The tale tying the bond between JaCoby Jones and Ty Ross is relatively brief and neat.
Almost four years ago to the day of LSU’s opening game of the College World Series, the high school juniors showed up at the cavernous and bland confines of Minneapolis’ Metrodome for a scouting combine.
The pair already had pledged allegiance to LSU, joining a top-ranked recruiting class headed to Baton Rouge. Occasionally, stories of first meetings are endearing or induce chuckles. In the case of the Tigers’ future second baseman and catcher, their friendship started with few words.
“So, you’re going to LSU, right?” Jones, a native of Richton, Miss., asked Ross.
“Yeah,” answered Ross, who hails from Naples, Fla.
“I’m going there, too,” Jones said. “You want to go throw together?”
And so it came to be.
Now, as the Tigers bid for their first national title since 2009 and seventh in all, the arc of their careers has traced the same flight path: starting as freshman, provoking debate about whether each will live up to their potential and enduring irksome slumps to open a junior season when coach Paul Mainieri dubbed them key cogs in what is likely their final year in Baton Rouge.
A week ago, the finality of this trip to Omaha was underscored during the Major League Baseball draft, when Jones went to Pittsburgh in the third round and Ross was selected by San Francisco nine rounds later. The potential split loomed large in their choice to rent an apartment five miles from Alex Box Stadium, a move driven by the final-go-round nature of this season.
“We sat down and talked about it a few times,” Jones said this week. “We might as well go out with a bang. So far, we’ve done that. It just feels really good. It’s kind of sad in a way, too.”
Now, to be clear, Jones and Ross’ living arrangement isn’t exactly a bro-mance conjured up by a Hollywood screenwriter. Their experiences probably induce more quizzical looks than side-splitting laughs.
For example, their fondest memory is playing “midget football” when they moved in last summer — a one-on-one contest in which they played tackle football on their hands and knees. Imagine two 6-foot-3, 200-plus-pound athletes crashing into coffee tables and couches, and that’s the extent of the scene.
“It’ll probably sound really stupid to anyone else,” Ross said. “But sometimes dumb stuff amuses us.”
But the pair has run in the same pack since they moved into West Campus Apartments during their freshman year. Ross lived with pitcher Kevin Gausman, who was taken fourth in the MLB draft last season and already has been called up by Baltimore; Jones roomed with current No. 2 starter Ryan Eades and Joe Broussard.
Often Jones could be found napping on the couch in Ross’ dorm room. Along with Gausman, they formed a tight group that would still have been roommates this year if Gausman were still around. At Alex Box Stadium, Ross and Jones quickly worked their way into Mainieri’s lineup and offered early evidence that the transition was easy to handle.
Plugged in at second base, Jones hit .338 with four home runs and 32 RBIs to garner All-SEC freshman honors, while Ross settled in as a stable defensive asset behind the plate to offset a .223 average and a lone home run.
The past two seasons have left fans and the coaching staff wondering when the promise shown in 2011 would emerge with consistency.
Last season, an eight-game experiment with Jones in center field was aborted, and he retuned to second base. Meanwhile, his offensive production dipped, batting only .252 as his home run and RBI totals failed to budge. If anything, Ross was a metronome — a steadying presence — defensively with a .995 fielding percentage while throwing out 16 of 45 baserunners trying to swipe a bag.
Yet neither would be confused with Alex Bregman — or, for that matter, Gausman or Eades, who was drafted in the second round by Minnesota last week.
“They’ve been starters from the first days they came on campus,” Mainieri said. “They haven’t always been great players — winning players that can do all the great things you need. But I’ve watched them mature emotionally and physically.”
Doubts about their production stalked them over the first two months of this season. After a visit to Missouri in late March, their batting averages were below .190, creating an offensive abyss at the bottom of the order. Jones was benched for the final game of a series at Alabama after failing to leg out a routine grounder.
Around their apartment and Indigo Park, the slumps loomed in the background of day-to-day chats, but there’s only so much either could say about it that would have been productive.
“You can talk to somebody but, at the plate, it’s just you,” Jones said. “No one can help you swing. No one can help you do anything. Ty really never told me anything about hitting. He just kept telling me to keep my head up: ‘You’re a great player.’ I told him the same thing. We can only try to pick each other up.”
In front of cameras and recorders, neither Jones nor Ross is apt to rummage through and clear out every thought on his mind. Descending the steps into the dugout is the same as showing up at the office. They’re cordial but tend to provide little outside the minimum to reporters.
That habit can be interpreted as aloofness or apathy. Perhaps that’s why Jones’ emotions, such as screaming after his triple against Oklahoma ace Jonathan Gray last week, seem to be a break with routine.
“When we’re at the field, he kind of keeps to himself,” Ross said. “But I think it’s that way for everybody, and it has a lot to do with your comfort level. I’m kind of the same way. When I’m around people I’m comfortable with, I’m sillier, a little bit louder, cracking on people.”
Often, it’s on Jones. Equally stubborn and sarcastic, the pair needle each other around the house. The material isn’t exactly newspaper-friendly, but Ross concedes he’ll argue with his roommate over the color of a wall just to get him riled up.
“We argue over pretty much everything, and it’s always stupid,” Ross said. “It’s very blatant. We’ll argue almost for the sake of doing it. We just like to pick at each other. Nothing ever like a physical fight has ever happened.”
But the pair’s mirroring traits tend to balance out the urge to irk each other. Outside of ramen noodles, Jones’ culinary skills are minimal, so Ross tends to handle kitchen duties. In turn, Jones handles household chores. They fall into the easy routine of napping by the pool and marathon sessions playing “Call of Duty.”
For Ross’ 21st birthday in January, they had a small gathering on a nearby levee and took turns unloading shotgun shells on clay pigeons, and that amounts to about as an elaborate activity as they can concoct. Granted, it’s exactly what they coveted when they made the decision last summer during an off day from their respective teams in the Cape Cod League.
“It’s probably boring to a lot of people,” Jones said. “But getting this last year together has been what we wanted.”