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Jones taking tough road back to game

Jones taking tough road back to game

PHOENIX -- Mike Jones is a picture of contradictions.

He's a former first-round Draft pick and top Brewers prospect, with the perfect delivery, but his career has been marred by injuries and surgeries. He is 24 years old, yet finds himself serving a mentor role to even younger players suffering setbacks. He is entering his eighth pro season, is in the middle of his seventh Spring Training, and he was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of pitching one measly inning in a Minor League game on Saturday.

Jones, a 6-foot-4 right-hander, is looking at another "rehab year," this time from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow last summer. Yet he has never felt more free.

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"I think there is a sense of freedom that comes from accepting what has happened," said Jones, standing in uniform under a tree next to the Minor League clubhouse at Maryvale Baseball Park. "I'm not trying to overanalyze things, and I'm not looking for answers to questions that I don't have answers to.

"You can only play, 'poor me' for so long before you have to come to terms with what's going on. I have done that, and I think it can be seen on the mound. There is no more fear, no more, 'what if?' It's put up or shut up. It's time for me to display what I have."

Display it not just to the Brewers, who gave Jones a then-club record $2.075 million signing bonus after selecting him 12th overall in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, but to himself.

"I want to see myself do well just as much as the Brewers want to see it," Jones said.

But there's no getting around the fact that difficult steps lie ahead. Jones, who underwent major shoulder surgery in 2004 and then elbow surgery last summer, will work on a strict pitch count in Spring Training and, probably, for the first half of the Minor League season. That means he might not get to pitch -- really pitch a game, not just throw a predetermined number of pitches -- until July.

There are colleagues in Jones' corner. One of them is left-hander Manny Parra, Jones' former roommate and another Brewers prospect who has had to overcome injury. Parra wandered over to Minor League camp earlier this month and was "blown away" by Jones' command of the lower half of the strike zone during a bullpen session.

"If that guy has not been tested mentally, then nobody has," Parra said.

Another backer is Brewers Minor League pitching coordinator Jim Rooney, a first-round Draft pick of the Orioles in 1981, who injured his shoulder when his car was struck by a drunk driver during 1982 fall instructional leagues. The following spring, Rooney slipped on a wet mound and blew out his shoulder completely.

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"It just went, 'pop,'" said Rooney, who would undergo two shoulder surgeries. "At that time, things were run a little differently, and my career was over."

Now, with advances in medical care and the skyrocketing cost of first-round talent, players have a better chance to work back from injuries. Rooney became certified in strength and conditioning and ran a professional training business in Manhattan, before returning to baseball in 1996, and said his own experiences have helped in working with players like Jones.

Still, Rooney does not sugarcoat the challenges ahead.

"This is still going to be a rehab year for him," Rooney said. "He's healthy, yes, but this will be a building-up year."

Rooney believes Jones still has a big league future, and that Jones can be a power pitcher, even after shoulder and elbow surgeries.

"He's still going to be a fastball, curveball, changeup guy," Rooney said. "He's got good stuff. I see a much more aggressive Mike Jones, instead of a guy that was doing all the right things, trying to not make mistakes. I think he's learned that sometimes you make mistakes, but if you stay aggressive, you can get over that."

Rooney said he has never seen Jones look this good, but that assessment comes with a caveat. Rooney joined the organization in 2004, after Jones had suffered his first injury setback.

"I am pulling for him 200 percent," Rooney said.

Jones is 9 1/2 months removed from his latest surgery, so far with no setbacks. He has worked to improve his already smooth delivery and has altered his workout regimen, stressing flexibility and agility over upper-body strength. He took part in the second half of the Brewers' winter development camp, which offered him a bit of a head start on Spring Training.

Players like Mark Rogers, a fellow first-round Draft pick who is rehabbing from shoulder surgery, have gone to Jones for advice. Jones is still getting used to that.

"It's different. I'm not quite comfortable with that role yet," he said. "The one thing that I have found out is that the minute you think you have everything figured out, you learn you really don't know anything. I try to explain that to guys like Rogers.

"The older I get, the more I think it's important to maintain that youthful freedom. Just play the game. The minute you start taking it too serious, that's when it all falls apart."

The ultimate goal is a spot across the parking lot at Maryvale Baseball Park in the big league clubhouse. Jones was there last spring, only to get shut down six starts into his Double-A season. He still aims to get back.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I was capable of pitching on the other side," he said.

First, he has to work that inning in Minor League camp.

"Heck, coming out of surgery, everything is a step in the right direction," Jones said.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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