Type.Tune.Tint.

Baseball to Brain Injury and Back: A Story of Survival

April 22, 2022 Tom Kranz Season 3 Episode 7
Type.Tune.Tint.
Baseball to Brain Injury and Back: A Story of Survival
Show Notes Transcript

Ruppert Jones was a star player for the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and four other teams during his 11-years in Major League Baseball. But his love for shagging fly balls almost cost him his career and his life in 1980 when he crashed into the unpadded center field wall at the Oakland Coliseum. His injured shoulder was the big concern at first, and it took a long time to recover from that. But when he finally got back onto the ballfield, he knew something else wasn't right. He was having trouble sleeping. He couldn't concentrate. He had flashes of anger. He wasn't as sharp as before. He turned to alcohol and cocaine to self-medicate his depression. He lost his family, his money and almost his career. It took another decade to realize he was suffering from a traumatic brain injury, and even more years with psychiatrists to get a definitive diagnosis of mental illness as a result of the injury. Today, he is an advocate for mental health and TBI awareness and tells his incredible story of survival in his book Never Give Up: A Memoir of Baseball and Traumatic Brain Injury. We talk about his book, which he wrote by hand, and his long and slow process of recovery with the help of good friends, his wife and his faith. 

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:00 Tom Kranz
Hi everyone and welcome to the Independent Author podcast. I’m Tom Kranz.

In today’s very special episode, we meet Ruppert Jones, Major League Baseball star of the ’70s and ’80s, two-time all-star, world series champion and traumatic brain injury survivor. Ruppert’s book, Never Give Up: A Memoir of Baseball and Traumatic Brain Injury, tells the incredible story of one of baseball’s hottest players of his time with 147 career home runs and more than 11-hundred hits, and how one fateful flyball almost ended his life and his career. Today, his experience of perseverance with the help of good friends, a good wife and his faith, provides hope and inspiration to those with brain injuries and mental health issues. It’s also a great baseball story.

(Music up and under)

1:00 Tom Kranz
So, ladies and gentlemen, presenting Mr. Ruppert Jones, who is, as I said in my introduction, he is a he was a career baseball player for let's see, 11 years, I think he played right?

Ruppert Jones
Yes, yes.

Tom Kranz
He started out as a talented high school athlete, playing both well, baseball, football, and basketball So you played in, I guess it was nine, was it eight or nine major league teams?

Ruppert Jones
Six.

Tom Kranz
Six, right. Where did I lose count there?

Ruppert Jones
I played for the Kansas City Royals. I played for the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers and the California Angeles

Tom Kranz
And you were, in 1976, you were the first player drafted when major league baseball expanded basically and you were, the year you were drafted by the Mariners. Correct?

Ruppert Jones
Yes, it was. As a matter of fact, I was in South America, when I found out that I was actually picked up in the expansion draft. I really didn't have a clue that there was expansion coming at you. That's how up to up to date I was and then I found out that oh yes, you got picked by Seattle Mariners, first round. And that really, really kind of like got me out of situations in Kansas City, because it was not going to be good because they had a lot of good players in Kansas City. You know, I don't think I want to play the following year, like I did Seattle.

2:34 Tom Kranz
Is it safe to say that you still have a soft spot in your heart for Seattle?

Ruppert Jones
Yes. Without a doubt because they gave me the opportunity. I lived here for three years and really enjoyed my life there, but I found a place called San Diego, and that changed everything. 

Tom Kranz
So let's fast forward to,  you were a very successful baseball player. You were an all-star twice. You played on the world series Detroit Tigers in '84 was that?

Ruppert Jones
1984.

Tom Kranz
Yeah. So you've seen the good parts in the bad parts of baseball, but I venture to say more good parts because you were a great player, no doubt about that. 1980, you were shagging that flyball and just set the scene for us. You were playing for the Yankees and you were at the Oakland Coliseum which, as you described in your book, was not one of your favorite ballparks, I guess. And so, there you were in center field. And what happened?

3:33 Ruppert Jones
The only thing I remember is Tony Armas coming to the plate in the first inning. I don't remember what happened with the first two hitters. I just know Tony Armas came to the plate. Tommy John threw him the sinker. It didn't sink. And as soon as he threw it, I knew it wasn't going to sink. So I start, you know, I headed towards left-center field. Tommy liked for me to play everybody in right-center field because when he threw the sinker and they hit it well, it would go towards right-center field. If they tried to pull it, they would hit ground balls to third base or ground balls to shortstop.

