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Ex-Met Cleon Jones making a difference in his community

Back in Africatown, near Mobile, Alabama, Jones has taken a hands-on approach in revitalizing the neighborhood.

Former New York Mets star Cleon Jones paints

Former New York Mets star Cleon Jones paints a porch railing for a widow in his community, Nov. 21, 2018, in Mobile, Alabama. Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo/Carmen K. Sisson

Cleon Jones always will be remembered as a key player in the miracle that was the 1969 world champion New York Mets.

Even before that, the former leftfielder was part of a different, ongoing miracle: making Mobile, Alabamas Africatown, his hometown neighborhood, a better place to live.

When the Mets baseballs longstanding joke since their inception in 1962 won the Series, it was Jones who caught a fly ball off the bat of Baltimores Davey Johnson for the final out. Fans went wild. A ticker-tape parade down the Canyon of Heroes was scheduled.

Jones celebrated with his team, but instead of joining the parade, he returned to Africatown, the place that, emotionally, hes never really left.

I just wanted to share it with my community as soon as I could, Jones said of his rapid departure from New York.

HELPING TO FILL THE VOID

Africatown, about three miles north of downtown Mobile, is a reminder of Americas darker past. Its where Clotilda, the last known slave ship to enter the United States, arrived in 1860. History says 110 enslaved individuals were smuggled in from the former African territory known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. The United States had prohibited the importation of slaves with a law passed in 1807, but the practice continued in clandestine fashion. The Clotilda was said to have been set ablaze after its voyage of human cargo.

At 76, Jones remains an active part of the effort to revitalize his neighborhood. He paints houses, picks up trash, tends to the community garden and even helps renovate and rebuild some of the decaying structures.

Its something Ive always done, even when I played, he said this month. I always came back home and took part in the things I thought I needed to take part in. People that stayed here got educated and found good jobs. They moved to the west side of Mobile, in other words across town. What do they say, moving on up? Thats what they did. They moved up and moved out.

That left a void because the land that their parents had fought for, they just left it abandoned.

As a result, we have blight of all kinds. Empty dwellings, run-down properties. We have a lot of senior citizens; they cant do a whole lot of things. When I was brought up here in the 50s and 60s, it was probably 97 percent black and had about eight- to 10,000 people. Its about 1,800 now.

In 2012, the ground level of a house owned by Carolyn Edwards was damaged by fire. The wheelchair-bound senior citizen was forced to live in the attic before finally moving to a temporary location. Jones, his wife, Angela, and other volunteers rebuilt the downstairs.

What Cleon did for me was Gods work, Edwards said in an interview with the Mets. I am back among my friends and neighbors. Life has meaning for me. I didnt think it would be possible to get back home again after the fire. Cleon and Angela help so many people. They are what makes our community great. We all care for each other. To say just thank you to Cleon and Angela is not enough. Right after the fire, I never thought I could smile again. Now life is good again.

A typical day for Jones starts at 8 a.m.

This time of year, were cleaning up properties, he said. Its too damp to paint. We tackle properties. We give ourselves a day or two on most properties. Im on a tractor, a lawn mower on top of a roof driving nails and whatnot. People my age come and help out. I appreciate whatever they have to give to make somebody elses life meaningful.

Theres also a community garden, a symbol of hope, that stands out amid the disrepair and neglect. We helped them put in an irrigation system, said Jamey Roberts, the senior director of neighborhood development for the city of Mobile. They had been carrying buckets of water out there for 60 years. Cleon was the driving force behind getting that irrigation system in.

HOME OF BASEBALL ICONS

Jones grew up in a region of Alabama that spawned Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith and a few hundred miles away in Westfield, Alabama Willie Mays. Tommie Agee, Jones teammate on the Mets, also came from Mobile. Jones lost a longtime friend when Agee died of a reported heart attack in 2001. He was 58.

Jones interest in baseball developed when he played as a youth with, among others, Aaron and his brother, Tommie.

I never thought coming up that I was the best athlete in my neighborhood, not one time, not one moment, because I wasnt, Jones said. I had more competition in my neighborhood than I did in professional baseball. There was not one time in professional baseball that I thought I wasnt going to make it, but there were a lot of times in my neighborhood I didnt think I was going to make the starting lineup on a baseball team that we had. The talent pool was just that great.

Jones was raised by his grandmother, who was known as Mama Myrt. Growing up, we cooked a pot of beans, we didnt have no meat to put in it, he said. We would write the word meat on a piece of paper and put it in the pot. I never owned my own glove till I was 13 or 14. I used neighbors stuff.

Jones got to meet Paige, the great Negro Leagues pitcher, later in life. My motivation was always the same as Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson, he said. We looked at it if they could make it, we could.

Jones did. Signed by the Mets in 1963, he was a September call-up that year, spent 1964 in the minors and made the major-league Mets starting lineup in 1965.

PULLED BY HODGES

Jones spent 12 seasons with the Mets and had a lifetime batting average of .281. His best season came in 1969, when he batted .340 (third behind Pete Roses .348 and Roberto Clementes .345) and made the All-Star team.

