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How strong family shaped Rockies outfielder Nolan Jones

Nolan Jones’ dream was waning.

The rookie left fielder needed to wake up, hear an encouraging word and get a reality check. Naturally, he called his brother Peyton, the oldest sibling in an athletically gifted family.

Naturally, Peyton picked up on the first ring.

“We are each other’s first phone call,” Peyton said.

Nolan, traded by the Cleveland Guardians to the Rockies in November 2022, had endured a rough spring training in 2023. Pressing too hard, he hit .200 with no homers and 23 strikeouts in 21 Cactus League games. Rather than begin the season on the big-league roster, he was optioned to Triple-A Albuquerque.

He finally made his Rockies debut May 26 at Coors Field against the New York Mets and future Hall of Famer Max Scherzer. Things did not go well. Nolan lined out in his first at-bat, struck out looking, and then struck out swinging. Scherzer toyed with him.

Nolan managed to draw a walk in the ninth off Brooks Raley. With runners on first and second and one out, Alan Trejo singled off the glove of Mets third baseman Eduardo Escobar. The ball rolled onto the grass in shallow left field, where Francisco Lindor retrieved it and threw out Jones as he overran second base. The Rockies’ rally fizzled and they lost, 5-2.

“I rounded second too hard, thinking there might be an opportunity for me to take third,” Nolan recalled. “I ended up getting back-picked in the bottom of the ninth. I was like, ‘I’ve waited my whole life to get the opportunity to play in the big leagues, and then this happens? In my first game with the Rockies?’ I was not happy.”

Hence the phone call.

“Peyton told me, ‘Just go out and play; have fun like when we were kids,’” Nolan said. “He’s always been good at calming me down.”

Floor hockey and pickup basketball

Being a kid in the Jones household in Langhorne, Pa., meant sports, fun, intense sibling competition, a few fistfights, and bonds of steel.

The payoff for all of those floor hockey games played in the basement, pickup basketball games in the driveway and hours spent in the backyard batting cage has been remarkable.

Nolan, 25, rebounded from his rough start to become the Rockies’ best all-around position player last season, finishing fourth in voting for National League Rookie of the Year. He slashed .297/.389./.542, hit 20 homers, swiped 20 bases and threw out runners as if he were Zeus hurling thunderbolts.

Peyton, 28, played four years of hockey for Penn State and has played four years as a pro. He’s currently the starting goalie for the Iowa Heartlanders, a minor league team in the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League). Following the theme, Peyton’s wife, Abby, played center for Penn State’s women’s hockey team. When they were married last July, Nolan traveled cross-country to be Peyton’s best man, but only after getting permission from the Rockies to miss a game.

Sister Liana, 21, a senior at Penn State, is the starting center fielder for the Nittany Lions softball team.

Little brother Andrew, 19, played one season of baseball for Division III Immaculata University in Pennsylvania. Things didn’t work out as a position player for Andrew, so now he’s attempting to transform himself into a pitcher and hopes to play for the University of Tampa.

Liana might have been outnumbered, but she wasn’t left out.

“My brothers are extremely selfless,” she said. “Throughout my entire life, they were always willing to help me become a better athlete. Whether it was bringing me along to their training sessions or spending their free time with me at the batting cages.”

The next Chipper Jones?

To get an idea of just how big a deal sports are in the Pennsylvania household of Tom and Regina Jones, consider the names they bestowed upon their boys.

Peyton is named after Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, a favorite of Tom’s when Manning played for the University of Tennessee. Peyton’s middle name is Eddie, for Orioles Hall of Famer Eddie Murray.

Nolan is named after Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer fireballer who spent 27 seasons in the majors.

Andrew? There’s a story behind that, too.

The late Joseph “Doc” Jones, the grandfather on the father’s side, loved the Atlanta Braves, especially third baseman Chipper Jones and center fielder Andruw Jones.

“They were my grandfather’s ‘Jones Bros,’ and so are we,” Peyton said.

When Andrew was born, his older brothers got the privilege of naming their new baby brother.

“We said we wanted to name him ‘Chipper,’” Nolan recalled. “We tried, but Mom shut that down quick. She said, ‘Absolutely not.’

“So we tried ‘Andruw,’ with a ‘U.’ Mom liked Andrew, but she said Andruw was simply not going to happen. So we settled on Andrew and everybody’s happy with it.”

“Beezer! Beezer! Beezer!”

Baseball has always been part of the Jones family legacy. Hockey was not. At least not until Tom got free tickets from a friend to see a Philadelphia Flyers game.

“My dad knew nothing about hockey and I was only about 4 years old,” Peyton recalled. “We went to the game and I fell in love with hockey. John Vanbiesbrouck was the goalie. The crowd was chanting ‘Beezer! Beezer!  Beezer!’

“When we got home, my mom met us at the door. She said, ‘Peyton, how was the game?’ I said, ‘My name is not Peyton, it’s Beezer.’”

To this day, the family still calls him Beezer.

That one Flyers game eventually morphed into floor hockey in the basement, with Peyton in goal and Nolan firing pucks. They also practiced their pugilism.

