Late one evening last August with the Gulf of Mexico lapping onto St. Pete Beach, Fla., a father and son played catch.
But this was no beachball game. It was baseball, with a purpose. The slender, fair-haired boy was learning to pitch.
His back to the sunset, the boy toed gently sloping boardwalk planks, a makeshift mound, powering up his right arm and fluidly nailing spots 45 feet away. Inside. Outside. Up. Down. Curveball. Heater. Pop. Pop. Pop.
The father, perched on a five-gallon bucket, played the role of catcher and maestro, calling out the repertoire.
The boy, all of 12, was already an all-star. He played second base and led off for the 2008 state champions from Warner Robins American Little League. That was why the man and the boy were there on Florida’s west coast that evening, a win shy of advancing to the regional final and a primetime spot on ESPN. There was a chance that the boy, Justin Jones, might be called on to pitch the next day. So there he was, working up a sweat in a sandy alley between the Grand Plaza Hotel and Crabby Bill’s Seafood.
The Jones boy never did get the call to throw the next night when his team fell just short of a berth in the Southeast championship game, a contest, which had it reached and won, would have meant a trip to the Little League World Series.
Still, it was as if he and his dad knew something that night.
One summer later, the boy found himself on the mound with a Georgia championship in the balance. He displayed his skill, his cunning, against some of the best young sluggers in Georgia. This time, the boy, who also paced the team with 12 state tournament hits, was handed the ball to hurl his Houston County mates to their home league’s third state crown in a row. And, as it stands now, into the mix at another eight-team, eight-state regional tourney.
This time on the banks of the Ohio River.
The father is 44 and graying but still carrying the streamlined frame that, as a ballplayer, got him as far as Tennessee Tech.
In more recent years, Randy Jones has come to know the nuances of the boy’s game, one that has put his city’s diamond darlings on America’s youth sports map.
Last week in the semifinal round of the Georgia tournament in Toccoa, he was so versed on each team his players would face that during a pregame meeting with tourney officials, when the manager of that night’s opponent, a club from Augusta, wasn’t sure which of his pitchers were eligible to throw, Jones was the one who told him.
“It’s all strategy,” Jones, an electrical engineer by trade, had said of Little League managing’s intricacies earlier in the week. “It’s a chess game.”
A few days ago, he was on the road in Florida, checking out the competition his squad will be up against come Sunday, in its second regional game in West Virginia.
“It’s a passion for him,” his wife, Melanie Jones, said. “As much as he does it, he should get paid for it.”
The mother of three sons says that even in the offseason her boys, ages 8 to 15, will be outside making regular use of their batting cage.
“There’s the constant ‘clink’ sound coming from our back yard, and I’m sure all the neighbors appreciate it. And when we don’t have that, there are Wiffle Ball tournaments my older son, Trent, puts on when we’re not really into baseball. But there’s always some kind of baseball at our house,” she said. “And most of the time Randy’s out there with them.”
Some nights she fusses. Or tries to.
“At 10 o’clock,” she said, “they’re out throwing on the driveway and I’m like, ‘Come on, they’ve got to get a shower, it’s time for bed.’ ”
The kids, however, love it.
“It’s always been kind of a natural thing with all of them,” she said.
The way the father tells it, he is the boy. At least a little.
The way the boy tells it, the father is the one who taught him “just about everything I know.”
“He always catches for me on the bucket,” said Justin Jones, now 13, who played on his first team before he turned 3. “I’m always looking forward to all the games we play. We have fun when my dad’s coaching me. Whether we win or lose, we’re always just having fun.”
And that is by design, the father and coach says. He can relate to the boys and laugh and cut up and perhaps most difficult, still be their teacher.
“Part of the reason is that I’m really still 12,” Randy Jones said, only half-kidding. “I’ve got a lot of gray hairs. ... But really, I am. I’m still 12. I feel like I’m 12 when I’m out here. I tell the guys that I’m the greatest Little League pitcher of all time. And occasionally I’ll get out there and prove it to them.”
The stories are the same for plenty of the boys.
Dad comes home from work.
Son hasn’t seen him all day.
What do they do then?
For some it is fishing or maybe chucking the football. For others, maybe golf, shooting hoops. Or some combination.
For the boys of summer, especially the ones lucky enough to find themselves still playing when school is back in, the ball, the glove and the bat often comprise a trinity of togetherness. Of time spent mastering a game. Of learning at the knee of the father, tangling with their brothers.
“Whenever I would pull up in the driveway,” Randy Jones said, “they would be out there waiting with ball and glove and bat, saying, ‘Let’s hit, let’s hit, let’s hit.’ That was always our common thread.”
The Warner Robins team’s assistant coach, Nathan Hunt, another dad with a back-yard batting cage and an all-star son, tells of Randy Jones’ “tireless dedication.”
“Complete dedication to the game,” Hunt said. “He just loves the game, and all of his kids love it.”
And that is when the game can become something more than a summertime joy for father and son. It can morph into a sight to behold, an affirmation of athletics and attention to detail.
Like the one that presented itself last Friday night, when Justin Jones struck out nine and for five innings, held down the second-best Little League team around.
Or, say, scenes like the one early last August, on the beach, in the shadow of Crabby Bill’s.
“We had a brief moment after the (state championship) game, just me and him. I looked at him and said, ‘Well I guess hard work pays off, doesn’t it?’ ” Randy Jones said. “I said, ‘Remember all those times on the driveway when it was drizzling rain and 40 degrees and we had to throw whether we wanted to or not, and mom’s flicking the light on and off, trying to get us to come in because it’s a school night?’ ... And yet we went out there and did it, time and time again. Then there came a day when it was all worth it.”