Sunday, June 26, 2005

"Rooftop" Jones' Debut Kept The Tigers Rolling In '84

(another in a series of posts featuring memorable Tigers -- in one way, shape or form -- who played in Detroit since the last All-Star game here, in 1971. This series celebrates the return of the midsummer classic to the Motor City in 2005, and a new feature will appear each weekend until the game is played in July)

One of the things that most championship teams have in common, in any sport, is contribution from so-called "role players" -- guys who aren't starters, typically, but who do certain things quite well. All your stars can't play all the time, of course.

The 1984 Tigers had role players coming out of their ears: Marty Castillo, Rusty Kuntz, Johnny Grubb, to name a few, all contributed in their specialized ways. But another guy personified "role player" to the nth degree, and he wasn't even on the team when the Tigers broke camp in April.

Ruppert "Rooftop" Jones was a lefthanded power hitter who had seen most of his better days pass him by when the Tigers came calling, signing him as a free agent in April. Tigers GM Bill Lajoie figured the club needed another stick, especially one from the left side, so he snagged Jones on the cheap. Lajoie thought the pull-hitting Ruppert would be a good fit for Tiger Stadium, with its short porch in right field. It didn't take long for Lajoie's assessment to ring true.

Jones was a hit right off the bat with the Tigers in '84

After a short stay in the minors to regain his batting eye and timing, Jones joined the team in Detroit in early June, when the second place Blue Jays were in town. Despite their phenomenal start, the Tigers were feeling pressure from the Jays, who were also playing great ball and were nipping at the Tigers' heels. The first game of the four-game set was a classic; it was the Monday night when Dave Bergman fouled off what seemed like 20 pitches (it was eight) off Blue Jays reliever Roy Lee Jackson, then finally won the game with a walk-off homer, on national TV. But Toronto won the next two, and suddenly they were only 3 1/2 games off the lead. Enter Jones.

Ruppert, called up the previous day, had a very auspicious Tigers debut. He slammed a three-run home run off the facing of the third deck -- hence the nickname "Rooftop", even though it didn't clear the roof -- to help lead the Tigers to victory and bump their lead to 4 1/2 games. He caught fire as soon as the Tigers promoted him, and before long the Jays were left with dust in their mouths as the Tigers consistently kept their lead between 8-12 games all summer long.

Jones quickly became a fan favorite, with his huge chaw of tobacco in his cheek, his bulging eyes as he got ready in the batter's box, and his towering home runs. Lajoie was right -- Ruppert was indeed a perfect fit for Tiger Stadium, and for Tigers fans. He wasn't much of an outfielder, but that's not why the team acquired him. Jones filled his "role" perfectly -- providing punch from the left side, both in a DH and pinch-hitting sort of way.

Jones said that going to the Tigers revived him, like a splash of cold water in one's face. The energy of the pennant race, plus the team's obvious destiny to win the division, was just what the 29 year-old Jones needed.

Jones slugged 12 homers in just over 200 at-bats with the '84 Tigers, then signed with the Angels, where he had a few decent seasons, making it back to the ALCS in 1986.

Would the Tigers have won the division, the pennant, and the World Series without Ruppert Jones? Probably -- they were that good. But it doesn't diminish his contributions to that marvelous ballclub. Besides, you never know what might have happened had the Blue Jays won that game back in May to pull within 2 1/2 games of the Tigers. Could have been a different race. But thanks to Ruppert "Rooftop" Jones, Tigers fans never had to worry about that.

(next week: Tito Fuentes)

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