For the Love of the Game
Perseverance has earned Chase Jones victories on and off the field.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Nolan Hayes
PHOTOS: Matt Clements
t’s no accident that North Carolina’s baseball team has reached the College World Series each of the last four seasons. From 2006 first-round draft choices Andrew Miller and Daniel Bard to 2009 first-round draft picks Dustin Ackley and Alex White, the Tar Heels have been loaded with talented, hard-working contributors during their recent runs to Omaha, Neb.
Chase Jones fits right in with those guys. No, he’s not going to earn All-America honors or make millions of dollars playing baseball. But he has a chance to be one of the biggest success stories in the history of UNC’s program.
“Chase is one of those individuals who comes along once in a career for somebody like me,” UNC coach Mike Fox said. “I’m going to coach 30-plus years, and I will never be around a player who brings more to a team or is more respected. He has a role that is not glamorous and has no rewards to it, and he does it every single day without complaint.
“If you talk to any player on our team and ask them, ‘Who is the one guy on our team you have the most respect for,’ I’d be shocked if all 34 of them didn’t say Chase Jones. He brings great, great value to our program.”
How great? Well, it’s often trite to say that a person’s contributions to a team exceed statistics. But in Jones’ case, the cliché rings true. Jones won’t get a hit, won’t score a run, won’t make a catch and won’t strike out a batter for the Tar Heels this season. Instead, as UNC’s bullpen catcher and community outreach leader, he will focus on helping his teammates thrive on and off the field.
“I realize that my role here is never going to be one where I’m a star—I’m never going to be Dustin Ackley,” Jones said. “But to have an impact on how somebody is going to come into the game or just be upbeat enough to make somebody have a blast in the bullpen or the dugout, that’s what my role is. I really try to excel in that.”
As with almost everything he does, Jones has succeeded. He runs every sprint and lifts every weight that his teammates do—even though he’s not required—and is a constant source of energy during the grinding season.
“He is probably the most relentless person here,” senior outfielder Mike Cavasinni said. “He’ll go a four-hour practice and be there the entire time catching bullpens, and you never hear one complaint. He brings that love for the game and that love of being out here to the team and shows that the time out here is special. You need to enjoy it because you never know what’s going to happen in your life.”
Jones knows that better than anyone. A fan of the Tar Heels since he was a small child, he joined UNC’s baseball team as a student manager after serving as team captain in baseball and football during his prep career at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, N.C.
“If you talk to any player on our team and ask them, ‘Who is the one guy on our team you have the most respect for,’ I’d be shocked if all 34 of them didn’t say Chase Jones.”
Jones was excited about his new gig, but he began having headaches shortly after enrolling at UNC in fall of 2006. He quietly endured the pain until it became so severe that he would wake up vomiting in the morning. Jones received treatment for possible food poisoning, and he began taking medication for migraine headaches because his mother, Judith, suffers from them. None of the treatment worked, and Judith started making plans for her son to come home and see a specialist.
“He called me on October 4 and said, ‘Mom I can’t live like this anymore,’” Judith said. “That just totally broke my heart.”
The day only got worse from there as doctors gave Jones a CT scan as a precaution. Judith drove to Chapel Hill to be with Jones, but before she got there, she received another call from her son’s phone. It was a doctor directing her to the emergency room because the scan had revealed a mass in Jones’ brain. Judith, whose father had died of a brain tumor just two years before, immediately began to cry.
“You cannot put into words after losing your father—and I was a daddy’s girl—and then you’re told your son has a mass,” she said. “I was horrified. That feeling was devastation. Just complete devastation.”
Jones expressed a different viewpoint to Judith and his father, Buddy, who arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter. The news was not good—there was no denying that—but Jones found relief in it. Now, at least, he knew why he had been feeling ill.
Jones had surgery the next day and spent almost a week in the intensive care unit. Teammates visited him often, bringing with them DVDs or some playful razzing that made him feel like one of the guys. Fox called with daily updates about UNC’s fall scrimmages and was pleased that every time he visited Jones, at least one of his players was already there.
Jones did his chemotherapy at UNC and headed to Houston, Texas, with his mother for radiation treatments. The time together strengthened the bond between mother and son, a rare positive side effect during the ordeal. But the exhausting treatments took their toll on Jones’ body, stealing his strength, robbing him of his hair and causing him to gain weight.
“I lost all of my physical ability,” he said. “It’s kind of weird. Now I’ve got a different throwing arm. When I swing, I’ve got a different stance and a different motion. But more than physically draining, it was just emotionally and mentally challenging to undertake a medicine that you know is going to hurt you in the short run every day. Every day you’re going to get worse, for the hope that you get better for the long term. That was the roughest part.
“Mentally, every day, I didn’t want it to go on. I would have tapped out, if it weren’t for my faith and my family and my teammates here at UNC.”
These days, with all traces of his cancer gone, Jones is the one providing support. He doesn’t give his health a thought, other than when he has to go for checkups every three months, because he is so focused on helping others. Jones works with Friends of Jaclyn, a nonprofit organization that matches children suffering from brain tumors with sports teams from local high schools or colleges.
“I would have tapped out, if it weren’t for my faith and my family and my teammates here at UNC.”