“I wanted to get some boxing gloves one Christmas, although I don’t think my parents planned on us hitting each other,” Nolan recalled with a chuckle. “We weren’t trying to hurt each other, it was just another way of competing. At the time we were both wanting to be hockey players, so we practiced our hockey fights and what we were going to have to do on the ice.”

By the time they were teenagers, the two brothers were playing hockey in earnest. Nolan became a talented left wing and played until a series of concussions derailed his hockey dreams in high school. That’s when he began concentrating on baseball.

“I still absolutely love hockey,” he said.

More than baseball?

“It’s very close, very close,” he replied. “I wish I could put skates on right now. I loved the competition, I loved the physicality of hockey.”

Nolan now gets his hockey fix through his brother. When Peyton was playing goalie for the Belfast Giants of the EIHL in 2022, Nolan traveled to Northern Ireland to watch him play. Nolan now streams as many Heartlanders games as he can.

Drafted by Cleveland in the second round of the 2016 draft, Nolan toiled for more than six seasons in the minors before making his big-league debut with the Guardians on July 8, 2022, at age 24. Peyton, who played part of two seasons with the Colorado Eagles of the American Hockey League in 2020-21 and 2021-22, continues chasing his dream of playing in the NHL.

The brothers commiserate about long bus rides, promotions and demotions, goals achieved and hopes scuttled. They talk about dealing with the pressures of the spotlight.

“Although hockey and baseball are different sports, for us, it’s kind of the same,” Peyton said. “When you’re up to bat, all eyes are on you, and it’s stressful at times. And as a goalie, all eyes are on me and I’m that last line of defense. If the red light above me goes off, and the siren goes off, everybody knows that I just got scored upon.”

“The family that plays together …”

At the Jones house, everyone got scored upon. And they heard about it.

Whether it was card games, board games or pickup hoops, the game was always on. Liana might have been the only girl, but she was feisty and ultra-competitive. Tom never liked losing to his kids, and still doesn’t. Regina watched it all with a knowing smile.

All of that family rivalry led to unwavering support. For example, Nolan watches as many of Liana’s Penn State games as he can. When his parents were visiting him at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week, they spent the evening watching Liana’s game. Shortly after the game, Liana called Nolan and they talked about her at-bats.

“We talk and text all the time,” Nolan said. “We talk about our swings and playing the outfield. Just recently, she’s been laying out for balls all over center field and she was just missing. She had four balls last week that were just out of reach, so we talked about her first steps. We share a lot.”

Tom and Regina are thrilled and amazed at their children’s athletic prowess. More than that, they are thankful sports continue to be the tie that binds.

“Our kids genuinely care about each other and they care about how their siblings are doing,” Regina said. “If someone gets a base hit in a game, we’ll have a group text. They are so supportive of each other.”

Peyton credits his parents with nurturing the Jones family sports dynasty.

“They’ve done so much for us, and they put up with so much,” Peyton said. “We were breaking stuff all the time.

“… We were never video game kids, stuck inside. We were always outside, doing something, riding bikes, rollerblading around the neighborhood. And we always did it together. My parents had everything to do with that.”

The kids are out of the house now, but they remain central to the lives of Tom and Regina. Over seven weeks this spring, they’ll travel to Florida (twice), Texas, Arizona, Iowa and back home to Pennsylvania to see their kids compete.

It takes a lot of juggling.

“Last year, we were at my daughter’s softball game, in Chicago, at Northwestern,” Tom recalled. “We had Peyton’s hockey game on the iPad and Nolan’s baseball game on my phone. We didn’t want to miss any of it.”

Rave Reviews

After being traded from the Cleveland Guardians to the Rockies in November 2022, left fielder Nolan Jones put together an outstanding rookie season in 2023. Among the highlights:

• Slashed .297/.389/.542 with 22 doubles, four triples, 20 home runs, 62 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 106 games. Led the team in batting average (.297), OPS (.931), and OPS+ (138).

• Led the majors and set a franchise record with 19 outfield assists, surpassing Dante Bichette’s mark of 17 in 1999. Became the first player since the Cardinals’ Chick Hafey in 1927 to record at least 19 outfield assists in fewer than 100 games.

• Became the first Rockies rookie and 15th Rockies player overall to record 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season.

• Was the first rookie in major league history to have at least 20 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 19 outfield assists.

• His 11 stolen bases in September tied for fourth-most in the majors and were the most by a Rockies player in a single month since Charlie Blackmon stole 11 in June 2015.

• His outfield assist on Sept. 11 to throw out the Cubs’ Seiya Suzuki measured 102.7 mph, the highest velocity by a Rockies player in the Statcast Era (since 2015) and the fastest in the majors since Jackie Bradley Jr.’s 103.4 mph assist on June 19, 2018.

• Led the majors with an overall average arm strength of 98.9 mph.

• His average home run distance of 418 feet ranked the fourth-farthest in the majors among players with 15 or more home runs trailing Shohei Ohtani (422) Ronald Acuña Jr. (420) and teammate Ryan McMahon (420).

• Named the National League player of the week for the final week of the season and the NL rookie of the month for September after slashing .350/.460/.631 with six home runs, three triples, five doubles and 22 RBIs.

• Finished fourth in the National League rookie of the year voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

— Patrick Saunders, The Denver Post

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