Jones' HS coach says he was 'born for this'

March 30th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Alex Stumpf’s Pirates Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

MIAMI -- Jimmy Zurn nervously waited and refreshed social media while texting Keith Jones the night of March 24. Keith’s son, , is the Pirates’ No. 3 prospect and was the talk of their Spring Training, emerging from being a dark horse for a rotation spot to a serious candidate for a job after tossing 16 1/3 innings without allowing an earned run. Zurn was Jones’ high school coach, and it was eating at him waiting to know if the right-hander made the Pirates’ Opening Day roster.

After texting back and forth, Keith told Zurn that Jared was going to call him soon. Keith wouldn’t dare spoil the news, but Jared had made the team, and he was making the rounds telling everyone.

The first call Jared made was to his parents, then he told his fiancée in person and called his grandparents. Then it was Zurn, the first person outside of his immediate family who knew.

The two had talked the day before after Jones made his final spring start, with Zurn telling his former pupil he should be proud of himself. He did everything he could to make a case for that Opening Day job. They were encouraging words from a long-time confidant.

Zurn remembers getting to know Jones when he was an eighth grader watching the La Mirada High School (Calif.) varsity team play. Now Jones is on the precipice of the Majors, and the two still talk after most of his starts.

“We have a pretty close relationship,” Jones said. “He’s a players-first type of coach.”

The talks can sometimes be just a couple of text messages, and it rarely goes too far into the weeds, in terms of baseball talk. But as Jones has made his rise up the ranks from a second-round Draft pick in 2020, to the No. 60 prospect in the game to now a big leaguer, he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

“It’s always a, ‘Thanks, is everything feeling good?’” Zurn said. “I got to see him, in the baseball world, as a maturing high school kid. He’s a grown man. That was the last thing I sent to him, ‘You were born for this, dude.’”

Zurn knew Jones was destined for big things even before he was on the team. During a practice when Jones was in eighth grade, Zurn pointed out his future right-hander to his dad, who was amazed to see someone throwing in the upper 80s at his age. Jones was a natural athlete, to the point that when La Mirada had an alumni game this past holiday break, Jones won the home run derby.

“Yeah I did,” Jones said with a smile. “I rake.”

It was on the mound that Jones became a top Draft prospect. He once tossed a 77-pitch perfect game where the first 76 pitches thrown were fastballs, before finishing with a slider. In his senior year, he had a no-hitter going through five innings against a rival school, but he had already reached his pitch count. Jones protested Zurn taking him out, but it was a losing battle.

“You could tell he was [angry],” Zurn said. “I said, ‘My responsibility is to that thing hanging off the right side of your body.’”

Four years later, Jones and the Pirates are thankful Zurn was responsible with that right arm. But it was that edge, that desire that stood out to the coach. Talking with Jones, you can tell he has a competitive side, but as long as he isn’t pitching, he is smiley, friendly, sometimes even loose and goofy.

But when it’s his turn in the rotation?

“When he has a ball in his hand, a totally different beast comes out,” Zurn said. “Everyone always talks about the X-factor, the it-factor, and if I had to pinpoint it, he’s got it. What he brings to the mound, from pitch one, is he believes he’s not going to lose that day.”

“I’m a competitor, man,” Jones said. “That’s just who I am on the mound. I’m [a] fiery little guy. That’s what I like to call myself.”

That fire has been there for a long time, even on the backfields of La Mirada. Jones has grown and developed since then, but that desire has been the constant in the years Zurn has known him.

“He’s the same kid I remember watching him pitch for the first time when he was 15 years old,” Zurn said.

Upon the news Jones made the team, there was an outpouring of love back home. He’s the second La Mirada alumnus to make the Majors, alongside Daniel Ponce De Leon of the Cardinals. Zurn joked there are going to be plenty of watch parties this weekend for the Pirates' game. He won’t be at one of them, though, as he’s traveling to Miami to see it in person.

Jones is going to have plenty of people at loanDepot park Saturday to cheer him on, including his parents, uncle, the Zurns and members of his agency. Zurn knows Jones is going to have plenty on his plate and he doesn’t want to impose, which is why he sent him one more message earlier this week.

“I know it’s going to be pretty busy for you. Just go do you, you’ll be just fine.”