Jones and the Tar Heels adopted James Neubauer of Charlotte last season, welcoming the child and his family to campus for a weekend series during the spring. James ate a pregame meal with the Tar Heels, shagged balls during batting practice and sat in the dugout with the team during the game.
“He had a blast, and he was worn out by the end of the day,” Jones said. “And I think even more than the impact we had on him was the impact he had on us. It’s a really neat foundation in that as much as the kids get out of it, the teams get out just as much.”
In addition to his work with Friends of Jaclyn, Jones has given his time to the N.C. Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House and the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation. He also will take over leadership next year of Carolina Dreams, an organization that brings patients at the N.C. Children’s Hospital to UNC’s campus to meet student-athletes and watch a sporting event.
Jones has first-hand knowledge of how much that support these organizations provide can help cancer patients. He detailed his experience at the Friends of Jaclyn national gala last year in Washington, D.C., delivering a speech to hundreds of people.
“I talked about how much the baseball team really wrapped their arms around me and took me in as a teammate,” he said. “That is something that you can’t replace. As much as you have your family and your friends and your doctor, the team that I had was something that I would never trade for anything. So I really spoke about how much of an impact the team had. That’s what the Friends of Jaclyn foundation does. It brings a child with a brain tumor and makes them a part of the team.”
Being part of the team is all Jones ever wanted at UNC, so he jumped at the chance to start out as a student manager. But after regaining his health, he asked Fox if he could expand his role and try to become the team’s bullpen catcher.
Fox hardly could believe his ears. A few walk-on players had approached him in the past about the role, always with aspirations of working their way up from the bottom for the slim chance of earning playing time one day. But this situation was different. Jones knew he wasn’t going to play at UNC, and he was a high school second baseman with no catching experience. Yet he still wanted the most demanding, thankless role on the squad?
“I’m like, ‘Sure. Have at it,’” Fox said.
No one knew how the experiment would turn out, but one thing was certain: If Jones failed, it wouldn’t be due to a lack of effort. Still, the early days were quite adventurous. It’s one thing to play catch with a pitcher who is tossing the ball at half effort on flat ground. As a solid player in high school, Jones was more than capable of handling that. But it’s something completely different to squat behind the plate and catch pitches from All-Americans throwing as hard as they can off a mound.
Jones, quite literally, took his lumps.
“I was awful at first,” he said. “The first guy I ever caught was [former UNC left-hander] Rob Catapano. He’s got an unbelievable slider. I remember setting up, and I hadn’t seen a slider since high school, much less a left-handed, Division I slider. I just sat there, and it went ‘Bam!’ Right off my face [mask]. It was so embarrassing.”
Jones remembers flailing wildly at Rob Wooten’s sharp-breaking slider, and he had bruises all over his inner thighs from trying to catch Alex White’s downward-diving splitter. Jones was good enough to get his mitt—or mask or some part of his body—on most pitches, but he struggled to catch them cleanly. That led to UNC’s pitchers affectionately referring to him as The Deflector.
“I just think it’s the coolest thing to put on a UNC jersey. I get cold chills every time.”
Since then, Jones has refined his craft. Mark Fleury, UNC’s starting catcher last season, often provided tips and encouragement. The same is true for assistant coach Matt McCay. Jones also got better by working summer camps held by Tulane coach Rick Jones, his uncle. No longer The Deflector, Jones is competent enough to catch live batting practice and get behind the plate in scrimmages.
“I’ve gotten a lot better to where now I’m slightly average receiving wise,” said Jones, who also was the bullpen catcher for the U.S. collegiate national team last summer. “Three years ago, I never would have believed that. For me to go from student manager to this, I’m just thankful the coaches gave me the opportunity.”
Jones has repaid them tenfold. There are days during the preseason when he catches so many pitches that his hips and ankles ache and his glove hand stings from the constant popping of 90 mph heat. And if Fox wants to give several pitchers some work during an early season game, Jones spends the afternoon in the bullpen to help prepare each one for his stint on the mound. Those days are tougher for Jones than ones in which UNC’s starting pitcher breezes into the seventh inning, but he loves every second.
“I just think it’s the coolest thing to put on a UNC jersey,” he said. “I get cold chills every time.”
Jones has represented the jersey well, making the Dean’s List and earning a spot on the ACC Academic Honor Roll as a business administration major. Away from campus, he helps organize community service projects for the Tar Heels. UNC’s players adopted a needy family over the holidays, and they had a head-shaving event this season to raise cancer awareness.
In February, Jones was one of two recipients of the Eve Carson Scholarship, named for the former UNC student body president. The scholarship—awarded to juniors who have shown growth in the areas of academics, social justice and leadership—will pay for a semester of Jones’ senior year. It also will give him $5,000 to pursue a summer project of his choosing.
Jones plans to use his summer the best way he knows how—with a nonprofit organization devoted to helping children cope with cancer. He is grateful for his platform to help the cause, and he remains thankful that the disease that threatened to end his life continues to enrich it.
“It’s the biggest blessing I’ve ever received,” Jones said. “I’m so driven to make it a positive experience for the kids who don’t look at it that way or just have a negative connotation with this terrible disease. And it is a terrible disease. But if there’s any way I can make a positive impact and make it a little bit better, that makes a world of difference not only to me but to them.”