GLENDALE, Ariz. -- U.S. Cellular Field is 325 miles away from the small northern Kentucky farming community where White Sox pitcher Nate Jones was raised.
Most folks’ sports allegiances can be seen in their Kentucky Wildcats basketball jerseys and Cincinnati Reds hats.
But a new fashion trend has developed in Pendleton County, Ky.
The towns of Falmouth, Ky. and Butler, Ky. are littered in black and white.
The two communities have long pledged their support for Jones in his five minor league seasons. But the outpouring is so strong after Jones’ completed his first full season in the majors that his close friend Brent Yelton can’t go far without seeing the South Side represented.
“It is kind of becoming White Sox nation,” Yelton said. “Everywhere I look, there’s a White Sox hat or T-shirt. It’s pretty cool...Everybody in our town is so supportive.”
There was plenty for Jones’ supporters to revel in last season.
The right-hander made the club out of camp last spring and stuck the entire way, earning the trust of the coaching staff along the way. He went 8-0 with a 2.39 ERA in 65 games and began to pitch in more and more high-leverage situations as the season progressed.
So when Jones returned home this offseason to the two towns with a combined population of 2,800, people sought him out.
Falmouth counts its only other famous resident as 1993 Nobel Prize winner Dr. Phillip Allen Sharp. One-time Detroit Tigers pitcher Frank Browning -- who appeared in 11 games more than a century before Jones -- was born in Falmouth too, but he moved out of the area and never returned.
After he got home it didn’t take long for Jones to discover there’s a new celebrity in town.
“Everybody wants to come up and at least say hi,” Jones said. “It was like that before, but it’s more so. It’s like ‘I know a major league pitcher.’ I’ve had a lot of people just walk up out of the blue when I’m doing regular stuff, whether I’m out in the yard or in stores.”
Jones has no complaints about the extra attention.
He smiles easily as he recounts the opportunity to speak to area students over the winter, work with the baseball team at Pendleton High and raise money and collect donations for needy families at the holidays. Yelton, a former teammate of Jones, and the Pendleton High baseball coach the last eight years, isn’t surprised Jones made time for all those requests.
“He’s the same guy ever since I’ve known him,” Yelton said. “You can take him out of this town, but he’s always going to know the people he’s known and grown up around.”
Jones even looks the same, “tall and lanky”, and “he’s always thrown hard,” Yelton said.
But there was a significant difference in him last season, although it’s not easily noticed, teammate Hector Sanchez said.
It wasn’t the velocity though Jones’ 97.6-mph average fastball was the fastest he has consistently thrown it in his career. Santiago said the biggest change is how Jones threw all of his pitches with confidence, particularly the changeup.
“I’ve played with him since 2007 and he might have thrown four changeups,” Santiago said. “Last year he mixed it in great, he threw it with confidence. Just him having confidence in his pitches I think was huge.”
Jones attributes his confidence to the 2010 season in which he made 28 starts at Single-A Winston-Salem. He has no problem admitting he couldn’t command most of his pitches back then and the move to the rotation gave him plenty of chances to refine them all.
Last spring, something clicked for Jones and he has embraced it thoroughly.
“It just took me a while to realize, it’s the same game no matter what,” Jones said. “You’ve got to throw strikes to get people out and that’s what happened last year. In SPRING TRAINING last year I said ‘Yeah, I can these guys out’ and it rolled through the season as well.”
Jones enters this spring as one of four right-handed pitchers manager Robin Ventura plans to use in any situation. He has shown his versatility time and time again and can be used in long situations or against a big right-handed bat in a tight spot.
Although his career has begun to take off, Jones said he and his wife Lacey, who is due with the couple’s first child next week, don’t have any plans to leave Pendleton. They couldn’t find a home to buy this offseason and instead decided to build their own while splitting time at their parents’ homes this winter.
They’re not going to leave, and the decision only gets harder with each new White Sox hat purchased.
“I have a tremendous amount of support back home,” Jones said. “Everybody sends me messages or sends us mail saying ‘We’re back here thinking about you. We’re rooting you on.’ It’s always been like that. It’s not like they’re just doing that for me. They rally around anybody who needs help. That’s the great part of coming from a small town. Everybody knows everything and what people are going through and they rally around whomever needs it. Pendleton is always going to be home.”