Tom Kranz
So you could tell before he even struck the ball where it was gonna go, and so that's when you started moving.

Ruppert Jones
Yes, sir.

Tom Kranz
So you started moving and then the ball's coming towards you and then what?

Ruppert Jones
And that's it.

Tom Kranz
That's all you remember?

Ruppert Jones
I woke up in the hospital.

Tom Kranz
So you found out later, of course, that you basically ran into the centerfield wall which in those days, I guess, there was no cyclone fence. There was no padding. What was it, just concrete?

Ruppert Jones
it was not padded. Oakland's wall was not padded. From what I understand they said I caught up to the ball but I tripped. I kind of like lost my balance and ran into the wall.

Tom Kranz
Okay? And so you ran into the wall with your shoulder and your head, basically.

Ruppert Jones
Yes, sir.

Tom Kranz
It sounds to me like, of course, this was back in 1980 when we didn't know nearly as much as we do today about things like concussions, traumatic brain injuries and the whole idea that athletes you know,  suffer from this was not anywhere near as publicized as it is today. So it sounds like they spent a lot of time diagnosing and treating your shoulder and that's kind of what you were dealing with. You spent all those nights in your recliner because you couldn't lie on your shoulder and it was most comfortable being that way, and little did you know that you know it would be what happened inside your noggin that would be plaguing you for the longer time. Correct?

Ruppert Jones
Yes, I had no clue. As a matter of fact, my life actually, a lot of things changed. But when you have a head injury, sometimes you're not aware of the changes that occur inside you. Because what you were before, you may not be the same person now, but you can't equate the two personalities.

8:15 Tom Kranz
And it seemed, what I read and what you wrote was that, that's exactly what happened. You seemed to become a different person almost, I mean, I guess maybe not the moment you woke up but you know, you started, you know, you even said that you reported to, I guess it was training camp, spring training and you knew something wasn't right. It didn't feel right. You didn't, you weren't sleeping right. There was a whole bunch of things that checked off as not right, not right, not right. So you knew something was up, but you weren't sure what that was. Is that fair?

Ruppert Jones
Exactly, exactly. And that was 1981. But, of course, you know, again, you're not aware of your, you know, you're not aware consciously of things. But you are aware that something's different. What they are, you don't know.

Tom Kranz
And so the that, that drove, you crazy, I guess, right? You couldn't figure out, you knew something was different but you didn't know what it was, right?

Ruppert Jones
It didn't drive me crazy because it, the effects of it got worse over the years, okay? But I could tell that playing baseball was not just was not the same anymore. Okay, I didn't have the same ability to do some of the things that I had done before. I had the ability to play, but I didn't have the ability to do what I did before.

Tom Kranz
So you didn't feel like you were as sharp, maybe, is that--

Ruppert Jones
No, sir.

Tom Kranz
And so as part of this evolution, I'll just kind of use that word because that comes to mind, the frustration of kind of not knowing what this was, that led to some as you called them, bad decisions. I think there was, you know, there was self-medication using various things and that's something many people can identify with. And then some, I guess it probably contributed to the end of your first marriage to Wanda, correct?

Ruppert Jones
That would be correct when you say that. But it took, it happened over a period of time. It's, you know it's like, guys have knee injury, okay, when they first had a knee injury, it's not as bad but it continues to get worse, continues to get worse and then towards the end of their career,  in five, six years, all sudden their knee is real bad. Well, that's what my head injury did. It took on a life of his own gradually over 8, 10, 11 year period.

8:53 Tom Kranz
And then you, had you described, this kind of "aha" moment where you heard about another baseball player whose name I forget who did a head-first slide into second base and when he slid, he whacked his head against the second baseman's knee and he ended up I guess getting a concussion and a brain injury. That was I guess, did you saw that happen or you read it in the news? I forget how you learned about it. But it was like wow, a brain injury. That was kind of like the moment when you said wow, that that happened to me. Am I telling that correctly?

9:25 Ruppert Jones
Well, this is what happened.  2010--I had my head injury 1980.

Tom Kranz
Right.

Ruppert Jones
I had a progression of things that happened to me over years and that really helped me transfix as far as what was really going on. Because, you know, it got real bad. It got real bad. And I start, you know, I actually went to a psychiatrist to kind of, like, sort things out. And I saw this lady for years, trying to sort myself out.  I started taking medication 16 years after the head injury. The medication helped.

Tom Kranz
But at that point, you still weren't sure what, you didn't know what the cause was, right?