On July 30 of that year, something happened that created a stir. Jones was removed in the second game of a doubleheader by manager Gil Hodges in what observers assumed was a lack of hustle while going after a ball hit by the Astros Johnny Edwards.

Weve been on the road trip. I had a bad ankle and twisted my ankle in Montreal, Jones said. Gil and I had a conversation. I told him as long as I was swinging the bat good and I wasnt hurting the team defensively, I wanted to stay in the lineup. Johnny Edwards hit a ball down the leftfield line. No way I was going to stop him even on a dry field from getting to second base. This ball hit just right inside the line. I threw the ball back in and went back to my position.

Gil came out of the dugout. I thought he was going to take out the pitcher. He passed the pitcher. I thought he was coming to take [shortstop] Bud Harrelson out. He passed Bud Harrelson. Then I looked around to the bullpen, no one there. He said, Jonesy, are you all right? I said, Yeah, Im fine. He said, You think you could have held him to a single? I said, Gil, look down. He looked down. His feet were in the water, my feet were under water. The field was wet, Im talking about really, really wet. He said, Oh, I forgot you got that bad ankle. He said were getting our tails kicked, you need to come on out of this game. I said OK, thats fine.

It created a postgame uproar with the media. To me, it was unusual what he did, but knowing Gil Hodges, hes not the kind of guy that embarrasses anybody, Jones said. From everyone elses standpoint, they felt like it was an embarrassment. I didnt because of the conversation we had prior to that. But if it was meant to wake the people up on the team, so theyre all thinking, If he does Jonesy that way, he might do me that way, so be it.

Hodges died in 1972. Years ago, his wife, Joan, said her husband seemed to regret his action with Jones after she chastised him for making such a public display. She said he then told her that evening, I never realized till I passed the pitchers mound and I couldnt turn back.

Teammate Ron Swoboda, now 74, said Hodges action with Jones was purposeful. I think everybody got the message, he said from New Orleans. I hated the idea that Cleon Jones, who was one of those guys we couldnt have done it without his play, became the poster boy for wake up and get after it.

The Mets got the message, though it took a while. They trailed the Cubs by 5 12 games in the National League East after that doubleheader loss to the Astros, then were in third place and 10 out after play on Aug. 13. They won 14 of their last 17 in August and took over first on Sept. 10 before winning the division title by eight games.

Jones hit .429 with a home run and four RBIs against the Braves in the National League Championship Series. He hit only .158 in the World Series but played a key role in Game 5.

With the Orioles leading 3-0 in the sixth inning, Dave McNally threw a pitch that appeared to hit Jones on the foot, but plate umpire Lou DiMuro initially ruled that it had not hit him.

Hodges got the ball, which had rolled into the Mets dugout, and argued that it had a shoe-polish smudge and that Jones should be awarded first base. DiMuro agreed. Donn Clendenon then hit a two-run homer and the Mets rallied for a 5-3 victory.

There were plenty of tales about how the ball got that smudge, but Jones maintains that his shoe was hit by the pitch. They used to shine the shoes before every game in those days, he said.

In the ninth inning of that game, Jones was in left when Johnson hit that fly ball in his direction. When I settled on the ball, I kept saying, Come on down, baby, come on down, baby, Jones said. Then I dropped to one knee and said, Its all over, thank God.

Jones said in that moment, he thought of all the losing seasons he had endured with the Mets. I was in on all of it, he said. We were a joke one day, world champions the next day.

SIMPLE LIVING

Jones describes his home in Africatown as a modest 2,500-square-foot dwelling.

Ive always tried to live in a way people could approach me and feel like I was still part of the community, he said. Our door is open to any and everybody. People feel free to come and talk when they have problems. We try to help people take care of their problems.

You can have millions of dollars, but you dont have the kind of relationship that I have with the neighborhood you grew up with and things you know need to be developed. I dont have the finances, but Im in a position to talk to other folks and pool resources. I can make some of these things happen. What they see is a person they can reach out to. I dont walk up to a kid and say, Im Cleon Jones, I played for the New York Mets. I try to present myself as a friend.

If you like me just because I was a baseball player, how can that motivate you? I dont put myself out there with all the things that Ive done, being in the World Series, playing in the All-Star Game. All those things would be meaningless to me without this. Im not looking for accolades. Im looking for results.

Im proud of who I am and where I came from, he said. I get my rewards every day. I have something to go to bed for every night and I have something to get up for every morning. I loved being a Met, but the top of my list always has been what I could do for others, not what I could do for myself.

Jones was released by the Mets on July 27, 1975, after refusing to play in left for then-manager Yogi Berra, who wanted the injured Jones to play the outfield after a pinch-hitting appearance. Jones played in 1,213 games for the team.

In 1976, he signed with the White Sox but was released after appearing in 12 games.

Then he made it all the way home.

CLEON JONES

No. 21, LF

Batted: Right Threw: Left

Born: Aug. 4, 1942 in Mobile, Alabama (age 76)

Vitals: 6-0, 185

Teams: Mets 1963, 1965-75: White Sox 1976

CAREER NUMBERS

AB 4263

H 1196

HR 93

BA .281

R 565

RBI 524

SB 91

OBP .339

SLG 404

OPS .744

OPS+ 11

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