was the first home run of his college career. He had no concept of the home run trot.
"I still can't remember half of it," the junior from Fresno said. "It didn't really hit me until I got back to the dugout and everyone was going kind of wild."
Halfway into a season that has featured impressive performances from a handful of new faces, Jones may be the most surprising and pleasing of them all. From deep on the bench, he has claimed the starting catching job while hitting a team-leading .355 and playing his position well.
He came to the Dirtbags last year after limited playing time at Fresno City College in 2003. He was what college coaches call a recruited walk-on, someone who came to Long Beach on faith and a minimal financial aid package.
"Coach (Troy Buckley) told me he wanted someone who was solid defensively when he got in the game," Jones said. "I knew I could do that."
He didn't get to do it much last season. He got into 10 games and had eight at-bats as the No. 3 catcher, behind all-Big West catcher Brad Davis, and he was expected to backup Tito Cruz in 2005.
"He thought and we thought Tito would be the guy," said Mike Weathers. "Tito had the most experience.
"We always knew Chris could throw and catch. He has those skills. He just came back to the team a better player after the summer. You see that happen at times. Guys just grow up. He's earned the playing time he's getting."
Jones hit well in a few early Sunday starts this season. When third baseman Danny Mocny injured his shoulder, Weathers moved Cruz to third and Jones behind the plate, and Jones hasn't left since. He has his safely in 14 of the last 15 games.
After initially hitting ninth, he's now been moved up to second or third in the order. He has the best strikeout to at-bat ratio on the team with just seven in 76 at-bats. Defensively, he has a great arm and is getting better at communicating with his pitchers.
"I came back expecting that Tito would be the starter and hoping that I might get some playing time," Jones said. "I still ask myself how this happened."
It likely happened because Jones spent the summer doing what Weathers and Buckley had advised work on his conditioning and dedicate himself to becoming a better player.
"I probably came here pretty immature as a baseball player," Jones admits.
He was an outfielder and third-baseman in youth baseball, not moving behind the plate until his junior season of high school. After graduation, he was recruited to play football. He went to Fresno City College and lettered two years in football.
He didn't meet the school's baseball coach until the team's first workout, redshirted his freshman season, and hit .288 with 19 hits in limited playing time the next.
His training as a college catcher didn't really start until he landed in Long Beach and had the chance to work with Weathers and Buckley. Buckley may now be known as the Dirtbags' pitching guru, but he was an All-American catcher at Santa Clara and was the Dirtbags' hitting coach when he first arrived.
"Buck is amazing," Jones said. "He knows your strengths and weaknesses and turns all of your work into a positive."
The Dirtbag coaches call pitches for the staff, so Jones has had to immerse himself in the team's pitching philosophy. Buckley encourages dialogue; he wants his pitchers and catchers to understand why he's calling a particular pitch.
"It gives you a lot of confidence after awhile when you can start anticipating what pitch is going to be called," Jones said. "It's a great way to learn."
It's even greater when you can put that learning on display every game.