Gareth Jones vividly remembers the first time he stepped into the batter’s box. He wasn’t a 5-year-old gearing up to take a whack at a stationary ball on top of a tee, but a freshman in high school with a pitcher — standing 60 feet, 6 inches away on a 10-inch mound in the middle of the diamond — revving up to heave a ball in his direction.
The knees of his skinny 6-foot-2 frame wobbled. His fingers wrapped nervously around the bat’s handle. His eyes opened as wide as the size of a baseball.
He watched four white balls blur by into the catcher’s glove. The umpire motioned him to take his base, which triggered a beaming smile as he went on his inaugural 90-foot voyage to first base.
After reaching the bag, he took a two-foot lead. The first base coach told him to venture further away from the pillow. He took a few more steps until he entered an uncomfortable zone.
“I was very misinformed on how pick-offs really worked,” said Jones, now a senior at Kodiak High School.
That was a monumental moment for Jones as it was just weeks before he picked up a bat and threw a baseball for the first time.
The learning curve was steep for a shy teenager eager to grasp a sport that takes years to master. His only other encounters with sports were middle school basketball and tossing the football around in the backyard with his father.
Batting tees were dismantled, and he caught more fly balls with his face than with his glove.
“I wasn’t sure how long it would last,” said Evan Jones, Gareth’s father. “When he first started, he came home with some bumps and bruises and a black eye here and there from his fielding.”
Evan recalled a coach informed him and his wife that it would be OK if Gareth wanted to quit.
Instead of retiring, Gareth trudged on, immersing himself in the world of baseball.
He watched historic games from the ’80s, tutorials by pitching greats Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan and became enamored with Bo Jackson. Gareth, who had friends that played baseball, credits Jackson for piquing his interest in America’s pastime.
Gareth was introduced to Jackson — a rare two-sport professional who was a running back for the Los Angeles Raiders — when his dad showed him a highlight clip of the Kansas City Royals outfielder.
“He was making incredible catches and unbelievable plays with his speed and absolute athleticism,” Gareth said. “I was so inspired by that.”
The Royals immediately became Gareth’s team. He now has a room full of memorabilia, including a Jackson jersey and a Jackson and George Brett game-worn jersey baseball card.
Gareth studied everything about the game. Don’t even try to challenge the dude in an MLB trivia contest; he will school you.
“He has that interest in baseball that you don’t see too much from players nowadays,” Kodiak high coach Jason Fox said.
With a knowledge base, Gareth went to work on the field. He lived by a saying that his dad told him — you are not going to outplay teammates, but you can outwork them.
Instead of being in awe of his more skilled teammates, he mimicked their swings and watched their arms as they threw.
“When I took the field every time, that was the mindset that I had,” Gareth said. “I had to outwork everyone before I outplay everyone.”
And he did by staying after practice to perfect his throwing motion or to do tee work. While on a family vacation in Hawaii, Gareth received a free hitting clinic from retired MLB player Mike Diaz. Gareth’s dad set up the meeting after he met Diaz at a batting cage in Maui.
“This is the kind of kid why people get involved in coaching at a high school level,” Fox said. “He knows that he might not be the MVP of the conference, but he is going to do everything in his power to beat out the next guy for a couple more innings of playing time.”
Gareth spent his first three seasons on junior varsity. He swung up to varsity as a junior and appeared in a few games.
“You go from that small, underdeveloped freshman in high school to all of a sudden taking a role with our varsity team,” Fox said.
“He started to be that guy who would break up the team huddles every day. He was that energetic, little character in the dugout that spread some of that infectious baseball energy.”
While on a trip last season, Fox remembers finding a video that he recorded on his phone of Gareth’s swing when he was a freshman. He showed Gareth and the team.
“We had such a good laugh,” Fox said. “He had become so close with those guys from all the work that he had put in.
“He went from murdering tees in his ninth-grade year to he has some pop in his bat. He is a dead-pull hitter, but when he connects, he can really connect with it.”
Gareth, a pitcher and outfielder, pitched in a varsity game last season against Redington. He didn’t just pitch but authored three to four innings of solid baseball, which impressed Fox.
Most of his development on the mound, though, came at the junior varsity level.
“I have a really tough time because I want him to do the best as possible,” said Evan when asked what it was like watching his son pitch. “There are times that I can see that he gets frustrated, but he always maintains his composure.”
Gareth’s competitive spirit was evident.
“He cares so much about doing things right and not hurting the team because of his efforts on the field,” Fox said.
For the first time, Gareth was set to be a major contributor at the varsity level this season. That will never happen as the season got wiped out because of the coronavirus pandemic.
All of the training that he had done since August was for nothing.
“It was immense disappointment,” Gareth said. “At this point, I’ve accepted it, but I think about baseball a lot now … The few days approaching game time is just so exciting. I really like this group of guys, and I’m really sad that I won’t be able to play ball with them one last time.”
Gareth’s biggest contributions on the diamond have come during the summer with Kodiak’s American Legion team. In three seasons for Post 17, he has logged 280 innings and 140 plate appearances in 55 games. He was a member of Kodiak’s surprising fifth-place finish at the 2018 state tournament and pitched three innings against Napoleon, Ohio — a Post that has reached the Legion World Series — in 2019. He said facing Napoleon was the biggest thrill of his career.
While a lot of high school players in Kodiak bypass the summer season to fish, Gareth never balked at not playing.
“It helped a tremendous amount, getting that many games and exposure to baseball,” Gareth said. “Going to Alaska Baseball League games was incredible. There is a lot to take in, and you can learn so much.”
The Legion baseball season in Alaska has not yet been canceled, which could give Gareth one last chance to take the diamond. Until then, he is left wondering what could have been. He often picks up a baseball off his desk in his room and reminisces about his journey.
“He has gone beyond anything that I would have expected,” Evan said. “To go from ground zero experience to the beginning of his freshman year to the point where he could have started some games this year is phenomenal.
“To see him do so well and improve so much over the four years has been amazing.”