Ruppert Jones
I didn't know. I just knew I had issues. I had depression. I had a whole lot of things, so I started taking an antidepressant. Well, it really helped me out even though people saying, well, it wasn't right medication for me but the antidepressant helped me out. It helped me to focus. It helped me to focus and help me to deal with things a little better and it really revolutionized what I have become and what I was trying to become. I was on a track now of starting to get a better life. I made a decision in 1991 to stop drinking alcohol. Okay> I stopped drinking alcohol. Five years later. I got the medication. All of a sudden there, another step, another good thing happens. But I still have questions. The question was still there because I can't sleep. You know, I can't concentrate, I can't focus a lot of times and it's really hard. So I had to do a lot of things. And it just happened I was doing a lot of the right things and didn't know I was doing a lot of the right things.

Tom Kranz
Didn't you also go through a series of MRIs and scans, correct? Looking for some evidence of brain injury but they were all negative, correct? Isn't that I read? So that that that was frustrating in itself, I guess, right? 

11:50 Ruppert Jones
Well, to a certain degree it was but I had, about that time, I found some answers, like, Justin Morneau, first baseman for the Minnesota Twins in 2010. He slides into second base. He hit the second baseman's knee with his head. And he was, he had vertigo. He had all kinds of brain issues for a year. And said hold on, I ran into a wall! And then my wife who, you know, basically she's a Google, my Google Queen, we start Googling things and all the sudden you know we start seeing information. We start reading more about concussions and head injuries. And then the head injury thing also become prevalent at that particular time So I said, hey, like I said, I ran into a wall. And I was out! And of course,  we start to research. She found an article about Gene Monahan, who was the Yankees trainer for over forty years, retired. That they asked Gene Monahan, what was the worst injury you ever had to attend to? He said, Ruppert Jones. He said he ran into a wall. He said, and he was knocked out. He said, we had to get him to start breathing again before we could get him off the field. Now that was the first time I ever heard that. 

Tom Kranz
That's amazing. And how many years, what year was that?

Ruppert Jones
This was like 2011.

Tom Kranz
So that's 30, 31 years after your injury. That's amazing.

Ruppert Jones
Yes. I didn't know that.

Tom Kranz
So it took you that long before you finally got a first-hand account of what happened to you. And then that's coming together along with your new meds, and, and things are starting to come together a little bit, it sounds like.

Ruppert Jones
Yeah. And Lou Pinella and Bobby Mercer and...I think they said Lou Pinella was the first one to come out, and they said Lou was scared to death.  And then Mercer came over, you know, and he said I tried to get the chewing tobacco out of his mouth so it wouldn't choke him. 

Tom Kranz
Ah, jeez. Pretty amazing.

Ruppert Jones
So all these things are put into action and I say okay. And then, I saw the movie Concussion.

Tom Kranz
That movie did a lot to bring this problem out to the surface. I think, I don't think half the world knew about all the concussions people were getting and the CTE and the brain damage. 

Ruppert Jones
Yes.

Tom Kranz
So, this helped solidify that in your mind that this is probably what happened to you.

Ruppert Jones
I saw the movie and tears rolled down my eyes the whole movie because I could equate with everything these gentlemen were experiencing, okay? All of them lost their family. Because the family is, you know, the family sees you at your worst because you cannot hide who you are from them because they see you behind closed doors. If you saw me, I could hide. And I could hide or I could, I could keep it with you. But then they saw the ugliness of what I had become. I cried the whole movie. And Andre Waters said something in the movie when he was talking to Dave Dorset. He said the voices, the voices are always going off in my head. And I knew exactly what he's talking about--the voices--because I experienced the exact same thing, non-stop chatter in my head. Non-stop.

Tom Kranz
And so then you saw, you were referred to another not Doctor Tanaka. That's the lady who you mentioned earlier, the psychiatrist who you saw for a lot of time. But then there was this other doctor who did this lengthy assessment on you. She asked you a million questions and it was like almost a day-long process and she was the one who ultimately diagnosed you with, I think cognitive disorder, correct? And that you were bipolar, you know, all that time--

Ruppert Jones
Personality disorder--

Tom Kranz
--which all this stuff explains so many things that were you were now looking back and it was like, oh my god, this is, this is doing it now. So that kind of sounds like that was the final piece for you. Huh? To piece together the puzzle?

Ruppert Jones
Yes. And that was like in 2014.

