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Originally published April 19, 2012 at 10:01 PM | Page modified April 19, 2012 at 10:02 PM

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Ruuuuuuuuupert Jones, the first Mariner, was a big hit in Seattle

Rupert Jones was the first Mariners player, taken with the No. 1 pick in the expansion draft before the 1977 season. He spent three seasons with the Mariners, and was an All-Star in 1977.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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The first thing you notice about Ruppert Jones — pardon me, Ruuuuuuuuupert Jones — besides the ginormous Fu Manchu mustache he's sporting these days, is his wry sense of humor.

Ask him what he's up to, and he replies, without hesitation, "About 235 pounds." When I wondered, after he raved about Seattle, whether he'd ever move back here, Jones shot back, with arched eyebrows, "Ever been to San Diego?"

Hard to argue with that as another rain-filled weekend looms. But just like another center fielder, Mike Cameron, who returned to the scene of his prime a week ago, Jones has always regarded his Mariners days as the pinnacle of a fine career with numerous teams.

Jones, who is in town to throw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday night at Safeco Field as part of the Mariners' seasonlong celebration of their 35th anniversary, is regarded as the original Mariner. He was the first player selected in the 1976 expansion draft before their 1977 launching, sagely plucked from the Royals' organization.

Some say Dave Henderson, as the Mariners' initial first-round draft pick in 1977, is truly their first homegrown product, but why quibble? This much is indisputable: Jones was their first breakout star, almost instantly catching the fancy of a town hungry for the return of major-league baseball — though not ravenous. The Mariners drew 1.3 million in '77, and less than one million in the next two seasons, a three-year span of 90-plus loss teams that constituted the Ruppert Jones Era.

Jones was their darling, however. "Ruuuuuuuuupe" chants resonated around the Kingdome whenever he batted or made a catch. The left-field bleachers became known as "Roop's Coop," and when the seventh-inning stretch came, fans altered the lyrics to "Roop, Roop, Roop for the Mariners."

Jones, 57, quips that the chant of his name was a blessing, because he never knew when they were booing him. He has a theory that his reckless, hustling style of play is what captured the fans.

"I played a certain way," he said. "I think they appreciated that."

And he appreciates that they still remember, that every time he comes back, first to the Kingdome, and later Safeco Field, he is still serenaded with the "Ruuuuuuuuupe" calls.

"It's special to be remembered," he said. "A lot of times after baseball, you lose that popularity, where everyone knows who you are. You fade into the twilight."

Jones has joked in the past that if he went into the Hall of Fame, he'd go in as a Mariner.

"They gave me a chance," he said Thursday. "That's all a man wants in life, is a chance."

He's fully aware that his career wasn't Cooperstown worthy, but it had more than its share of memorable moments. He made two All-Star teams — including recognition as the first Mariners All-Star in '77, when he hit 24 homers. He played for four iconic managers (no, Darrell Johnson, the first Mariners manager, is not one of them; I refer to Whitey Herzog, Sparky Anderson, Dick Williams and Gene Mauch). And Jones won a World Series ring with the Tigers in 1984.

"I never wear it," he said. "I'm not into flash and vanity. I just know I got the ring. People ask why I don't ever wear the ring. I say, 'I got the ring. That's all that matters.' "

Jones has the perspective that comes from being 25 years removed from his last major-league game (after a shoulder injury cut him down at the relatively young age of 32). He has found success in the insurance field, and settled down in San Diego, happily remarried for the past 15 years to Betty.

"She's a fantastic lady," he said. "She's really changed my life, been very instrumental in my life, helping me find things about myself I wasn't aware of. She's given me stability in my life, where I have a reason for a lot of things."

In retrospect, Jones believes the pivotal moment of his career came on Aug. 25, 1980, in his first season with the Yankees after the Mariners traded him away. Chasing a drive that Oakland's Tony Armas hit off Yankees pitcher Tommy John at the Oakland Coliseum, Jones crashed into the wall. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital 24 hours later with a concussion and a separated right shoulder. His season was over.

That was a life-altering moment, Jones says now. Certainly, career-altering.

"I missed about 12 to 15 hours of my life where I didn't know what happened," he said. "I think I had residual effects from that over the years of my life."

Now, however, Jones is in a good place. He has two grown children doing well in the Bay Area, and he's "having a ball" helping former major-league pitcher Dave Stewart coach a 13- and 14-year-old youth baseball team.

Jones doesn't much follow modern baseball — "just enough to be dangerous," he jokes. In a live chat with The Seattle Times, Jones quipped that he misses baseball most "on the first and 15th."

Jones says he'll never lose the warm memories he has of his Mariners days. I suspect Seattle will never forget Ruuuuuuuuupe.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @StoneLarry

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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