SAN FRANCISCO – Giants rookie Ryder Jones never spent much of his childhood in one place. He followed along as his father, Billy, went from one job assignment to the next: Washington to Oregon to Arizona to Oklahoma to North Carolina.
It was like being in a military family. Except each new base came in sets of four, arranged in a diamond.
Being an assistant college baseball coach is a hard life, with few guarantees or permanent addresses.
“It’s inspiring to me, just because of where he came from,” said Ryder, as he gazed out onto the grass at AT&T Park. “He didn’t have very much money growing up. He threw himself into the coaching community and proved some people wrong and he’s still doing it 25 years later. He’s an established name now.
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to do, just in a different profession.”
Ryder is hitting .140 in his first 13 games, but study his round face and you don’t see the panicked look of a 23-year-old rookie. That’s probably because he has been playing with and against older kids his entire life.
Wherever his father was coaching, including an eight-year stint as an assistant at Oklahoma State, Ryder had a uniform and a place to dress in the clubhouse. When he was 12, he began playing in team scrimmages alongside college scholarship athletes – defense only at first. When he was even younger than that, he’d take infield and outfield practice before games.
“We’d literally put him at shortstop and hook the machine up and shoot ground balls at him,” said Billy Jones, now an assistant at Tulane, holding a phone to his ear as he recruited players at the Area Code Games in Southern California.
“We’re ranked fifth in the country and he’s taking infield in front of 15,000 people as we’re getting ready to play Oklahoma. I mean, he’s just doing it. We exposed him to as much as we could.”
Those eight years at Oklahoma State provided stability for Ryder and his younger brother, Utah. Then came the next move, and when a head coaching job finally opens up, no time is too inconvenient. The family moved to Appalachian State in Boone, North Carolina. For Ryder, it meant leaving his friends and playing his senior year of high school somewhere totally new.
“You’re looking forward to hanging out and having a breezy senior year with your buddies,” Ryder said. “But I knew for our family it was the right move.”
It was the next step for his father, who began his career as an unpaid junior college coach before moving on to volunteer assistant positions for four years, getting by on money he earned as a camp instructor and giving private lessons.
“I felt bad having to move them around, and when they were leaving friends, it became tougher for them,” said Billy Jones, who praised his ex-wife, Tiffani, for being so supportive through it all. “Sports, thank goodness, was a way for them to meet new people and get out in the community.”
But the move to Appalachian State was complicated by the fact that Ryder was just beginning to fashion himself into a legitimate prospect. The coach’s son had all the aptitude from a young age. Physically, though, he was a late bloomer.
Billy Jones was realistic about his son’s chances.
“You know, Ryder was never famous. He wasn’t very good, just to be honest,” Billy said, laughing.
Billy told his sons from a young age: have fun playing baseball, and if you ever want to get serious about it, come to me and we’ll talk. Ryder was a bit pudgy, and didn’t have any standout tools. He only made his high school varsity team as a sophomore because he could pitch. Then came the summer when he grew 8 inches.
“Around the 10th grade, he came to me and said, `Dad I want to do this for real and I want to play at Stanford,’” Billy Jones said. “And I’m like, `Ryder, um, we’ve got a little ways to go for that.’”
A year later, Ryder attended a development camp at Stanford. Current Giants teammate Austin Slater was among the players who hosted him in the dorms. He got the scholarship offer. He achieved a goal that seemed so far-fetched.
Then he turned Stanford down.
He became the first Stanford recruit in more than six years to rescind his verbal commitment. The Giants, armed with detailed reports from area scout Donnie Suttles and crosschecker Doug Mapson, drafted Ryder a bit higher than expected. They offered him $880,000 to sign and report to the minor league complex in Arizona.
Playing with older kids didn’t bother him one bit.
“(Slater) still says to me `Aw, you never would’ve gotten playing time at Stanford,’” Ryder said. “I think he likes messing with me about that.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy usually doesn’t like to move young players around the diamond, believing that it’s easier to get overwhelmed when you’re asked to play multiple positions. But he is committed to getting Ryder everyday at-bats, and he has expressed no reservations about starting him at third base, first base or either corner outfield spot. All those afternoons taking infield and outfield practice with college players taught him where to be, where to throw and how to react no matter where he’s stationed.
Billy Jones flew to San Francisco and was in the stands for Ryder’s debut June 24, but he didn’t get to witness his son’s first hit. Ryder went 0 for 16 on the homestand. He struck out just three times and wasn’t overmatched, but he didn’t catch any breaks on balls in play.
When that first hit came June 30 at Pittsburgh, Billy Jones had the best possible proxy to witness the moment at PNC Park. Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer was his most talented player at Oklahoma State, and the guy that Ryder latched onto.
“I always took ground balls with him at shortstop,” Ryder said. “He was the kind of player I wanted to be. He had a great arm and was the closer on the team, too. We got along really well. I basically just stalked him and followed him around. It was probably annoying for him, but it was great for me.”
When Ryder served his first hit to left field, Mercer took the throw. He pretended to tuck the ball in his back pocket as a joke.
Billy Jones, watching on TV, checked his phone and saw a text from Mercer’s mother: “Did you see what Jordy just did?”
“I mean, that was Ryder’s idol. That was his mentor,” Billy Jones said. “He wanted to be Jordy. It’s just surreal the ball got hit out there. It’s kind of crazy how that worked out.”
So many sons of coaches become automatons, numbed by a lifetime of criticism or made to feel like they cannot think for themselves. That is not the story with Billy Jones and his two boys. (Utah just finished his sophomore season at the University of North Carolina.)
In fact, when Billy calls Ryder on the phone, he admits that the son often teaches the coach something new.
“I’ve learned a lot from Ryder, and we kick ideas off each other all the time.” Billy said. “We don’t always talk baseball. But when we do, it’s more about how you prepare, how you go through that process, and do you love that process?”
After hitting his first big league home run on the Giants’ last homestand, a reporter asked Ryder what he wants to accomplish in the final two months of the season. Did he hope to establish himself? No, he said. He and Jarrett Parker and Pablo Sandoval talked about it when they came up from Triple-A Sacramento: their goal is to bring energy and enthusiasm to the team, so that the Giants will be better equipped to turn the mental page on a disappointing season.
Billy Jones wasn’t surprised to hear how his son answered the question.
“He’s seen enough baseball that he knows it’s a hard game to be good at,” Billy said. “There’s a lot more failure than there is success. I always taught him, `Hey, enjoy the good, because the good is hard to get.’
“He hasn’t gotten a bunch of hits yet but you wouldn’t know it. As a dad, I think I’m proudest of that.”
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