Tom Kranz
That must have been such a relief to finally know that it's like, wow I'm not, I'm not going crazy. There is a reason why this is all going on.

Ruppert Jones
Oh no, it wasn't like I'm not going crazy. I'm not crazy. Actually, I've done pretty dang good to be in the position I'm in right now.

Tom Kranz
Yeah, so you did dang good! As a ballplayer, despite all the bad stuff that happened, you've got, you know, a great record book. You've got great fun, memories, you know. The baseball fans love you. And remember you, you're always going to be a Yankee. You're always going to be a Mariner. And as I said before, you married the right woman the second time around, Betty. She wrote the forward to your book, and I just want to read the very last paragraph of what she wrote here.

She said, Ruppert was a man who fought his way up the ranks of professional baseball to make it to the big leagues. He defied the odds and was a champion many times over before being knocked down and put through hell. It was hard for me to watch Ruppert suffer from the guilt and shame he carried for so long. I can't imagine what it's like to sit back and witness your body and mind start to change without understanding what's happening, or why. I t was frustrating for me to deal with it at times, but I admired the way that he continued to fight and continue to search for answers. So many other people would have given up, but Rupert, never did, which is the reason why he emerged on the other side a champion once again.

That one paragraph. That's like, that's gold. It really is.

Ruppert Jones
That is why I really wanted her to write the forward okay? She, you know, she suggested that we just, you know, have somebody famous. I said, no. Nobody knows me better than you. I said I want you to write the forward because it'll be more believable. 

Tom Kranz
It's beautiful words. And how many years have you been married?

Ruppert Jones
I always tell her, I was married the moment I met her. We've been together 25 years. Married 23.

Tom Kranz
Good for you. Well, that's great. And so, tell me quickly about how writing--got into the writing later in the game, but how did that, you start keeping a daily journal. What did that do for you and why was that beneficial?

Ruppert Jones
I was trying to try to record positive things that I did because, you know, sometimes your brain tricks you and you know, it talks negatively, negatively to you and you get a negative attitude. So I start writing down what I do, keeping a journal of what I do every day, okay? And I would write. I would wash the dishes, I would write wash the dishes, read the Bible, meditated, work out, hit golf balls whatever. But I would always record. And then, it's 2012, 2013, it was suggested that I write a book. Doctor Tanaka said, you ought to write a book. So, I started writing the book.

Tom Kranz
So, how long did that take? And so you started that quite a few years ago, then right?

Ruppert Jones
20 12, 2013.

Tom Kranz
Okay? So it took you seven, eight years to get through it and to finish it.

Rupert Jones
Yes.

Tom Kranz
And you work with, you collaborated with a gentleman named Ryan Dempsey. So how did that work? Did you basically write it down and then he kind of, you know, kind of helped you along to keep thoughts together or what? How did that work?

Ruppert Jones
Well, I'll give you the story. This is the story. I wrote the book initially with pencil and paper. 

Tom Kranz
Wow.

Ruppert Jones
Okay. And then Betty and I would go to Starbucks and I would read it back to her and she would transcribe it and put it on computer. So we went through that. There were times when I had writers block and I didn't write for long periods of time, which would upset her because she said we got to finish this book. So, I said well I just don't feel it right now. But eventually, we finished it.

20:30 Tom Kranz
So you end up writing this with Ryan Dempsey, right? So what was his role?

Ruppert Jones
Okay. I read Ryan's book, Metta World Peace. And I liked him, I liked the way he wrote it. And I told him, I want this book to sound like me. I don't want this book to sound like you. 

Tom Kranz
Oh, beautiful.

Ruppert Jones
Okay, so he said okay. So he had me write it again.  Made changes. He said, write it again. I wrote it again. He made changes. He asked me to write it again. So I rewrote it three times.

Tom Kranz
Jeez.

Ruppert Jones
We rewrote it. It was a better product.

Tom Kranz
Well, no, wonder it took eight years, between Ryan and Betty, this was a real collaboration. Well, Rupert, I can't tell you what a pleasure and an honor it is to have met you and to have spoken with you. The book is called, Never Give Up: A Memoir of Baseball and Traumatic Brain Injury.  Calling this a memoir is like calling the Empire State Building a summer home. This is not just a memoir. This is an epic story of survival.

I appreciate your time and be well and continue, continue writing. Good to good to meet you Ruppert. Take care.

Ruppert Jones
Okay, you too.

Tom Kranz
Thank you, sir. 

21:49

(Promo for Tom Kranz Books follow)